On Friday afternoon, NHS hospitals across England and Scotland fell victim to a cyberattack that caused ambulances to be diverted, equipment to shut down, and clinical services to be disrupted.
The attack has prompted fears among commentators and on social media of a deliberate attempt to damage the NHS, or even to interfere in the UK election. But early evidence suggests it was neither deliberately targeted against hospitals, nor aimed at health data.
It wasn’t just NHS computers that were affected. It also hit major corporations, such as Spanish telecoms giant Telefonica – the parent company of the UK mobile network O2 – as well as computer systems in Russia, the USA, Japan and France.
Identifying the source of a cyber attack is a lengthy process usually requiring forensic examination of both the code used in the attack and how it spread across the internet, meaning we don’t yet know with certainty how the NHS attack spread.
The NHS computer systems were hit by what’s known as ransomware, which locks the files on any affected machine and makes it unusable unless its owner pays a set amount, usually in the virtual current Bitcoin, to an anonymous account.