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5 Cybersecurity Challenges Faced by Pharmaceutical Industry & How to Protect Your Organization

Posted on August 5th, 2020

The pharmaceutical (pharma) industry has access to some of the most critical data available. That coupled with the industry’s strict privacy guidelines regarding the safeguarding of protected health information (PHI) highlights the sector’s need for effective cybersecurity management programs.

The healthcare industry is quickly adopting the use of resources such as third-party vendors, automation tools, and outsourcing to improve operational efficiency. However, these changes have brought a new wave of cyber threats that were previously unbeknownst to, or disregarded by, the healthcare industry.

As a result, pharmaceutical companies have an urgent need to establish strong cybersecurity frameworks and programs to protect sensitive patient data and intellectual property.

Understanding the cybersecurity threat landscape for pharma industry

Cybersecurity and risk mitigation has quickly become a top priority for pharmaceutical companies as they embrace digital transformation. The rapid speed of technological change, use of third-party vendors, and the increase in automation tools pose major cybersecurity risks to companies.

These companies collect large amounts of data and typically have access to sensitive information, including PHI, drug patents, and data related to pharmaceutical technologies. This means that a breach in an organization’s network can have serious consequences such as stolen intellectual property and clinical trial data, reputational damage, lost revenue, and even litigation. By implementing robust cybersecurity strategies, companies can effectively reduce the risk of a cyberattack, safeguard their digital assets, and avoid catastrophic consequences.

Why cybercriminals target healthcare and pharmaceutical companies

Like many other industries, pharmaceutical companies are undergoing a rapid digital transformation and more data than ever before is being collected and managed online, leading these organizations to become more prominent targets for cyber attacks.

The data stolen from healthcare and pharmaceutical companies is extremely valuable, as hackers can sell personal patient information on the dark web that includes address history, financial information, and social security numbers, which can later be used to commit identity theft. Alternatively, any unsold data can be ransomed back to the companies it was stolen from so that critical data such as trial results or clinical data can continue moving forward.

Top 5 pharma cybersecurity challenges to be aware of

The pharmaceutical industry is being forced to navigate many new challenges and obstacles that were previously disregarded by the sector as irrelevant to the industry.

Consider these 5 cybersecurity threats impacting pharmaceutical organizations:

Third-party vendors

Many pharmaceutical companies rely on services from third-party vendors to carry out daily operations and improve efficiencies, such as treatment centers, insurance providers, and manufacturers. If any third-party vendor within your ecosystem were to experience a data breach, your organization would be affected operationally and would likely take on some of the reputational damage and financial damage. This is why it’s important to have full visibility across your network that allows you to continuously monitor third-party vendors’ cybersecurity.


In some cases, ransomware attacks have caused organizations to permanently close, and a recent report from Comparitech states that since 2016, the U.S. healthcare and pharmaceutical industry experienced nearly 200 ransomware incidents that resulted in an estimated combined cost of $157 million. Additionally, SecurityScorecard’s 2019 Healthcare Cybersecurity Report found that when it comes to effective cybersecurity, the healthcare industry ranks thirteenth out of eighteen in DNS health when compared to other major U.S. industries.

It’s worth noting that ransomware hackers are unlikely to be looking for patient data, instead, they’re looking to interrupt operations to leverage a ransom from organizations in exchange for stolen data and intellectual property.

Phishing attacks

The frequency of phishing attacks - or the fraudulent attempt to access critical information by posing as a trusted source or entity - is on the rise. A common way to carry out phishing attacks is through the use of compromised email accounts. Hackers use organizations’ names or character substitutions to exploit human instinct and trick people into clicking on infected emails. For this reason, increased security measures are highly recommended such as multi-factor authentication and limited employee network access.

Emerging technology and governance

The pharmaceutical industry has started to embrace new technologies to accelerate the research and development process and conduct testing in innovative ways. The ultimate goal is to make healthcare more effective and efficient – transforming the experience for both patients and providers.

Unfortunately, as companies start to adopt these new technologies, they face more inherent cyber risks – making it difficult to effectively manage and mitigate these vulnerabilities. For that reason, it’s critical for companies to implement robust cyber security practices and protocols to effectively protect their technology from attacks – empowering them to continuously monitor threats and instantly detect any vulnerabilities within the network.

Mergers and acquisitions

Mergers and acquisitions can present unique cyber security challenges if the process is not managed and handled properly. When two companies merge or one acquires the other, cybersecurity protocols and approaches can change overnight. If both companies have not taken the proper steps to safeguard their assets before a merger or acquisition, valuable data is at a higher risk of compromise. Ultimately, this leads to the business deal being jeopardized or the company facing legal problems.

The internet of things (IoT)

In recent years, the pharmaceutical industry has embraced the Internet of Things (IoT), which refers to a system of interrelated computing devices and digital machines that have the ability to communicate and transfer data across a network. This helps to streamline access to critical documents and patient information as well as use big data to monitor industry trends and trial success. Due to the unique privacy challenges that the industry is required to navigate, the IoT can increase your organization’s cyber risk and present additional vulnerabilities by increasing the attack surface and creating more opportunities for hackers to gain access to the network.

Employee error or negligence

Employees are a major driver of data breaches across nearly all industries. The 2020 Data Breach Investigations Report by Verizon ranked social engineering attacks as the 2nd highest cause of data breaches. The C-suite and high-level personnel are not the only employees who should be wary of external cyber attacks, as lower-level management and staff are more likely to be targeted. Common types of cybercrimes that leverage human behavior to gain sensitive information include baiting, pretexting, and quid pro quo. This is why employee educational training and awareness of common attack methods is crucial for staying diligent against hackers.

How SecurityScorecard can help ensure cybersecurity for pharmaceutical organizations

With new developments in technology and increased privacy regulations such as GDPR, the pharmaceutical industry has unique responsibilities regarding data protection and cybersecurity. SecurityScorecard’s platform allows organizations to improve the cyberhealth of their entire ecosystem with Security Ratings, which help to identify and prioritize threats based on the danger they pose to the organization.

The ability to proactively identify and mitigate threats, continuously monitor third-party vendors, and automate compliance with privacy regulations helps organizations to stay alert and aware of their IT network’s cybersecurity posture. As hackers become more advanced, SecurityScorecard enables the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry to safeguard patient privacy and health provider infrastructure to more effectively avoid costly breaches, lost data, and broken trust with the public. Curious to know how strong your organization’s security posture is performing? Get your free score today.

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