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  • 03 October 2023
  • 8 min read

What are the cyber and awareness risks facing the pharmaceutical sector?

Pharmaceutical and healthcare organisations are squarely in the crosshairs of cybercriminals and cyberattacks.
FAQ Series What are the cyber and awareness risks facing the pharmaceutical sector

The pharmaceutical sector is a treasure trove of valuable data, making it an enticing target for cyberattacks.

In this article, we will delve into the reasons behind this heightened risk, common cyber security challenges, the consequences of a breach, available awareness and training solutions, the importance of assessing security culture, the evolving cyber regulations, and the benefits of partnering with a trusted awareness and training organisation.

Why do cyber-criminals target pharma?

  • Digital transformation: Pharmaceutical companies have been increasingly embracing digital transformation to streamline operations, improve research, and enhance patient care. However, this transformation has exposed them to new vulnerabilities. The proliferation of interconnected systems and data digitisation creates a broader attack surface, attracting cybercriminals seeking to exploit these weaknesses – especially as day-to-day operations catch up to adjust to a new digital way of working.
  • Intellectual property and research data: Pharmaceutical companies invest heavily in research and development to bring new drugs and therapies to market. The value of their intellectual property, including patented formulas and clinical trial data, is astronomical. Cybercriminals recognise the potential to steal these highly coveted assets, either for their own profit or to sell them on the black market. With the stolen data, rival companies or even nation-states can gain a competitive edge or accelerate their research efforts, saving time and resources.
  • Mergers & acquisitions: Mergers and acquisitions are common in the pharmaceutical industry, leading to the integration of disparate IT systems and networks. During this process, security gaps often emerge, providing cybercriminals with opportunities to infiltrate and compromise sensitive data.
  • Financial gain: The pharmaceutical industry is one of the most lucrative sectors globally. Cybercriminals are aware of the substantial financial resources available within these organisations. They target pharmaceutical companies with ransomware attacks, encrypting critical data and demanding hefty ransoms for its release. The financial losses associated with these attacks can be staggering, making it a tempting prospect for criminals seeking quick profits.
  • External collaborations: Pharmaceutical organisations frequently collaborate with a wide range of partners, including research institutions, suppliers, and healthcare providers. This ecosystem connectivity, while essential for innovation and progress, can also introduce security risks in the form of third-party vulnerabilities. Pharmaceutical supply chains are complex, involving numerous vendors, manufacturers, and distributors. Each point in this supply chain represents a potential vulnerability. Cybercriminals may target weaker links within the supply chain to infiltrate the broader pharmaceutical network.
  • Patient data and healthcare records: Pharmaceutical companies and healthcare organisations store vast amounts of sensitive patient data, including medical records and personally identifiable information (PII). This data is highly valuable on the dark web, where it can be sold for identity theft, insurance fraud, or other malicious purposes. Cybercriminals often exploit vulnerabilities in healthcare networks to gain unauthorised access to this treasure trove of information.

Common cyber security challenges for pharmaceutical organisations

  • 3rd party vendors: Pharmaceutical companies often rely on third-party vendors for numerous services, including drug development, manufacturing, and distribution. These external partnerships can introduce vulnerabilities if vendors do not uphold or meet your own rigorous cyber security standards.
  • Legacy systems and outdated software: Pharmaceutical companies often maintain legacy systems and software due to regulatory compliance requirements or the high cost of upgrading. These outdated systems may lack critical security updates and are more vulnerable to cyberattacks. Regularly assessing and modernising IT infrastructure is essential to reduce security risks associated with legacy systems.
  • IoT devices: The Internet of Things (IoT) has made its way into the healthcare sector through connected medical devices and wearables. While these devices offer numerous benefits, they can become entry points for cyberattacks if not adequately secured, updated, and checked regularly.
  • Employee error: Despite robust cyber security measures, human error remains a significant threat. Employees may inadvertently click on malicious links or fall victim to phishing attacks, underscoring the importance of continuous security awareness training.
  • Phishing: Phishing attacks continue to be a pervasive threat in the pharmaceutical sector. Cybercriminals craft convincing emails to deceive employees into revealing sensitive information or installing malware.
  • Physical security tailgating: Physical security breaches are often overlooked but can have severe consequences. Unauthorised individuals gaining physical access to sensitive areas can lead to data breaches or even industrial espionage.

Consequences of a cyberattack/breach in the pharmaceutical sector

A cyberattack on a pharmaceutical organisation can have far-reaching consequences. Beyond financial losses and damage to reputation, the potential harm extends to patient safety. Disrupted operations can impact the production and distribution of life-saving medications, putting lives at risk.

  • Patient safety at risk: Cyberattacks can disrupt the pharmaceutical supply chain, affecting the production and distribution of critical medications. This disruption can lead to medication shortages, delayed treatments, and, in severe cases, jeopardise patient health and safety. Lives may be at risk if essential medications or treatments are unavailable due to a cyberattack.
  • Reputational damage: Pharmaceutical companies hold a position of trust in society. Patients, healthcare providers, and regulatory agencies rely on these organisations to deliver safe and effective medications. A cyberattack that compromises data integrity or leads to product recalls can severely damage a company's reputation and erode the trust of stakeholders. Rebuilding trust can be a lengthy and challenging process.
  • Regulatory and legal consequences: Pharmaceutical organisations operate under strict regulatory frameworks, including HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability), FDA (Food and Drug Administration) regulations, and international standards. A cyberattack can result in regulatory investigations, audits, and fines if it is determined that the organisation failed to protect sensitive patient data or uphold cyber security standards. Legal actions from affected individuals or class-action lawsuits may further escalate the monetary impact.
  • Financial losses and business disruption: Cyberattacks can lead to significant financial losses due to the costs associated with incident response, recovery efforts, legal fees, and potential fines. Business operations may be disrupted, causing delays in research and development, manufacturing, and distribution. These disruptions can have cascading effects on revenue, market share, and profitability.
  • Long-term operational disruptions: Recovering from a cyberattack can be a lengthy process. Restoring systems, investigating the incident, and implementing security enhancements can disrupt operations for an extended period. The organisation may face ongoing challenges in rebuilding its cyber security posture and ensuring that similar incidents do not recur.

What are the awareness and training solutions available to you?

  • Awareness training: Regular cyber security awareness training programs are essential to keep employees informed about emerging threats and best practices. These programs should cover topics like data protection, social engineering, and safe online behaviour, as well as physical security risks.
  • Risk management: Effective risk management strategies involve identifying vulnerabilities, assessing their potential impact, and implementing safeguards to mitigate risks. Regular risk assessments like SABR (Security Awareness and Behaviour Research) should be conducted to stay ahead of evolving threats, spot unsafe employee behaviours and formulate targeted training.
  • Phishing and social engineering: Simulated phishing attacks and scenario-based eLearning can help organisations assess their susceptibility to such threats and train safe behaviours into employees. Employees who fall for simulations or are unable to pass sufficiently can receive additional training to bolster their defences against phishing attempts.
  • Privileged user access: Managing privileged user access is crucial. Restricting access to only those who need it reduces the risk of unauthorised access and data breaches.
  • IoT security: Robust IoT security measures should be in place to protect connected medical devices. Regular updates, vulnerability assessments, and encryption can safeguard these critical assets.
  • Mobile and remote working cyber security: With the rise of remote work, securing mobile devices and remote connections is paramount. Implementing multi-factor authentication, virtual private networks (VPNs), and secure mobile device management (MDM) can mitigate risks.

Why it is time to assess your security culture

Assessing your organisation's security culture is vital. The Security Company Ltd. offers the Security Awareness and Behaviour Research tool (SABR) to provide quantitative data and analysis of employee behaviour and security culture. Understanding your organisation's strengths and weaknesses in this regard is crucial for developing effective security strategies.

Cyber regulation is strengthening, compliance must reciprocate

Cyber regulations are placing greater emphasis on data protection. In Europe, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and in the United States, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), impose stringent requirements for the protection of patient data. Compliance with these regulations involves implementing robust security measures, conducting risk assessments, and ensuring the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of sensitive information.

Working with the right partner

Partnering with a trusted cyber security training and awareness company like The Security Company Ltd. can make a significant difference in strengthening your organisation's security posture. TSC brings 25 years of experience in enhancing security behaviours, fostering a robust security culture, and raising awareness of threats and risks across global organisations.

The pharmaceutical sector faces unique cyber and awareness risks due to digital transformation, mergers, ecosystem collaboration, and a complex threat landscape. It is crucial for decision-makers in pharmaceutical and healthcare organisations to proactively address these challenges through awareness training, risk management, and by assessing their security culture.

Compliance with evolving cyber regulations is paramount, and partnering with an experienced organisation like TSC can provide the expertise and direction needed to navigate these complex cyber security waters effectively.

Remember, staying ahead of cyber threats requires continuous vigilance, education, and strategic partnerships.

If you would like informationabout how The Security Company can help you to formulate a cyber security training and awareness program for your pharmaceutical organisation or if you would like a demo of our products and services ... please contact our Head of Business Development and Sales,  Jenny Mandley.

The Security Company's vast library of customised and non-customised products and services are tailored for small, medium and large organisations and are available in a variety of languages. We also offer bespoke solutions for organisations that desire training and awareness materials built from the ground up.

Written by
Nas Ali
Cyber security and awareness content creator focused on emerging threats and the next wave of cyber security risks like AI, deepfakes and tech 4.0 initiatives in order to build towards a more secure organisational culture.
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