UNC Health network outage highlights ongoing questions about critical infrastructure security

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Thursday, February 1, 2024
Hospital outage highlights questions about infrastructure security
Some of the critical infrastructure we take for granted is vulnerable to potential threats, cybersecurity experts told ABC11.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WTVD) -- From communication systems to water and power grids, some of the critical infrastructure we take for granted is vulnerable to potential threats, cybersecurity experts told ABC11.

"Everything wants to connect to the Internet," Craig Petronella said. "If all those things connect to your network, they're all potential risks."

The outlook on the current threat landscape comes as UNC Health is back up and running after an "unforeseen issue" during routine maintenance on Wednesday prompted a network outage at 15 of the group's hospitals.

"Our ISD teams are working to pinpoint the exact cause of the outage, but we are confident that it originated during routine system maintenance and was not the result of any malicious activity," UNC Health CEO Wesley Burk said in a statement.

The health system said there was a contingency plan in place, meaning they are prepared to respond if these routine updates cause problems, including bringing in extra staff to help support patient care and using paper forms if necessary.

Other local hospitals also stepped up taking in ambulances that UNC Health couldn't receive during the outage. However, UNC Health said it was still able to accept walk-in patients during the outage.

The brief disruption to patient services highlights ongoing questions about the state of some of our critical infrastructure, including the health system.

"I think it's a lot of utilities, local governments, water, power grids," Petronella said about the types of infrastructure most at risk. "The technology that supports those systems are quite dated. They're not really meant to be online."

Petronella said oftentimes they don't have a lot of security control, so when health care systems wait to update those devices, they're at risk of encountering potential errors.

"We need to really bolster the level of our security in our country," Petronella said. "Companies of all shapes and sizes need to have policies, procedures, as well as the security control layers to have the maturity that's necessary for today's threat landscape."

UNC Health said it will continue to investigate the root cause of the outage and review response actions to make sure the group responds as well as possible if anything like this ever happens again.