Monday, May 11, 2009

You sure can trust government with your personal information

Hackers last week broke into a Virginia state Web site used by pharmacists to track prescription drug abuse. They deleted records on more than 8 million patients and replaced the site's homepage with a ransom note demanding $10 million for the return of the records, according to a posting on, an online clearinghouse for leaked documents.

Wikileaks reports that the Web site for the Virginia Prescription Monitoring Program was defaced last week with a message claiming that the database of prescriptions had been bundled into an encrypted, password-protected file.

Wikileaks has published a copy of the ransom note left in place of the PMP home page, a message that claims the state of Virginia would need to pay the demand in order to gain access to a password needed to unlock those records:

"I have your [expletive] In *my* possession, right now, are 8,257,378 patient records and a total of 35,548,087 prescriptions. Also, I made an encrypted backup and deleted the original. Unfortunately for Virginia, their backups seem to have gone missing, too. Uhoh :(For $10 million, I will gladly send along the password."

The site, along with a number of other Web pages related to Virginia Department of Health Professions, remains unreachable at this time. Sandra Whitley Ryals, director of Virginia's Department of Health Professions, declined to discuss details of the hacker's claims, and referred inquires to the FBI.

"There is a criminal investigation under way by federal and state authorities, and we take the information security very serious," she said. A spokesman for the FBI declined to confirm or deny that the agency may be investigating.

Whitley Ryals said the state discovered the intrusion on April 30, after which time it shut down Web site site access to dozens of pages serving the Department of Health Professions. The state also has temporarily discontinued e-mail to and from the department pending the outcome of a security audit, Whitley Ryals said. "We do have some of systems restored, but we're being very careful in working with experts and authorities to take essential steps as we proceed forward," she said. "Only when the experts tell us that these systems are safe and secure for being live and interactive will that restoration be complete."

She added that the department does have a page online at that lists the phone and fax numbers for various state health boards, and that the state would continue issuing health care licenses and investigating violations of the law or regulations of state health licensees.

This is the second major extortion attack related to the theft of health care data in the past year. In October 2008, Express Scripts, one of the nation's largest processors of pharmacy prescriptions, disclosed that extortionists were threatening to disclose personal and medical information on millions of Americans if the company failed to meet payment demands. Express Scripts is currently offering a $1 million reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the individual(s) responsible for trying to extort money from the company.


Australia: Preventable public hospital deaths top 180 in six months

The number of preventable deaths in NSW hospitals has risen sharply, with the majority of cases due to clinical care mistakes. The latest Clinical Excellence Commission report reveals there were 183 preventable deaths in NSW public hospitals between January and June 2008, representing more than the total number of deaths across the preceding 24 months.

"The Rees Labor government admitted to 120 deaths in the two years 2006 and 2007, we now have 183 deaths in just six months,'' opposition health spokeswoman Jillian Skinner said in a statement. "The incompetent Rees Labor government was either lying about the previous years' figures or there has been a massive increase in the number of deaths in our hospitals. "These figures show ... (the) government is failing patients."

The report showed "clinical care mistakes'' were responsible for 73 - the majority - of the 183 preventable deaths. Fifty-four suspected suicides by mental health patients were also included in the report.

NSW Health Minister John Della Bosca said the increased numbers of preventable deaths shown in the report could be partly attributed to "under-reporting'' in previous years. "I'm getting a bit tired of Mrs Skinner and her continuous harping on the skills and quality of care provided in our public hospitals,'' Mr Della Bosca told reporters in Sydney. "The simple fact of the matter is the report itself deals with that issue, speculating about under-reporting and changes in process."

The report also found that between January and June last year there were 10 cases of instruments being left inside patients, and five instances of babies getting the wrong breast milk.

Mr Della Bosca said the release of such information was important for the identification of deficiencies in need of improvement. "The NSW government is demonstrating it's leading the way in providing the most transparent and open possible reporting about our public hospital system,'' he said. "And of course we want to make sure that any problems, and mistakes, any issues in the system that lead to preventable deaths or any other incidents, are addressed. "That's why we have a system that's fully open to the public and made available to the public on an annual and more often basis, but also, we want to make sure that doctors, nurses and allied health professionals have the information they need to improve the care they provide our public hospital system.''


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