The National Cyber Security Centre warned of potential ransomware attacks on the health service in October 2020, more than four months before the Health Service Executive was targeted by hackers, it has been revealed.
The health service was hit by a massive cyberattack earlier this year which caused chaos in hospitals, delayed patient care and and led to expected costs of almost €100 million.
A malicious file attached to a phishing email opened on March 18th led to a shutdown of the HSE’s computer systems once the Conti ransomware was “denotated” on May 14th.
The criminal gang behind the attack – believed by several observers to be most likely based in Russia – demanded $20 million (€17.7 billion) in Bitcoin.
The Government said no ransom would be paid and on May 20th the hackers posted a link to a key that decrypted files which had been encrypted by the ransomware.
Minister of State for eGovernment Ossian Smyth said he still does not know why the gang provided the decryption key, but suggested “there was a lot of pressure which they would not be used to”. Mr Smyth said he was told that gardaí believed the attackers were based in seven different jurisdictions.
The Green Party Minister also said that unlike the risk for private hospitals that had been hit by ransomware attacks, “the HSE was not going to go out of business. So those threats were not going to work. I think at some point they figured out that that combination of the world’s law enforcement and military intelligence pointing at them, while not getting any money, it was time to move on to another target.”
He said it was not like targeting an insurance company, adding that in those cases “you’re not going to find the senior officials of your government in the country that you live in being contacted and asked to put pressure on you”.
A PWC report on the cyberattack commissioned by the HSE found that several “alerts” were raised within the health service that the IT system might be compromised after the initial email was opened in March but the significance of the alerts was not identified at the time.
Mr Smyth said the cyber security centre warned in October 2020 that State healthcare facilities were at risk from the Conti hazard after hospitals in the United States were targeted. “They did say it, they did warn,” he said.
Asked if the HSE did not pick up on the warning, Mr Smyth replied: “I think that the PWC report says what the shortcomings were in the HSE’s approach . . . it’s not like this wasn’t predicted.”
He said there would have been engagements with the HSE at the time and “I was told this that they were in a much better position than they had been a year previously. They had done a lot of work.”
However, he said this was being done in the context where “you’re talking about fixing software and what people really want to talk about is ventilators and contact tracing and all this kind of stuff, cancer treatments . . . It’s very hard to get attention for anything non-clinical within a healthcare system.”
The HSE said it was “aware of the heightened alerts and were acting on them through the delivery of additional mitigations and controls”. This included a strategy to back-up files, security patches, external firewalls and “significant user awareness and e-training was available to heighten awareness”.
External investigation into Department ‘champagne party’ needed – Minister
Minister of State Anne Rabbitte has called for an external investigation into a “champagne party” held by staff in the Department of Foreign Affairs staff in June 2020.
The gathering, which appeared to breach Covid-19 guidance in place at the time, was “inexcusable” and Minister Simon Coveney and his department have further questions to answer, the Fianna Fáil TD told Saturday with Katie Hannon on RTÉ Radio One.
“Having a champagne reception in any government department at that time, I know over in the Department of Health where they worked tirelessly for 23, 24 hours a day, it was far from champagne they were having,” she said.
Ms Rabbitte said an internal report conducted by the department’s current secretary general was not a satisfactory way to handle the matter.
“It’s still within the same department, and we know the answer we will get. I would be one for openness and transparency … it has to be [an external report].”
She added that all departments needed to learn from the mistake.
Officials were photographed in the department celebrating Ireland’s election onto the UN Security Council, and the image was posted on Twitter by the then secretary general Niall Burgess. The tweet was later deleted. At the time of the event, there were strict restrictions on the size of gatherings due to Covid-19.
Speaking on the same programme, Labour TD Duncan Smith said people were angered at the event because June 2020 was a bleak time for most people in Ireland. He said the public had seen other incidents where politicians and others were accused of breaching Covid-19 restrictions.
“These are the elites of society … what has really hurt people is that it really got to the ‘we are all in this together’ philosophy.”
Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane agreed there needed to be an independent review of the matter, adding that Mr Coveney needed to come before an Oireachtas committee and the Dáil to gave a “frank and full account” of what happened.
Dog-owners bite back at beach rules
Following a series of reports that An Taisce is leading the battle to ban dogs from the State’s 83 blue-flag beaches, the organisation’s Ian Diamond is feeling misunderstood.
“I don’t hate dogs”, Mr Diamond says, pointing out that Blue Flag International – the global body which governs the coveted awards – warned last year that some qualifying beaches were not honouring long-standing rules.
Under what’s known as Criterion 23, the rules declare that beach access “by dogs and other domestic animals must be strictly controlled” and that they be allowed only in “the parking areas, walkways and promenades in the inland beach areas”.
Faced with the reminder, Mr Diamond said he requested last year that local authorities get more time, as it was “not something that can be introduced immediately in the middle of a pandemic when people are under other restrictions.
“You can’t exactly introduce these things overnight, so we were flagging that,” he said, adding that Blue Flag told them to speak to people seeking blue flag status and “come back with proposals” that comply with the rule.
The issue came to national attention following a meeting of Kerry County Council this week, though it was understood then that the rule was an An Taisce demand, rather than being a Blue Flag International obligation.
Dogs and horses
Consequently, Kerry County Council now propose that dogs or horses will not be allowed on blue-flag beaches from 11am-7pm between June 1st and September 15th, or otherwise the county could lose its 14 blue flags.
However, the restrictions are unpopular with some dog-owners: “There’s a lot more important things to be worrying about than dogs on a beach,” said David Walsh, as he walked his pet, Oreo, on Salthill beach.
Dog-owners in Salthill are already not allowed to bring their dogs onto the beach between 9am and 8pm between May 1st and September 30th each year, in line with Blue Flag International’s rules, though penalties are rare.
Mr Diamond says a national application of the rules at blue-flag beaches would not “strictly prohibit dogs being on the beach” during bathing season, outside of peak hours.
“The blue-flag criteria would apply from June 1st to September 15th, within peak usage hours, so bathing hours – that would be mid-morning to early evening,” said the An Taisce officer.
“What it requires is that there would be rules in place in relation to dogs that say [they] should not be in the blue-flag area within those hours and within the bathing season,” Mr Diamond said.
The restriction is based on public health grounds and dates back to 2003: “Dog faeces actually contain a lot of the micro-organisms that cause illness in the same way that human waste would,” he said.
“There’s no zero-tolerance approach to this. If rules are going to be brought in, then people will be consulted as well, you know, brought in unilaterally, and it’s down to the councils responsible for the beaches to bring those in.”
Not everyone disagrees with An Taisce, or Blue Flag: “I don’t think dogs should be on the beach, because of the kids and all that. And a lot of people don’t pick up their poo afterwards,” said a man on Salthill beach.
Jail for banned motorist from Limerick caught driving on Christmas shopping trip to Belfast
A banned motorist from Limerick caught driving on a Christmas shopping trip to Belfast has been jailed for seven months.
Police also discovered three of Leeanne McCarthy’s children not wearing seat belts when her car was stopped on the Westlink dual carriageway.
The 41-year-old mother-of-eight initially gave officers a false identity, prosecutors said.
Belfast Magistrates’ Court heard a PSNI patrol car stopped the Ford Focus on November 26th last year.
McCarthy, with an address at Clonlough in Limerick, provided a different name and claimed she did not have her licence with her.
However, checks revealed that a month earlier she had been banned from driving for five years.
A Crown lawyer said: “Three young children were in the rear of the vehicle, none of them wearing seat belts.”
McCarthy initially claimed they only removed the safety restraints when the car came to a halt, the court heard.
Police were told that she took over driving duties from another daughter who had been tired and nearly crashed the vehicle.
McCarthy was convicted of driving while disqualified, having no insurance, obstructing police and three counts of carrying a child in the rear of a vehicle without a seat belt.
Her barrister, Turlough Madden, said she had travelled to Belfast for Christmas shopping.
Counsel told the court McCarthy spent the festive period in custody, missing out on sharing it with her eight children and four grandchildren.
“That’s been a wake-up call and significant punishment for her,” Mr Madden submitted.
“She is a mother who simply wants to go back to Limerick and not return to Northern Ireland.”
Sentencing McCarthy to five months imprisonment for the new offences, District Judge George Conner imposed a further two months by activating a previous suspended term.
Mr Conner also affirmed the five-year disqualification period and fined her £300 (€350) for the seat belt charges.
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