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Fact check: Ransomware did not lead to a woman’s death in Germany

November 16, 2020, 2:41 PM UTC

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It’s often said journalism is the first draft of history. If so, it’s time for a revision.

Recall about two months ago when a variety of news outlets reported the first death due to ransomware cyberattack, this newsletter included.

The story: In Düsseldorf, Germany, a 78-year-old woman suffering an aortic aneurism was rushed by ambulance to the nearest hospital, only to be turned away because the facility had been crippled by hackers. During the drive to another hospital, she died. Prosecutors said they were investigating charging the hackers with negligent manslaughter.

News reports quickly attributed the death to the hacking attack, which froze the servers at Düsseldorf’s University Hospital and reduced the hospital’s capacity. “The first known death from a cyberattack,” the New York Times reported. The Verge was a bit more careful, saying the incident “may be the first death directly linked to a cyberattack on a hospital.” Robert was even more careful here, saying the death might not even be that.

But it was freelance journalist William Ralston who did the unsexy work of sticking with the story. In a piece for Wired UK, Ralston has a major correction to the narrative. After investigating the situation, Cologne chief public prosecutor Markus Hartmann concluded that the hackers were not responsible for the death. “The delay was of no relevance to the final outcome,” Hartmann explained to Ralston. “The medical condition was the sole cause of the death, and this is entirely independent from the cyberattack.”

Still, the word has not gotten out. Microsoft cited the Düsseldorf death in a blog post on Friday about the dangers of cyberattacks. Rewriting the first draft of history is easy. Getting everyone to read it? Less so.

Aaron Pressman


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