The confidential treatment records of tens of thousands of psychotherapy patients in Finland have been hacked and some leaked online, in what the interior minister described as “a shocking act”.
Distressed patients flooded victim support services over the weekend as Finnish police revealed hackers accessed records belonging to the private company Vastaamo, which runs 25 therapy centres across Finland. Thousands have reportedly filed police complaints over the breach.
Many patients reported receiving emails with a demand for €200 (£181) in bitcoin to prevent the contents of their discussions with therapists being made public.
“The Vastaamo data breach is a shocking act which hits all of us deep down,” the country’s interior minister, Maria Ohisalo, wrote on her website on Monday. Finland must be a country where “help for mental health issues is available and it can be accessed without fear”, she added.
Ministers met for crisis talks this weekend, with further emergency discussions tabled for the coming week over the unprecedented data breach.
“We are investigating an aggravated security breach and aggravated extortion, among other charges,” Robin Lardot, the director of Finland’s National Bureau of Investigation, said at the weekend.
Lardot added they believed the number of patients whose records had been compromised numbered in the tens of thousands.
Vastaamo said it had started an internal inquiry, and that the security of its patient records database had been checked. It noted that the actual theft was believed to have happened two years ago.
“According to current information it is secure and no data has leaked since November 2018,” the firm’s chairman, Tuomas Kahri, told the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat.
Security experts reported that a 10-gigabyte data file containing private notes between at least 2,000 patients and their therapists had appeared on websites on the “dark web”.
The hack, which targeted some of society’s most vulnerable – including children– has caused widespread shock in the Nordic country of 5.5 million people, with ministers gathering on Sunday to discuss how to support the patients whose sensitive data had been leaked.
“It is absolutely clear that people are justifiably worried not only about their own security and health but that of their close ones too,” Ohisalo said late on Sunday.
On Monday, authorities launched a website for victims of the cyber-attack, offering advice and telling them not to pay the ransom demand. “Do not communicate with the extortionist, the data has most likely already been leaked elsewhere,” the Data Leak Help website said.
Mental health and victim support charities reported being overwhelmed with calls from distressed people fearing their intimate conversations with their therapists would be publicly released.
One of the recipients of a blackmail threat, the former MP Kirsi Piha, tweeted a screenshot of the ransom message along with a defiant reply to the hackers. “Up yours! Seeking help is never something to be ashamed of,” Piha wrote.
Mikko Hyppönen of the data security firm F-Secure said on Twitter: “This is a very sad case for the victims, some of which are underage. The attacker has no shame. He added the perpetrator was using the alias “ransom_man”.
On Monday, Finland’s social care regulator said in a statement it was investigating Vastaamo’s practices, including how well patients were kept informed of the breach.
Meanwhile, the head of the state digital services agency DVV, Kimmo Rousku, said the cyber-attack could have been avoided if Vastaamo had used better encryption.
“Management needs to wake up,” Rousku told the public broadcaster Yle.