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Wot a COCKUP: Poorly NHS websites spawn SPAMMY VIAGRA ads

Up to individual orgs to deal with security, sniffs HSCIC

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It seems that organisations using the nhs.uk domain need a generous gulp of medicine and plenty of bed rest after an investigation of the health service's online estate uncovered what appeared to be a worrying hacking epidemic.

The Register was alerted by reader David to the fact that a number of NHS websites - including some local trusts, medical libraries and a cancer information service - had been hacked into with dodgy links to adverts for horn-begotten drug Viagra.

He first spotted the security, er, cockup on Blighty's publicly-funded National Prescribing Centre's website, which was archived in May 2012 when the NPC was rolled into the National Institute for Clinical Excellence. Yet the site was still spewing out garbage ads that could contain horrible malware when clicked on.

The "curious observation" as David put it, led him to investigate further.

"A quick search for 'discount viagra site:nhs.uk' brings up a couple of dozen pages with similar links," he told us. "I wonder what else they might be promoting."

Our reader dug a little deeper to see how systemic the problem was with the nhs.uk domain. Sadly for the health service, it was easy to find examples "sprinkled throughout", he said.

Among other things, David found nhs.uk message boards that were brazenly displaying links to porn and other spammy content.

"Clearly these links have just been posted as comments rather than inserted by hacking, but shouldn't there be some sort of basic moderation on the NHS site?", he asked.

His findings come just weeks after hundreds of URLs on the NHS Choices website were flooded with malware, following an embarrassing security gaffe that exposed serious problems with the health service's online system.

El Reg asked the the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) - the body responsible for keeping patients' data secure - to tell us why it was that websites hosted under its nhs.uk domain were displaying links to inappropriate content. A spokeswoman said:

The HSCIC’s role is to process applications to use the domain name from NHS organisations and provide permission for its use, where appropriate. However, responsibility for the maintenance and security of sites using the nhs.uk domain sits with the organisation running each website or service.

The result appears to be an inconsistent approach to security, leaving it up to individuals like our reader David to spot the flaws and report them to the necessary trusts that are failing to manage their sites appropriately.

We also asked the HSCIC to tell us what safeguards it had put in place since the recent malware scare that struck the NHS Choices website.

Its spokeswoman said that "a number of immediate and on-going actions" were underway, including "manual and automated check procedures across the site to alert any changes to URL, external links, broken links, etc," following the coding blunder.

The HSCIC is, among other things, additionally sanctioning an independent full code review across the code base. And is looking at code management processes such as functional testing and link checking as part of a security standards overhaul.

The Reg asked the Information Commissioner's Office to comment on this story, but it hadn't got back to us at time of writing. ®

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