Unless you’re Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson & Johnson, you may not consider your biotech or pharmaceutical organization a lucrative target for cyberattacks as COVID-19 vaccine production and distribution ramps up. However, it is important to note that the larger, well known organizations in the vaccine pipeline are well funded and staffed and have the ability to prioritize cyber security – and sophisticated adversaries know this well. In turn, this makes smaller organizations involved in vaccine development, distribution, and administration a prime target.
Notably, we expect to see increased threat activity among the small to midsized biotech organizations that are collecting patient data or have access to vaccine research and development (R&D) information. Whether or not your organization is working directly or indirectly with the COVID-19 vaccine, there’s a lot to learn from the security concerns and activity to date. In this article, we explore the motivations for vaccine cyber security threats, reasons why biotech organizations should prioritize security, and pragmatic steps organizations can take now to proactively prepare for imminent attacks.
The vaccine security threat landscape
Cybercrime is known to increase amid chaos or crisis, when people are the most vulnerable. And the COVID-19 pandemic is certainly no exception. Large-scale data breaches increased 273 percent in the first quarter of 2020 versus 2019. The U.N. Security Council reported a massive 350 percent increase in phishing websites in the first quarter of 2020, many targeting hospitals and healthcare systems. And now, capitalizing on the vaccine rollout, the number of phishing attacks targeting the healthcare industry increased by 189 percent from December 2020 to February 2021.
There are three realistic motivations for adversaries as it pertains to vaccine security: 1) the theft of personal health data, 2) to compromise business systems, and 3) to access intellectual capital. To gain a better understanding of the threat landscape, let’s take a deeper look at each scenario.
To steal sensitive health data:
Protected health information (PHI) includes identifiable information in a person’s health data records, such as health details, date of birth, Social Security number, fingerprints, and even financial information. Given biotech firms are working with patients to develop and test vaccines in a medical setting, they are also responsible for managing and securing PHI. PHI can be used by adversaries for identity theft, medical fraud, access computer networks, and to learn more about the capabilities and processes of an organization for future large-scale attacks.
To access intellectual capital:
An approved vaccine is a very valuable source of intellectual capital. COVID-19 vaccine production data is extremely valuable today as the global race to administer vaccines continues. Biotech firms house a lot of intellectual capital, from R&D information to vaccine formulas to testing and drug trial data, making them a lucrative target. According to research from F5, “threat actors in this case are advanced cyber attackers, either working for or hired by nation states. This makes them the most capable and well-resourced threat that organizations could face.”
In early 2021, the European Medicines Agency (EMA), a regulatory agency tasked with vaccine assessments and approvals for the EU, found that hackers stole COVID-19 vaccine data belonging to Pfizer and BioNTech. Further, leveraging intellectual capital for misinformation is another key motivator. The data in the EMA breach had been leaked online only after manipulating the exfiltrated data to undermine public trust in the vaccine.
To compromise business systems:
Whether it’s a ransomware attack on a healthcare organization or an attack on the vaccine appointment scheduling software, adversaries could also aim to interfere with business operations in the vaccine pipeline. Biotech firms have a critical role to play in ensuring the security of its partners.
Third-party security is a major challenge for healthcare organizations – and one that is very relevant to vaccine rollouts. A 2020 survey of healthcare CISOs, CIOs, and other C-suite leaders discovered that four out of five organizations experienced a cybersecurity breach precipitated by a third-party vendor over the past year.
Right now, there are many third-parties working hand-in-hand with biotech firms to coordinate the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, from logistics and transportation to the on-site distribution locations. How can we ensure each organization involved follows the right security protocols? A recent example of a third-party breach attempt is the targeted attacks on cold storage company Americold and global firm Miltenyi Biotec. The companies were targeted with cyberattacks in an apparent attempt to disrupt the vaccine supply chain.
Making the case for cyber security in biotech, pharma, and other healthcare industries
We recently attended a webinar on medical device security presented by Kevin McDonald, a cyber security advisor for Mayo Clinic. At the end of the discussion Kevin highlighted the core drivers for security investments in healthcare: patient care, revenue loss, and public perception.
Above all, continuation of patient care is the end goal of all security activities in healthcare organizations. Security is put in place to not hinder the quality of care, but to ensure it can continue without interruption from adversaries.
Revenue loss and public perception are fairly self-explanatory for most healthcare organization, but there are some nuances regarding the biotech industry. The goal of many biotech firms is to raise funds and eventually get purchased, and according to Silicon Valley Bank, in 2020 acquisitions of biotech startups increased. If your organization experiences a security breach, your chances and/or valuation may decrease given the increased risk and the reputational damage created.
4 security activities to implement to proactively protect your assets
Once you’re aware of the most likely risks, it’s important to understand the steps you can take to proactively protect your organization and its sensitive data. To get started, here are four activities we recommend:
- Red teaming: Red team operations allow you to test your security controls and processes for a specific target or goal, such as vaccine formulas or patient social security numbers. Hire a red team or equip your internal red team with the right tools to simulate the stealthy approach a real adversary would take.
- Detective control testing: Correctly configured detective controls are vital to network security. Test your detective controls against the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) used by real-world attackers to ensure your layers of
defense in depth are working as intended.
- Internal network penetration tests: Given the increase in phishing attempts and the vulnerability of humans in a crisis scenario, it’s likely that sophisticated adversaries will inevitably find a way to access your network. This is where internal network penetration tests prove necessary. An internal network
penetration test evaluates a network for security vulnerabilities and provides actionable recommendations for remediation. It allows an organization to discover where your internal network gaps are before an adversary does.
- Continuous testing: Often it is the case that an organization’s attack surfaces are only evaluated via a penetration test on an annual basis. Implementing more
frequent, lighter touch tests throughout the year, or when a new technology or partner is added to your infrastructure, helps teams stay up to date on any recently introduced vulnerabilities.