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Editorial: ECMC's computer virus is a digital alarm bell

Erie County Medical Center and its Long-Term Care at Terrace View facility got hit by a computer virus that prompted a computer system shutdown early Sunday.

The incident is being investigated by the FBI and State Police. It serves as another warning to business, government and average Americans logging onto their computers of the critical need to keep their data safe.

The hospital indicated that all patient records, financial data and human resources records are backed up. It had a “well-planned and prescribed backup process,” according to a hospital spokesman. And staff appeared to be handling the crisis with aplomb, manually admitting patients, filling prescriptions and scheduling exams. Still, officials had to reschedule some elective surgeries.

ECMC has its technologies staff, in addition to GrayCastle Security, a private consultant, working on the issue. They have begun restoring computer functionality, and hope to have most of it back online by the weekend.

Questions remain. Specifically, how the virus entered ECMC’s computer system and whether the hospital was the victim of “ransomware,” a menacing practice that involves holding data hostage for money.

As News staff reporter Stephen T. Watson wrote, hospitals are frequent targets of such tactics, with 12 such incidents reported last year. In one case, ransomware shut down computer systems at Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in California. The hospital ultimately gave in, paying what amounted to $17,000 in ransom to regain control of its data.

In 2014, the City of Lockport paid a $500 ransom to a computer hacker who accessed and locked down the city’s police records. Niagara County Health Department computer systems were hacked last year. System managers restored the lost information from backed-up data, and no ransom was paid.

Whether or not ECMC was a victim of ransomware, the incident provides a stark lesson to operators of every computer or computer network. Big corporate systems as well as personal computers have been held at virtual gunpoint by ransomware viruses. Don’t think it can’t happen to you – assume that it will happen at some point, and be prepared.

Operators must have capable virus protection and keep it updated. The bigger the system, the more possible entry points a hacker is likely to find. Data must be backed up somewhere safe for when that protection fails. And when it does, they need an emergency plan to keep operating without computers while the network is being scrubbed.

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