Scotland politics

Call for investment in NHS cybersecurity

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionAn ethical hacking expert shows the BBC what happens when the WannaCry ransomware hits a PC

A "massive" increase in spending is needed to prevent another "avoidable" cyber attack on NHS computer systems, an expert has warned.

A ransomware attack hit 11 health boards in Scotland last month, as well as many other organisations worldwide.

Prof Bill Buchanan told MSPs the attack should act as a "wake-up call" to the government and health service.

And he warned the NHS faced bigger threats, such as a large-scale power outage, that could cause loss of life.

Holyrood's health committee heard the WannaCry virus found its way into Scottish NHS systems either through their connection with the NHS England network or through the internet.

It was able to spread through computers that were vulnerable through a combination of their use of a particular piece of software that shares information between devices, a particular network firewall configuration and the fact they had not been upgraded or "patched up" to the latest version of Microsoft software.

The unprecedented attack, which hit scores of countries, impacted on acute hospital sites in Lanarkshire as well as GP surgeries, dental practices and other primary care centres around Scotland.

Health Secretary Shona Robison told the committee that swift action and co-ordination by the NHS in Scotland had limited the impact of the ransomware attack on its network.

But Prof Buchanan, from the Cyber Academy at Edinburgh Napier University, said the penetration of the virus "was avoidable" and there was no excuse for the patch or upgrade not having been carried out.

He agreed with Green MSP Alison Johnstone that the incident should act as a "wake-up call" and called for a review of health and social care IT infrastructure.

'Evil hands'

He said: "This was a critical patch, critical is the highest level. If you want to use something from Spinal Tap, this was an 11 out of 10 in terms of its threat.

"So it should have been patched, it was well known and it was a race for the industry to catch up with the patch before those with the skills to make something malicious turned their evil hands to something.

"I think we got out of this very well but it could happen that it would be much more severe."

He added: "Our systems are legacy and we need to admit that.

"I think we need a massive increase in spending not just on computers, but in really looking at healthcare services and how we provide that to the citizen."

Image copyright PA
Image caption Prof Buchanan is an international authority on cybercrime

Andy Robertson, director of IT at NHS National Services Scotland, said the health service had measures in place to protect against these types of threats.

He pointed out that the virus had infiltrated only 1% of NHS Scotland's computers, amounting to some 1,500 devices.

"We think our defences worked fairly well in terms of the impact it had on the health service and we think where we were breached we were able to recover as per our recovery plans," he said.

He said he agreed that extra investment was needed, suggesting a further £15m a year on top of the £100m currently spent on on centrally-managed IT programmes in the NHS.

That amount was described as a "sticking plaster" by Prof Buchanan, who said: "I think you need to add zero and then maybe another zero."

More on this story