Google Appears to Think the UK's Health Service Is a Botnet

Or at least something weird is going on, since NHS network users are being forced to verify they're human before using Google.

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Feb 1 2017, 1:18pm

Everyone makes mistakes, but Google's latest gaffe is something to behold. Google search users trying to connect from a UK National Health Service network are being limited from visiting the site, because the internet giant has seemingly interpreted the NHS' huge influx of traffic as malicious.

"Google is intermittently blocking access due to the amount of traffic from NHS Trusts Nationally (This is not being blocked by the IT Department). This is causing Google to think it is suffering from a cyber-attack," an email from an NHS Trust, an organization that oversees a hospital or specific area, seen by The Register reads.

A spokesman from NHS Digital, part of the UK Department of Health, told Motherboard in an email, "We are aware of the current issue concerning NHS IP addresses which occasionally results in users being directed to a simple verification form when accessing Google. This would appear to be due to the high number of people using our systems and trying to access Google at peak times. We are currently in discussion with Google as to how we can help them to resolve the issue."

According to the email, users may be presented with a CAPTCHA when visiting Google.com. Visitors can obviously try to solve the CAPTCHA, but the NHS Trust's IT department has another, much more controversial suggestion too.

"We are advising staff to use an alternative search engine i.e. Bing to bypass this problem," the email continues.

Although this mishap does not appear to be the NHS's fault, the organization has something of a bumpy history with cybersecurity. Motherboard found that NHS hospitals are running thousands of computers on unsupported versions of Windows XP.

In an email, Google disputed The Register's characterization that the activity was a "block." In an email to Motherboard, Google said it was satisfied its systems were working correctly in this case, as the company can handle huge volumes of queries from a single network. The cause might be from services automatically making requests to Google or a piece of malware on an NHS machine trying to reach the site.

"There are many reasons why users might see a CAPTCHA window when they do a Google search. Our systems are simply checking that searches are being carried out by humans and not by robots in order to keep web users safe. Once a user has filled out the CAPTCHA, they can continue to use Google as normal," a Google spokesperson wrote in an email to Motherboard.

This article has been updated to include a response from Google.