Cyber Security Challenges in the Pharmaceutical Industry

Read time 5 mins

Biotechnology scientist looking through microscope analysing genetical material

As we have written about previously, in 2023, the number of cyber-attacks across all industries continues to rise, and the financial impact of these only accumulates. To put this into perspective, recorded fraud and cybercrime cases in the UK resulted in £1.6 billion in losses across 2022 alone.   

Moreover, according to a recent government report, nearly two in every five UK businesses experience a cyber security attack each year. These statistics reiterate the perpetual threat cybercrime poses to organisations in a world increasingly built around digital infrastructure and ways of communicating.  

Cyber breaches are a persistent concern in the pharmaceutical (pharma) industry, which houses some of the most sensitive data and highly valuable intellectual property/technology of any commercial enterprise. Pharma organisations host sensitive information about patients, patented drugs, clinical trials, research projects, and technological advances that, if breached by malicious actors, could shut down entire supply chains, impact manufacturing, and gravely affect patients needing new medication.  

Indeed, these are just some of the reasons why the pharmaceutical industry is so highly regulated, including when it comes to data management and protection. Pharmaceutical companies are responsible for protecting vast quantities of highly sensitive, confidential data and must comply with data protection laws and other stringent legislative health standards.  

As both producers and consumers of vast quantities of sensitive data – from initial research through to patient records, medical licenses, and manufacturing data – protecting data through cyber security protocols and comprehensive, robust strategies that safeguard digital assets and reduce cyber-attacks is critical to the industry’s success.  

Why do cyber-criminals target pharma? 

Interestingly for such an innovative industry and one in which a catastrophic loss of data could irreparably damage any pharmaceutical organisation’s consumer and patient trust, tarnish their brand image, and see share prices plummet, many pharma companies are not yet at the cutting edge of cyber security. 

IT departments in some pharma organisations remain underfunded; for example, they use outdated technology or don’t have adequate processes and procedures for information security in place. Combine this with the increase in digitalisation over the last ten years, which has seen more and more valuable data stored online, and the pharmaceutical industry seems like a very tempting target for opportunistic cybercriminals.  

Furthermore, it’s important to remember that the increase in ecosystem collaboration is still happening inside the pharmaceutical industry. Pharma companies partner with external organisations in critical areas such as supply chain, research and development, and clinical trials, interacting with organisations outside of their own firewalls and, in this way, widening their attack surface and increasingly their vulnerability.  

Of course, while the above risks associated with the pharma industry are worth considering (and certainly reasons why pharmaceutical enterprises are paying more attention to security in recent times), there are other contributing factors to the industry’s evolving security concerns. These include increased activity from threat actors across certain geographies, increased maturity in attacks (such as ransomware), and insider threats, such as witting and unwitting insiders. 

Other threats include ‘hacktivists’, which, although not currently a primary threat, are still worth keeping in mind – not least as a reminder of the constant evolution and dynamic state of security in pharma.  

Common cyber security challenges for pharmaceutical organisations 

The pace of technological change, the increase in automation tools, and the use of third-party vendors all pose significant security challenges to pharma corporations. However, pharmaceutical cyber security is at risk from a wide range of common threats and attack vectors. We take a closer look below:  

  • Third-party vendors 

As touched upon, pharma organisations rely heavily on third-party vendors to carry out daily activities such as R&D and clinical trials. Plenty also relies on external clinical research organisations to advise them on the medical areas in which to invest time/resources in or use third-party logistics firms to receive, store, and fulfil orders. 

Of course, should any of these third parties suffer a data breach themselves, it could result in the pharmaceutical organisation losing valuable data. For this reason, pharmaceutical cyber security must implement core foundations of information security built upon secure policies and mature cyber security measures. Involving managed security services, such as vCISO (a Virtual Chief Information Security Officer), are time and cost-effective ways for pharmaceutical organisations to manage and mature their cyber policies, meet compliance requirements, and access invaluable cyber resources and expertise right off the bat.   

  • The Internet of Things 

It makes sense that pharma companies have a huge number of devices collecting data which is stored online. From patient data to wearable devices and research tools, pharma companies steadily utilise big data and the Internet of Things (IoT) to streamline and optimise clinical and non-clinical processes.  

Naturally, processing more data increases the risk of a data breach and makes it more important for organisations to introduce security and privacy by design. In other words, whilst IoT technologies can enhance the efficiency of complex processes (including compliance), they require significant cyber security processes to prevent data compromise. Pharmaceutical companies may benefit from services such as managed XDR (eXtended Detection and Response) to provide both reactive and proactive security capabilities in this instance.  

  • Employee Error 

Human error and negligence remain major drivers of data breaches and cyber-attacks across all industries. Users accidentally sharing data or using unapproved applications and software can be like opening the door for cybercriminals to intercept or steal information.  

The amount of data breaches caused by human error illustrates just how easy it is to risk organisational compliance and break GDPR / Data Protection directives – precisely why user awareness training sits at the core of data protection and information security. Employees must be regularly educated on and understand how to handle data securely to mitigate the risk of data breaches. 

  • Mergers and Acquisitions 

Mergers and acquisitions are very common in the pharmaceutical industry but also pose a major risk to confidential data if the process is not managed effectively. Common risks involved during a merging/acquisition process include:  

  • Significant increase in the volume and diversity of data creates new opportunities for hackers to steal sensitive data. 
  • Increase in third-party service providers, including law firms, accounting firms, and IT service providers. These external parties may have access to sensitive data, creating additional cyber security risks. 
  • Integrating separate IT environments is a complex process that requires careful planning and due diligence. Poorly executed integrations can create vulnerabilities in the IT infrastructure, creating opportunities for cybercriminals to strike. 
  • Merging different companies creates new compliance risks and data protection considerations as different companies may have different procedures or be less up-to-date with regulatory requirements than the other. 
  • Mergers may also run into cultural differences when it comes to differing cyber security postures and approaches to risk management.

To mitigate these risks, it’s important for pharmaceutical organisations undergoing mergers or acquisitions to conduct a comprehensive cyber security assessment before and after the transaction is complete. This assessment will be able to identify potential vulnerabilities and prioritise them based on their impact on the business.  


Interested in learning more about cyber security for pharmaceutical organisations?  Find out how Littlefish can help by contacting us through the get in touch button.   

Get In Touch