Computer coding
Hospital hack signals chilling new frontier for criminals.Unsplash

A major California hospital has paid a $17,000 (£12,000) "ransomware" in Bitcoins to hackers who had frozen the health-care facility's computer system. Making the payment was the quickest way to get the hospital's network up and running again, said Allen Stefanek, chief operating officer of Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, reported Associated Press.

"The malware locks systems by encrypting files and demanding ransom to obtain the decryption key. The quickest and most efficient way to restore our systems and administrative functions was to pay the ransom and obtain the decryption key," said Stefanek. He said neither patient care nor hospital records were compromised in the hack.

The computer system was frozen for five days beginning 5 February. Hackers initially demanded $3.4m (£2.4m) in Bitcoins in payment. The FBI has launched an investigation. A source told the Los Angeles Times that the ransom was paid before the 434-bed hospital reached out to law enforcement.

The hack was believed to be one of the first of its kind and raised concerns about frightening scenarios of hackers tampering with medical orders, patient records and even hospital systems. "I have never heard of this kind of attack trying to shutdown a hospital," cyber security expert Phil Lieberman told the Times. This puts lives at risk and it is sicking to see such an act. Health management systems are beginning to tighten their security."

Intriguingly, a recent episode of the US TV series CSI: Cyber featured a hacker who seized control through computers of life-saving machines in a hospital, threatening to kill patients unless a ransom was paid.

Bitcoins, rather than bags of bills, have become the preferred method of payment to criminal hackers. The virtual currency can be held in a digital wallet that does not have to be registered with any government or financial authority , and can be easily exchanged for real money.