Criminals can manipulate drug production if IT systems not protected says expert

By Gareth Macdonald

- Last updated on GMT

Cybercriminals a threat to pharma (picture: iStock/triocean)
Cybercriminals a threat to pharma (picture: iStock/triocean)

Related tags Automation

Hackers trying to steal drug formulae for counterfeiters can wreak havoc says an IT expert advocating stronger security for networked pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities.

Drug industry investment in manufacturing automation systems is increasing. A survey by Barclays indicates that 58% of UK-based pharmaceutical firms have bought computer controlled production technologies since 2012​.

The driver – according to Barclays’ head manufacturing analyst Mike Rigby – is growing drug industry recognition that such investment yields productivity gains​.

But greater use of automation and networked manufacturing technologies is not without risk according to Yoni Shohet, CEO of industrial security firm SCADAfence. He told us drug firms' use of networked production systems makes them an attractive target for hackers.

"As the pharmaceutical industry adopts smart manufacturing technologies to improve productivity and save on costs, cybercriminals are being given a tremendous opportunity to wreak havoc on the industry​.”

He suggested that criminals could “manipulate or steal formulas​” from unprotected systems and warned that “traditional IT security solutions are not built to protect industrial networks and can't always alert on hackers​.”


Cyber attacks on the pharmaceutical industry are not a new phenomenon.

In 2011, for example, Japanese company Shionogi lost $300,000 after a former employee remotely accessed its computer infrastructure​ and deleted servers housing email, order tracking, and financial management software.

But attacks on manufacturing operations have only been identified as a problem in the past few years. 

In 2014​ a Finnish IT monitoring organisation called F-Secure Labs identified a new type of malware – software that can infect and harvest data from computer systems – they said was targeting industrial IT networks.

Initially the focus of the attacks was thought to be energy companies. However analysis by Belden Research​ revealed the pharmaceutical industry was the primary target, specifically its industrial control systems (ICS) and operational technology (OT) networks.

According to the analysis, the hackers behind the malware – believed to be a group called Dragonfly in Eastern Europe​ – were trying to steal information for counterfeiting purposes rather than seeking to interrupt manufacturing, nevertheless the attacks resulted in significant downtime.


These threats prompted SCADAfence to partner with Check Point Software Technologies to offer drug manufacturers a means of guarding against industrial disruption caused by malware attacks.

Alon Kantor, Business Development head Check Point Software Technologies, said: “If the production network in a factory is successfully attacked, the effects could seriously endanger people, and cause irreparable damage to the company.

These attacks are becoming more frequent, and it’s clear that OT networks need the same quality of protection as IT networks​."

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