Containing the virus: what made HSN computer attacker such a nuisance?

Last week hospitals across the North had to change what they do because of an infection— a technological infection.

Virus affected Health Sciences North, regional health records in last week's attack

Health Sciences North was attacked by a Zero Day virus, a virus that hasn't yet been identified by major security companies. (Shutterstock)

Last week hospitals across the North had to change what they do because of an infection—  an electronic infection.

A computer virus called a Zero Day virus made its way into the network of computers, prompting staff to shut down systems to contain the attack. Officials with Health Sciences North said their preventative measures were successful.

All 24 hospitals in northeastern Ontario rely on HSN's information technology platforms. Due to that, systems were shut down not only in Sudbury but in hospitals across the northeast.

All 24 hospitals in northeastern Ontario rely on Health Sciences North's information technology platforms

But what is a Zero Day virus?

Technology expert Jesse Hirsh told CBC's Morning North that Zero Days have the potential to cause damage because they haven't been identified by the big security softwares yet, and therefore no antidote exists.

"Antivirus software is basically something that just has a dictionary of viruses that have already been discovered," Hirsh said. "So they can identify them and quarantine them as fast as possible."

"But there are quite a range of what are called Zero Day viruses or zero day exploits which are basically hacks that hackers and criminals know about."

"Unfortunately the security industry is not aware of them, yet. And then, of course, [they are] the most effective because antivirus programs and other security software just can't identify them, doesn't know that they exist."

Because they are unknown, hackers are able to wreak havoc inside the systems they infect.

Jesse Hirsh says HSN gets good marks for the way they handled a Zero Day computer virus. (CBC)

"When you have a system where [HSN] provides computer and I.T. services to other hospitals in the region the virus just crawls through the network and starts infecting system after system," Hirsh said.

Compunding the issue of security are hospitals using "legacy" systems, which because of their age have already had vulnerabilities exposed.

"Now the subtext of course when you're dealing with health information is it's very valuable," Hirsh said. "So it is possible to believe that one of the targets of such an attack was to go after individuals' and patients' personal information."

But HSN was quick to allay any fears of privacy breaches, Hirsh said.

"I think to give Health Sciences North credit," he said. "What they did right in this instance is they had good backups and they were able to sort of shake this off like a bad cold and get their systems back up and running."

"That's the most that you can ask when dealing with a zero day virus, because the antivirus, the security software is not going to work. That's why I refer to it like a common cold. It's not something fundamentally you could avoid."

"We're all going to get sick at some point the same way that our computers are all going to get sick at some point," Hirsh said. "It's really how you respond to that, how quickly you get systems back up and running and that's where HSN does deserve credit for their ability to manage this crisis."

Listen to the interview with Jesse Hirsh by clicking the audio file below.