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Mystery malware poisons NZ ambulance system

Dispatch staff forced to call medics' mobiles

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A computer virus infection affecting the New Zealand Ambulance service last week forced dispatchers to resort to manual backup systems, according to local media reports.

Unnamed malware left the communications network supporting the St John Ambulance service hobbled. Mobile data and paging services were worst affected by the problem, suggesting that some sort of bandwidth-hogging worm overloaded the system. Dispatch staff normally send information on jobs over the ambulance crew via on-board mobile data terminals. Because of the malware, they had to call ambulance stations or the mobile phones of crew instead.

"Anti-virus software protected the systems but as a result of the virus it impacted on some of the systems services, mainly those related to paging and radio," Alan Goudge, communications operations manager for the St John Ambulance service, told The Waikato Times. "Back-up systems immediately took over when it was detected and the workload was managed manually."

The St John Ambulance network handles 90 per cent of the ambulance cover across New Zealand. It is unclear if any emergency call-outs were affected by the problem or what affect this might have had on response times.

The attack, which hit last Wednesday and was contained within hours, was probably not targeted at the service.

The incident is the latest example of a computer virus affecting the smooth running of a medical service. The Mytob virus affected a string of London hospitals back in 2008. Two years prior to this, a malware infection at the Northwest Hospital and Medical Centre in north Seattle stopped doctors' pagers from working properly. Computers in the hospitals's intensive care unit were also rendered unavailable as a result of the attack, the most serious of its kind.

Christopher Maxwell, 21, from Vacaville, California, was sentenced to three years' imprisonment after he was arrested and convicted for releasing the malware that crippled the Seattle hospital's systems.

Additional commentary on the problem of malware and medical networks can be found in a blog post by Sophos here. ®

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