Life Sciences, Pharmaceutical and Medical Device Companies Need to Trust Less and Question More to Keep High-Value Data Safe

 

By Sharon Lindstrom, Managing Director
Manufacturing and Distribution Industry Leader

and Scot Glover, Managing Director
San Francisco Life Sciences Practice Leader

 

Life sciences, pharmaceutical and medical device companies possess sensitive, high-value data that cybercriminals, hacktivists, unscrupulous competitors and other malicious actors aim to steal or otherwise expose. Personally identifiable information (PII), such as employee data and information about clinical trial participants, is a prime target for compromise. So, too, is intellectual property (IP), like drug formulas, proprietary software and manufacturing processes.

Adversaries are finding success with their campaigns: According to a 2016 study by the Ponemon Institute, which included pharmaceutical and medical device businesses, 90 percent of healthcare organizations (an all-inclusive category for all sectors participating in the survey) have suffered a data breach in the past two years. Ponemon estimates that those incidents cost the healthcare industry US$6.2 billion.

There are other cyber risks, too, that can be even more damaging. The recent, massive WannaCry ransomware attack, for example, shows how the interconnectedness of healthcare systems, and weak security practices, can put both organizations and patients at risk. The malware also affected Windows-based radiology devices at two U.S. hospitals, according to reports. The attackers took advantage of known vulnerabilities in the devices’ software. Many devices across the healthcare system use old software that is difficult to update, which means they are ripe for malicious actors to exploit.

Time to move cybersecurity from “top concern” to “top business priority”

Although cybersecurity is, and has been, a top concern for leadership at life sciences, pharmaceutical and medical device companies and their stakeholders, most of these businesses aren’t doing enough to ensure PII, IP and other vital data, and their critical systems and devices, are protected. There are several reasons for this, including:

  • Too much trust: Companies often outsource key critical functions, such as research and development, marketing studies and patient data analysis. Unfortunately, many companies feel that the risk of a data breach or hack is also outsourced to the business partner, and that the collaborative agreements they’ve established with their commercial or academic partners or contracted research organizations somehow guarantee security.
  • Lack of insight: Businesses may not dig deeply enough into their collaboration networks or supply chains when conducting cyber assessments to identify security gaps and other risks.
  • Too few resources: Many organizations in the industry are small and in startup mode, and therefore operate very lean. They devote most of their time and budget to research and development, which leaves them with little or no funding to put toward enhancing their cybersecurity. Also, many of these businesses rely on cost-effective and easy-to-access technology tools to store and share information, which means information could be exposed to malicious hackers if the tools are not configured and secured properly.

To improve cybersecurity, life sciences, pharmaceutical and medical device companies must stop viewing the issue as a top concern and treat it as a top business priority. As a starting point, these organizations should seek to answer the following questions:

  1. What information do we share with our strategic partners electronically and how is that data protected while in transit or stored? More companies than ever before, big and small, are now working with contract resource organizations (CROs). These CROs exchange sensitive and confidential data over electronic networks continuously, and the potential for loss, compromise or theft of PII or IP is high. Cybercriminals often will target the security weaknesses of third parties to gain access to a targeted company, using tactics such as phishing. Another risk area: Many businesses are relying on third-party vendors, i.e., cloud providers, to manage and store their data.
  2. How are our strategic partners handling our information physically at the research site? This question relates to the earlier point about companies’ lack of insight into their collaboration network. Organizations must understand how their information might be exposed in a lab environment or at a research site. The theft, by an insider, of a researcher’s notebook with details about a new drug formula or a medical device in development could spell the end for a company whose entire value is tied up in that irreplaceable IP.

Medical device companies have a third question they should consider (although, so too should the organizations and patients relying on these devices):

  1. What is the risk that our products could be hacked and/or controlled by malicious actors? The potential for medical device compromise is no longer in the realm of science fiction. And there were warnings that this would become a reality even as the Internet of Things was emerging. Back in 2014, for instance, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued a report warning that cyber attacks against healthcare systems and medical devices were likely to increase as more healthcare records were digitized and more medical devices were connected to the Internet.

Life sciences, pharmaceutical and medical device companies must think more critically about, and build a better understanding of, their cyber risk exposure and know what digital assets malicious actors would be most likely to target. When it comes to cybersecurity, these businesses would do well to trust less and question more. Failure to do so can put not only their brands and reputations at risk but their entire business — as well as, potentially, the lives of their patients.

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