New York state lawmakers have promised to make helping local governments, schools and hospitals protect against cyber ransomware attacks a top priority during the 2023 legislative session.
It comes after a wave of such attacks hit institutions across the Empire State, with the computer systems of a major Brooklyn hospital network and those of the Suffolk County government disabled by hackers last year.
“This is a top item on my agenda for 2023,” said Steven Otis, chairman of the Assembly Science and Technology Committee.
“I am especially sensitive to local government and school districts being targets of ransomware attacks,” said Otis. “We have to get into prevent mode.”
A study just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the number of ransomware attacks against hospitals and other medical institutions more than doubled from 2016 to 2021 — from 43 to 91 nationally, and that figure is likely under-reported.
Hospitals are among the top targets of hackers because of all the personal information they have stored about patients.
The computer database systems for Brooklyn One Health System containing private patient information and medical records were disabled by hackers last November. The hospital network — which includes Brookdale, Interfaith and Kingsbrook Jewish hospitals — was forced to go back to a manual system of pen and paper.
Hackers also breached a Suffolk County web server in a cyberattack on Sept. 8, 2022, demanding a $2.5 million ransom. An investigation found that the hackers had initially breached Suffolk’s database in December 2021, exploiting a flaw in the software and remaining there for nine months before posting a ransomware note demanding $2.5 million.
Even the Metropolitan Opera’s Box Office was hacked last month.
“Ransomware attacks and cyber hackers are the existential threat of our times,” said former state Sen. Diane Savino, who chaired the committee on Internet and technology and is now a senior adviser to New York City Mayor Eric Adams.
“In some cases you’re dealing with terrorist organizations. Hackers are aiding and abetting criminal enterprises. The federal government has done almost nothing.”
Gov. Kathy Hochul last year appointed the state’s first chief cyber officer, Colin Ahern, to oversee anti-hacking efforts, and said the state had beefed up hacking defenses after Russian invaded Ukraine.
State senators who oversee homeland security and technology are considering holding hearings on cybersecurity ransomware threats this year.
“We should be doing more to protect local governments and state government as well from ransomware attacks,” said Sen. Jessica Scarcella-Spanton (D-Staten Island/Brooklyn), the new head of the committee on veterans, homeland security and military affairs.
Aides to Mayor Adams said they have anti-hacking programs in place.
“The Adams administration is taking bold, proactive steps to protect the City and its nearly 9 million residents from damaging cyberattacks to our critical infrastructure and essential services,” said a spokesperson for the city Office of Technology and Innovation.
“From establishing a Joint Security Operations Center to coordinate cybersecurity efforts across city, state, and federal entities, to launching an academy to train City employees to investigate cyber incidents in their agencies, the City has prioritized efforts to combat today’s complex — and increasingly costly — cyber threats.”
The agency also encourages New Yorkers to download Cyber Command’s NYC Secure app to protect their phone from cyber threats.