5 Jul 2021

DHBs refuse to release information on cyber security systems

7:59 am on 5 July 2021

The country's district health boards are refusing to release reviews done of their cyber security systems, seven weeks after the Waikato DHB was struck by ransomware attackers.

Waikato District Health Board notice of outage of systems from cyber attack.

Waikato District Health Board's notice of an outage of systems in May. Photo: RNZ / Andrew McRae

They blanket-refused Official Information Act (OIA) requests, arguing it would only help attackers to let the public know what concerns or risks have come up.

The severity and duration of the debilitating Waikato attack has woken the public up to the threat, especially now patients' personal data is on the dark web, possibly up for sale to identity thieves.

RNZ is seeking to find out what the country's 20 district health boards (DHBs) have been doing - and could be doing - about the threat.

We asked for copies of minutes from DHB risk and assurance committee meetings, and others, over the past three years around cyber security developments, risks, attacks and funding.

We asked for any review of cyber security, and for any recommendations or help DHBs received, including from the key agencies CERT (the Computer Emergency Response Team), and the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB).

The DHBs individually refused, but all used the same wording:

"District health boards are committed to the prevention, detection and investigation of cyber threats," they said.

"Our protections include limiting the information about cybersecurity activities that we make public, as this could increase the chance of attacks in the future.

"On behalf of the community, it is very important that we protect information about our cybersecurity strategies and methods as much as possible to ensure criminals do not use that information to hinder or bypass our security controls."

One option they did not take was to release documents but blank out sensitive parts, which is standard OIA practice.

They would also not provide their responses to the Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield's letter last year, asking them to invest more in data and digital.

This letter followed a damning nationwide stocktake that found a $2 billion-plus deficit in DHBs' IT investment, and after clinicians wrote to the government saying, essentially, 'invest in digital or trouble lies ahead'.

Waikato DHB's own review in 2019 found weaknesses in its multiplicity of apps - over 700 - and unsupported databases.

Fourteen cyber attacks

Hackers would struggle to get any technical help from media reporting on DHB cyber security; reports do not approach that level of detail.

As for how they choose targets, cyber security consultants often describe how sophisticated AI hacking tools are probing the Internet all the time for vulnerabilities.

CERT - or the Computer Emergency Reponse Team - which was set up two years ago with a budget of $22.2 million over 4 years to help identify and advise on cyber security threats.

Health boards have been slower than other agencies to embark on improving their data systems. Photo: 123RF

Speculation has swirled around how Waikato DHB's systems were breached. An independent inquiry has been promised once services are fully restored. It remains to be seen how public its findings will be.

Other OIA responses show CERT, which has the job of coordinating government agencies' responses to cyber threats, has helped the public health system 14 times in the last 3 years, including seven times when website vulnerabilities were targeted and five times when compromised email accounts were targeted.

Read CERT's OIA response

CERT said it helps primarily by checking a DHB's own IT security team is aware of a threat.

CERT's threat overviews and advice are generalised, and - like the cyber risk assessments done by the Department of Internal Affairs - are not tailored to DHBs.

The Privacy Commissioner's Office said it was watching to see if cyber security at DHBs was up to the level that met their obligations to protect patients' privacy.

It has not so far issued any compliance notices to the boards.

Slower than others

The health boards have been slower than other agencies to embark on improving their data systems - or as a 2017 briefing puts it: "DHBs commenced their maturity journey later than other agencies."

The boards were meant to be a focus of cyber work in 2017-18.

But in 2020 they were mostly still in poor shape, and despite Dr Bloomfield's digital-spending hurry-up to boards last year, Health Minister Andrew Little's expectations for DHBs laid out in February do not specifically mention data or cyber, security or otherwise.

However, the Budget this year included a $300m-plus contingency for data and digital infrastructure in all respects, not just security, and modernising the National Health Information Platform this year got $5.3m.

Clinicians, hospital administrators and the health IT industry are desperate for a joined-up national platform

The health ministry withheld from RNZ its new principles for prioritising DHB spending on IT - promised last year. These principles were still being worked on, it said.

The 2017 briefing also showed health boards were not part of a programme to boost information security run by the SIS spy agency, called PSR.

RNZ is asking the SIS if that is still the case.

"The other briefings requested are not currently publicly available," the Department of Internal Affairs told RNZ.

Other information gaps include:

  • An annual report was not done last year by the National Cyber Policy Office in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet; it blamed this on Covid. The next report will be out at the end of 2022
  • The national Cyber Security Emergency Response Plan is still being updated and due at the end of the year
  • Cyber operations assurance plans provided to the Government Chief Digital Officer have not been made available

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