Hollywood Hospital Pays $17K Ransom to Recover Systems

Far from the $3.4 million initially reported, the ransom was "the quickest and most efficient way to restore our systems," the hospital's CEO states.

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A ransomware attack that had left a southern California hospital unable to access its electronic medical records was solved by paying the attackers nearly $17,000, the CEO of the hospital said in a statement on Feb. 17.

The attack was first noticed by the staff of Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center on Feb. 5, when doctors and administrators had trouble accessing the hospital's network, Allen Stefanek, president and CEO of the medical center, said in his statement. An investigation by the IT department discovered that malware "had locked access to certain computer systems," he said.

Stefanek's description matches the impact of a ransomware infection, in which malware encrypts data and then displays a ransom demand, directing victims to pay for the decryption key. The criminals demanded 40 Bitcoins, or about $16,700, for the key, the CEO said.

"The quickest and most efficient way to restore our systems and administrative functions was to pay the ransom and obtain the decryption key," he said. "In the best interest of restoring normal operations, we did this."

The attack, first reported by a local affiliate of NBC, garnered significant press attention, with some reports estimating the ransom demand at $3.4 million. Stefanek refuted those reports, saying they were "false."

While the CEO's statement also refuted reports that patient care had been impacted, televised patient interviews have indicated that some services were not available and that the attack had caused delays in care.

Paying the criminals in a ransomware attack has become the grudging solution for many victims. Quite a few law enforcement agencies, for example, have paid criminals after being hit by ransomware.

The security industry, however, generally frowns on payment.

"We always try to discourage people from paying," Adam Kujawa, head of malware intelligence at Malwarebytes, told eWEEK. Doing so only gives more incentive to criminals to keep up their efforts, he said.

"Cyber-criminals that have previously put their efforts into botnets and other attacks see that this is where the money is, and so they take up ransomware," he said.

The best defense against ransomware is to back up data and test the restore process regularly, Kujawa said.

Despite recent major breaches at health insurer Anthem and Community Heath Systems, the health care industry continues to spend less on security than other industries. The industry has scored poorly in security on average, with a lower security rating than the retail sector, according to a 2014 report by security metrics firm BitSight.

The impact of the Hollywood Presbyterian breach has also raised eyebrows. Previous breaches have leaked data, but the HPMC breach has impacted patient care, Kujawa said.

"If this is not a wake-up call, I don't know what would be," he said. "We've been screaming at the medical industry to secure their systems, and they have not."

By Feb. 15, Hollywood Presbyterian had recovered most of its systems, when it restored access to its electronic medical record (EMR) system, HPMC's Stefanek said.

"All clinical operations are utilizing the EMR system," he added. "All systems currently in use were cleared of the malware and thoroughly tested."

The investigation continues, however.

"We continue to work with our team of experts to understand more about this event," Stefanek said.

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos is an award-winning freelance journalist who has covered information security, cybercrime and technology's impact on society for almost two decades. A former research engineer, he's...