The world’s seventh-largest trading entity was the latest to fall victim to involuntary data encryption. But the absence of a ransom or monetary demand prompts a deeper look into this recent Hong Kong cyber attack.
Cyber attacks are growing in prominence every day and have become a major concern for businesses and enterprises as most of their critical systems and infrastructures rely heavily on interconnected networks of computer systems, databases and web-based applications.
The latest to fall victim to a major cyber attack is one of the world’s leading financial centers and trade ports, Honk Kong, whose Department of Health was targeted by hackers. The results of the attack were the encryption of valuable data.
According to a statement of a spokesperson for the Department of Health, computers belonging to the department’s Drug Office, Clinical Genetic Service, and Infection Control Branch were targeted and hacked: Ransomware was successfully deployed and installed, and system data was encrypted and left inaccessible to users.
The department spokesperson also claimed that an email address for contacting someone for a decryption key was left behind, but no specific ransom was demanded.
The Hong Kong cyber attack took place over a period of two (2) weeks, beginning on July 15. Although users were able to login to computer systems, some of the data was noticeably impaired. Department officials immediately notified the police when a breach was finally suspected. The incident has also been reported to the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer and an investigation is underway.
The preliminary findings from the probe revealed that no information from the systems was leaked or misused, and that there was no quote, unquote “confidential” data present in the systems at the time of the breach.
“We believe the motive behind the attacks is a demand for money,” said a police official probing the incident. “But it is pertinent to note that although hackers were successful in encrypting the data, no specific demand has been made.”
Cyber attacks on healthcare systems have become increasingly common in recent years. Here, the goal is usually to steal the personal information of healthcare patients and sell it (a common practice or form of identity theft), or to blackmail and extract large sums of money from hospital authorities in lieu of restoring access to encrypted files.
In July 2018 (a month prior to the publishing of this article), Singapore, a competing financial hub in Southeast Asia, saw its medical database and health records compromised. The Singapore cyber attack resulted in the theft of the personal data of more than 1.5 million Singaporeans—including the information of the country’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong. Authorities have dubbed the attack as the largest breach the country has ever experienced, and have called for measures to strengthen the data privacy of its citizens while preventing such attacks from happening in the future.
As for the Hong Kong cyber attack, this isn’t the first time the city has suffered a technological blow. The personal information of approximately 380,000 broadband network customers, as well as the details of more than 40,000 credit cards, were just stolen in April 2018. And according to a Microsoft study, it is estimated that cyber attacks could cost Hong Kong economic losses of more than 32 billion dollars (USD) annually.
Michael Montoya, Microsoft Asia’s Chief Cyber Security Officer, recognizes the importance of improving the country’s cyber resilience, and says that Hong Kong is in line with other developed markets to accomplish this goal.