Hackers Target Newfoundland’s Health Care System

For many months now, residents of Newfoundland and Labrador have had to tolerate suspended or delayed medical procedures and appointments. For a long time – like people in the rest of Canada, and around the world – their plight was due to the pandemic.

But lately, the problem has come from a new source – a catastrophic cyber attack. The system shut down on October 30. On Friday, the province’s four health authorities predicted that treatment delays and interruptions would begin to decline on Monday, although they would persist in some emergency departments and not all eligible surgeries and chemotherapy treatments would return. to normal.

And this week, the province revealed that the attack was worse than previously reported. On Friday, John Hogan, the provincial justice minister, said information about employees at three local health authorities had been stolen. Two days earlier, officials said personal information from patients and health workers, some of it health-related, was “accessed” during the attack.

It was, in short, a cyber attack that theoretically affected everyone in the province.

But good luck finding out what happened or what’s going on to fix it. The government of Prime Minister Andrew Furey, who is also an orthopedic surgeon, will not even describe the variety of the cyber attack.

“Our advice from world-class experts is to say nothing,” Newfoundland’s health minister John Haggie said in a press conference on Wednesday. Nor will the government reveal who are those experts the province has brought in to solve its problem.

The Canadian Media Corporation, without disclosing its source, reported that the outbreak was the latest in a series of ransomware attacks that hit other health-related institutions, corporations and governments during the pandemic. Such attacks took place about a decade ago. The attacks, which seem to often come from Russia, simply involve seizing control of data on vulnerable computer systems, encrypting it and then threatening to destroy it unless a ransom is paid, usually in bitcoin.

Three hospitals in Ontario were victims of such attacks in October 2019. They disrupted individuals ’personal computers, and earlier this year they created diesel and jet fuel in the United States after a pipeline company fell victim to pirates.

I spoke with Nicolas Papernot, an assistant professor of computer science and computer engineering at the University of Toronto. Although he is an internationally known expert on cybersecurity and privacy, he is not among Newfoundland’s advisors and has no inside knowledge of its situation.

“I don’t know why they don’t give more information,” he said. “But they should at least give a warning to people who may be affected, even if they are conservative about how they assess whether or not a person has been affected by the outflow of information.”

The computer networks of provincial and regional health systems in Canada are particularly susceptible to hackers because they generally contain large numbers of outdated “legacy” software systems, said Professor Papernot.

“These tend to carry vulnerabilities that have been patched into newer systems, but which can still be exploited because these systems are too old to be maintained under current security standards,” he said.

Increasing the threat was the massive move to work from home, he added. Many governments and corporations still have to deal with the security threats posed by remote access, failing to introduce additional security measures, such as two-factor identification, or training employees to spot malicious email.

The chaos of Newfoundland seems to be the biggest disruption any health care system has seen in Canada. But other governments have not been immune to major cyber attacks. Ten years ago, workers in the federal government’s finance department and its treasury were without internet access for months after a cyber attack.

That same year, the Communications Security Establishment, the highly secretive eavesdropping service, was pulled out of the military and transformed into a separate agency. It currently operates the Canadian Center for Cybersecurity, which, among other things, seeks out threats to governments and corporations in Canada and offers security advice.

In an email, Ryan Foreman, a spokesman for the agency, told me that it had “noticed an increase in cyber threats linked to the Covid-19 pandemic, including threats directed at the country’s primary health care and medical facilities,” and that it worked closely with security officials in healthcare systems.

The cybersecurity agency has confirmed that it is providing Newfoundland with digital forensic services, data recovery and general guidance. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, it said, is also investigating the attack.

But what, exactly, is going on there? “We cannot comment further on the nature of our assistance with the province for operational security reasons,” the spokesman wrote.


  • The land border between Canada and the United States reopened this week and Canada’s snowbirds spilled across it. Canada’s Covid test demand, however, has diminished enthusiasm for day trips. Particularly this week, San Canada granted permission for enhanced shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and extended eligibility to anyone over 18 years of age.

  • Tracey Deer was just 12 years old in 1990 when she crouched down in a car being evacuated from Kanesatake First Nation when a white crowd threw stones and racial insults. Mrs. Deer, a film director who is a Mohawk, discussed with Laurel Graeber how she transformed a fictionalized version of her experience of Eighth Crisis into “Beans,” her first story feature, which was named Best Picture at the Canadian Screen Award this year and collected more than 20 awards on the film festival circuit.

  • Skyler Williams, an iron worker for the Six Nations on the Great River in Ontario who helped organize last weekend’s climate protest in Toronto, has little time for the United Nations global climate summit, which went into overtime on Friday in Glasgow: “I think we are wasting time, money, resources, flying all these leaders to all these climate issues, environments. “

  • A hand signal developed in Canada led to the rescue of a girl reported missing in North Carolina.


A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and reported on Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.


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