As the coronavirus pandemic increasingly continues to sweep across states globally, researchers have taken a crucial step in developing vaccine for the disease. But unfortunately, as the COVID researchers rush to invent the vaccines, some secretive state-sponsored hackers and cyber mercenaries are quietly watching them.
Recently, the European Medicine Agency (EMA), the European Union agency tasked with authorizing the use of medicines across states, was the target. This agency has confidential documents concerning the Pfizer vaccine stored on its servers. Although the attack wasn't clear on how and when it occurred or who was behind it, it was partly successful, and some documents were unlawfully accessed. According to a statement by the BioNTech pharmaceutical company, they claimed that the accessed documents during the cyber attack were related to the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID vaccine's inventory.
During the incident, no Pfizer or BioNTech systems were breached, although they are unaware of any study participants who might have been identified through the accessed data.
The European Medicines Agency confirmed the cyber attack they were subjected to and said they launched a full investigation of that particular breach. On the other hand, the two companies claimed that they would wait for further information concerning the EMA investigations and appropriately respond in compliance with the EU law.
The EMA also assured that the attack would have no impact on the timeline for its review.
The UK suspects Russian hackers while the United States and Spain accuse China. Others have pointed fingers at Iran, Vietnam, and North Korea. It’s even more devastating how the cybersecurity companies are also being hacked. For instance, the FireEye was previously attacked when ABC was interviewing Mr. Tim Wellsmore.
There is currently much attention on the hackers targeting the vaccine researchers, but there is very little evidence that most of the attacks have been a success. The EMA attack was one of the first after Pfizer, the target, admitted that their documents had been accessed.
These attacks can compromise the development of the COVID-19 vaccine; however, the UK still announced rolling out of the Pfizer vaccines soon.
There is critical intellectual property and data about different vaccines, but other nations are trying very hard to steal the formulae and disrupt the vaccine supply operations. Many companies and governments don’t go overboard to report breaches for fear of reputational damages, and in other times, the hackers tend to be too intelligent to be detected.
CEOs and Board Members should implement some severe measures to prevent the success of such attacks. Is the executive team taking the necessary steps to protect data from cyber-attacks? Here are some of the possible techniques that can be employed to enhance data protection.
· Understand the evolving threats from nation-states and risks to the COVID vaccine development and vaccine supply chain. Attackers tend to be persistent, sophisticated, patient, and well funded and have the ability to disrupt the vaccine development through IP theft at the research stage, manufacturing disruptions, and reputational damage.
· Have strategies to defend against threats such as managing third parties, segmenting the network access, identifying potential attackers and their tactics, and taking care of the system vulnerabilities.
· Establish a response plan for the companies involved with vaccine research, manufacturing, trials, and distribution for remediation in case of a successful attack. A good response plan is formal and clearly defines how they will engage with governmental and law enforcement agencies.
It's time hackers are treated as terrorists; they should be hunted and locked for decades, so they understand human life's value. Hacking the regular companies is a different thing from hacking healthcare systems. It's willfully and directly killing individuals globally, so investing significant efforts in identifying these attackers is worth it. If a given country is behind it or is sponsoring cyberattacks, it should be immediately dropped from the global internet to protect critical data.
But how do these cyber attackers gain access to the data?
Several hackers from Russia, North Korea, China, and Iran are engaged in cyber attacks trying to steal the COVID vaccine secret, which is referred to as “intellectual property war” by security experts.
The US company Pfizer and its Germany-based partner BioNTech say their data about the COVID-19 vaccine was accessed unlawfully when the cyber attack on the EMA’s servers occurred. This wasn't the first attempt of cybercriminals to attack an entity associated with coronavirus vaccines.
These cyber gangs employ tactics such as ‘password spraying’ where passwords are tried out on many accounts and ‘spear phishing' where targeted emails are designed, inviting an individual to click a link that will eventually install malware into their system. They also use fake emails to trick individuals into providing sensitive information about the company.
In another instance, IBM detected a hacking ploy targeted to COVID-19 vaccine distribution to the developing countries, which appeared like a nation-state was involved. The hackers were most likely sponsored by an unknown government targeting the cold vaccine chain, which encompasses companies that keep the vaccine at low temperatures to stay effective and stable.
In this case, the attackers had designed booby-trapped emails sent in the name of an executive at Haier Biomedical, a Chinese firm that deals with the cold storage supply chain essential in the transportation of viable vaccines. These attackers had already researched the right make, price, and model of different refrigeration units for the message to appear authentic.
This IBM research has prompted many organizations to guard themselves against hacking.
The development and progress of vaccine research have led to increased cyber attacks on COVID researchers, who are the primary targets. During the past several months, there have been numerous reports of hackers trying to steal data and disrupt vaccine development. Although cybersecurity teams are working tirelessly to identify the criminals and find solutions to data breaches, they say it’s a challenge to stop them as it’s a never-ending and ongoing arms race!