The Vicious Tangle of Three Global Pandemics: Medical, Mental and Technological

While our soul holds our most underground secrets and private thoughts, it's still a mystery to the observant eye and even to science. And although we like the romantic notion that the eyes are the window to the soul, it's still a very vague window, which we learn to keep shut and hidden behind a fake smile when needed. But there is another window, and this one is not vague or unclear. On the contrary, this window is precise, thorough, and full of our personal information. It holds our mental health records, medications, hospitalizations, and even notes of our most profound and intimate feelings and emotions. This window is our mental health data which no fake smile can protect it from cyberattacks.


The year 2020 was one of the most influential years in cybersecurity history, yet the most vulnerable one. This year we have witnessed an inflorescence in cyberattacks. While we all transitioned to the digital world, the networks had to expand, which necessitated us to quickly adapt to new security strategies due to the growing cyber threats. 


This is the direct outcome of three global pandemics blending like a fatal dose of a well-mixed poisonous cocktail, causing the perfect formula for chaos. The covid-19 outbreak made our mental stage low; our poor

mental health made the mental health systems overloaded. The cyber attackers understood that the mental health systems are not only full of new reliable data, but they overburden, placing them in a weak position, making them vulnerable and exposed.


For the sake of comparison, it was reported by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights that the health care systems were always under the threat of cyberattacks, with a 350% over year increase in ransomware attacks on health care entities in the last quarter of 2019 alone. But by the first half of 2020, there was already a nearly 50% increase in the number of healthcare-related cybersecurity breaches.


When it concerns mental health issues, privacy is sacred. It's the intrigue of our mind, and we don't desire to share it with just anyone. Although it's no shame to suffer from mental health issues and more common than meets the eye, our society puts it behind a vale of secretive. Although mental health systems use top cybersecurity technology to protect patient data, cyber attackers continuously look for a breach. When they succeed, it has catastrophic repercussions on both macro and micro scales.


In our society nowadays, mental illness is a rising global phenomenon with a highly severe effect and not enough solutions. Perhaps even undervalued next to the various sectors of public health. On August 27, 2020, the world health organization published that near 1 billion people worldwide have a mental disorder, and 3 million people die each year from self-inflicting behavior such as alcoholism or suicide.


There is a significant paradox between acknowledging the importance of mental health care to the health care data's value. Even though the medical field of mental health is by far the weakest link regarding research and funding, for cybercriminals, this field is a gold mine.


The health care system holds all of our information, including diagnosis, hospitalizations, Prescriptions, addresses, I.D.s, and social security numbers, which worth a fortune to the cyber attackers. But the sensitivity of mental health and substance abuse records makes the data extremely more valuable and much more significant leverage for demanding ransom. 


Cybercriminals' power over the mental health care data is the social stigma society "awards" people who suffer from mental illnesses or substance abuse and forces them to hide it behind a veil of shame. But the fact is that behind this veil hides the astonishing number of over 264 million people suffering from depression being specified by the world health organization on January 30, 2020.  


The Covid-19 pandemic outbreak in 2020 had a massive impact on people's mental health, and the number of people suffering from anxiety and depression excessively increased. The stress of an unknown virus, lockdowns, quarantines, and the loss of livelihood took its toll on our society's mental health. It resulted in an enormous load on the mental health care systems, making them substantially more targeted by the cyber attackers than the pre-COVID-19 pandemic. 


A report published by the C.D.C. centers for disease control and prevention, the national public health institute in the United States, reported a significant growth in mental health conditions during June 24-30, 2020, linked to covid-19. The pandemic caused a deterioration in the mental state, which resulted in higher thoughts of suicide and substance use.


So, while our mental health is declining and the mental health systems are occupied keeping everything together, cyber attackers are kept busy using this situation. If you think the damage is strictly financial or resulted in a criminal violation of our privacy, then think again. 


On September 10, 2020, the University Hospital Düsseldorf was exposed to a cyberattack that caused a failure in the systems and data access. This ended in the incapability to keep on operating, forcing them to send patients to other facilities. One woman who needed urgent care had to be sent to another facility approximately 30km away. This hour of delay prevented her from getting the emergency care she needed and tragically ended with her death.


The accountable for this tragic story is DoppelPayme. Doopelmayer is a cyber gang that uses extortion against organizations by disrupting their systems and refusing to stop unless they pay a ransom. When the organization chooses not to surrender to their demands, they distribute the imperiled companies' information and stolen data. This strategy calls ransomware, and Doppelpayme is just one cybercriminal gang among many others.


So, what is ransomware, and how does it work?

Ransomware is a type of malware developed to encrypt files on a device and interpret unspecified files that the systems that rest on them are defective. Following the cyber attackers demand ransom in exchange for decryption. The covid-19 pandemic created a magnifying growth of attacks on hospitals and healthcare services providers due to their immense pressure and importance during this time.


On January 21, 2021, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) published an article "declaring war" over these malicious cyber-attacks stating: "Ransomware is increasingly threatening both public and private networks, causing data loss, privacy concerns, and costing billions of dollars a year."


Cybersecurity is our present nowadays defender. They are the blocking wall standing between the cybercriminals to the hospitals and healthcare services providers. It's their knowledge and the ongoing combats against this atrocious use of power and skills over our most critical systems that will make us subdue these challenging times.