Gitex Tech Week: Covid-19 vaccine supply chain faces cyberattack threat, warn experts

Dubai - Refrigeration containers, airlines, trucking companies, and warehouses are more vulnerable

By Waheed Abbas

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Published: Wed 9 Dec 2020, 3:09 PM

Cyberattack threat to Covid-19 vaccine distribution supply chain is real and it is not a matter of 'if' but 'when' it will be disrupted with global surge in multi-stage ransomware attacks in 2020, warned technology experts.

The Massachusetts-based cybersecurity firm Cybereason’s Nocturnus research team recently uncovered cyber espionage campaigns against pharmaceutical and research companies working on Covid-19 vaccines and therapies in the UAE, the US, Japan and South Korea. However, the latest data from cybersecurity firm Acronis showed that there has actually been a dip in ransomware attempts in the UAE in Q3 from Q2.

Experts at Gitex Technology Week said that refrigeration containers, airlines, trucking companies, and warehouses are more exposed to attacks.

Islam Shaker, distributor manager for Middle East at Acronis, pointed out that attackers may attempt to disrupt the vaccine supply chain at various stages, from manufacturing to distribution logistics.

“Highly sophisticated attacks could try and interrupt the cold chain, but more likely are disruptive attacks such as ransomware. Such attacks could intervene with the process by bringing down planning and control systems or order tracking which will delay the normal process,” cautioned Shaker.

Sam Curry, chief security officer at Cybereason, advised companies to deploy an anti-ransomware technology to reduce their overall risk. “It is essential for enterprises to back up all files in the network for access if hackers successfully encrypt endpoints,” he said. Curry said any research or therapy companies and hospitals are at risk.

Morey Haber, chief technology officer and chief information security officer at BeyondTrust, said Covid-19 vaccines need special shipping containers that are actively refrigerated to extremely cold temperatures. When in transit, these containers run on batteries, when no power is available, and are network-enabled (Wi-Fi or cellular) to ensure environmental conditions do not get compromised.

“A successful attack could target the electronic systems on these containers and breach their monitoring software or controls, or the shipping companies themselves, to delay shipments or reroute cargo, causing spoilage. A successful attack prohibits the vaccine from reaching its destination in a timely manner with the proper environmental conditions.”

Haber believed that delivering the vaccines to remote hospitals and towns is the most vulnerable to a cyber attack when transportation itself is already limited.

How will hackers target

Curry noted that ransomware attacks will be the preferred choice for hackers looking to disrupt Covid-19 vaccine distribution because many companies will have their guards down. “Attacks, in the time of pandemic, on the healthcare and research infrastructure are diabolical. In any other theater besides cyber, they would be a clear act of war and subject to diplomatic, economic and potentially military reprisals,” added Curry.

The good news, he said, is that advanced anti-ransomware software is readily available from many different vendors and deploying right solutions will make ransomware attacks less profitable for the hackers.

Security safeguards

- Do not connect the shipping container control systems to the internet. Keep their networks air gapped

- Do not advertise, as a company, that you are shipping Covid vaccines.

- Keep all systems fully patched and up-to-date to prevent known exploits from compromising assets used to manage the supply chain

- As a vendor, ensure all assets in the supply chain, including the shipping containers themselves, have unique and complex passwords

- Treat the shipping manifests and logistics of the vaccine distribution confidential. Not only could a threat actor disrupt the supply chain but the vaccines could enter the black market if stolen.


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