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State health department restores access to vital records following cyberattack

Alaska DHSS
Alaska DHSS(Alaska DHSS)
Published: Aug. 4, 2021 at 2:13 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - More than two months after it was the target of a cyberattack that shut down most of its online systems, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services has restored access to the system that provides vital records such as birth and death certificates.

The Health Analytics and Vital Records Section uses the Electronic Vital Records System to provide Alaskans with marriage, birth and death certificates. That system went down along with a long list of others when the state health department was the subject of a cyberattack in mid-May.

In June, the department reported it had devised a temporary manual process for the vital records section to serve Alaskans in need of certificates, as well as for the unit that conducts background checks. The health department warned this could lead to longer wait times for services.

In a Wednesday press release, the department announced the vital records section was brought back online on July 26. Staff is now focusing on addressing a backlog of requests that built up during the outage.

“Both the Juneau and Anchorage Vital Records Offices have restored most of their certificate services, with a few limitations in place so staff can focus on processing the backlog orders,” the release states. “There is no timeline for how long it will take to eliminate the backlog, but this task is a priority for (the Health Analytics and Vital Records Section), and staffing has been adjusted to work through the process as quickly as possible.”

The vital records section page on the department’s website warns that, due to the backlog, Anchorage customers looking for certificates might not be able to get them right away on site. The Anchorage office will take the order and it will get added to a pending queue as staff works through the backlog.

According to the department’s website, the vital records section will not accept expedited orders until its staff is caught up on the backlog. Heirloom certificate orders will take about four weeks to process while the backlog still exists.

The state health department also wrote in the Wednesday press release that it has completed the initial phase of its investigation into the cyberattack that occurred in May. The department has completed the “detection and analysis phase,” the release states, which means those responsible for the cyberattack have been identified.

The release describes them as “a highly sophisticated group known to conduct complex cyberattacks against organizations such as state governments and health care entities.”

“At this time, the investigation has found no indications that this was a ransomware attack and there is no current evidence that Alaskans’ protected health information or personally identifiable information was stolen,” the release states.

According to the department, progress is being made to remove the attacker from the department’s systems and to restore systems.

“This was not a ‘one-and-done’ situation, but rather a sophisticated attack intended to be carried out undetected over a prolonged period. The attackers took steps to maintain that long-term access even after they were detected,” DHSS Technology Officer Scott McCutcheon is quoted as saying in the release. “In addition to getting everything back up and running, our team is taking strong, preventative actions and developing more robust incident response capabilities so we can quickly respond to any future cyberattacks.”

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