Lessons Learned from the Vaccine Supply Chain Attack

By John Ayers, Chief Strategy Product Officer, Product & Security Operations of Nuspire
John Ayers from Nuspire shares insights into the 2020 vaccine supply chain attack and how organizations can bolster cybersecurity...

Like legitimate businesses, threat actors develop strategies and tactics to achieve their goals by taking advantage of security vulnerabilities. Before the December 2020 attack, confirmed by Pfizer, BioNTech and the European Medicines Agency, the hackers did reconnaissance in order to launch a spear-phishing email campaign. As attackers “try, try and try again” to get their hands on sensitive data, organizations must pay attention to cybersecurity basics to improve supply chain protection.

A Top Vulnerability? People

According to Nuspire’s Q3 threat report, office document phishing skyrocketed during the second half of Q3. In both a sensitive situation, like an election, or during ‘business as usual’, a lack of employee cybersecurity awareness offers a path of least resistance for attackers to infiltrate an organization through methods involving phone, text or email. Spear phishing, the highly targeted form of phishing, includes familiar names, words, phrases and calls to actions, knowing that a recipient is more likely to trust the source.

A click on a malicious email usually does one of two things. It injects something, likely a botnet, into the environment, or it downloads ransomware. A botnet gives hackers control over the computer, so attackers can monitor the environment and gather intelligence in a “slow as you go” way, honing in on the right person and computer for ransomware purposes. 

From a cybersecurity perspective, phishing attacks are an insider threat risk. If personnel are unaware of cyber-hygiene, they’re unaware of the threat they pose. 

Impacts on Vaccine Development and Distribution

Successful attacks on supply chains disrupt critical infrastructure by redirecting information and modifying logistics. Attackers wage ransomware attacks at institutions that have the financial resources to pay ransoms. 

Eighty-six per cent of breaches are financially motivated. A single successful intervention through an executive, researcher, scientist, manufacturing line worker, vendor employee or clinic/hospital worker, can unintentionally provide a big payday for attackers. With more companies racing to mass-produce and distribute vaccines, comes more opportunities for assailants to cash in.

A breach can influence vaccine viability and who gets or doesn’t get the vaccine. If attackers succeed in stealing clinical trial or patient data, they can cash in on companies willing to pay in hopes of staying out of the news. Stolen credentials can be sold on the dark web and/or used to access R&D information that speeds vaccine production with no upfront R&D expense. 

The Next Phase of the Threat

Attackers then continually adapt their techniques, capitalize on what’s working, and expand their list of targets. For example, hospitals and clinics affiliated with targeted vaccine manufacturers may be subjected to the same tactics but for a different purpose: identity theft. Currently, identities sell for between $1,500 and $2,000USD on the dark web. 

Moreover, phishing campaigns may involve executives in the vaccine supply chain. Emails that appear to come from a CFO, for example, will direct someone in finance to redirect a certain amount of money to a specified account. 

People who attract media attention are likely to be targeted, either professionally or personally. This includes scientists who publish research results or are recognized publicly for scientific breakthroughs, individuals who make substantial donations, or spokespeople who participate in news interviews. 

Additionally, given the number of people working from home due to COVID-19, another phase of malicious activity will likely involve home networks – the easiest to breach. In this case, attackers may execute a man-in-the-middle tactic to gain access through IPsec tunnels, eluding anti-virus solutions. 

So, what signals malicious activity? The key things to look for include excessive exfiltration of data; suspicious emails, phone calls and texts; and unusual network access activity based on who is requesting access and when compared to normal patterns. Additionally, users should watch for anomalies such as high traffic to DNS sites. The traffic may appear to be coming from legitimate sources, but analysis often reveals IP issues and non-specific foreign geographies. 

How to Strengthen Supply Chain Security

The vaccine supply chain attack reminds us to go back to the basics. Cybersecurity controls that every organization should implement, include:

  • Security Awareness Training – Everyone in the supply chain needs to understand what they’re looking at or hearing - in the case of phone-call phishing-, and know the potential consequences of acting on a communication from a malicious source and what to do when they encounter a potential threat.
  • Data Classification – To protect sensitive data properly, it must be located, labelled, segmented and monitored. 
  • Access Control – Knowing who is accessing what, when and from where. Recommended solutions include identity and access management (IAM), privileged access management (PAM) and multi-factor authentication.
  • Monitoring – Visibility is essential to determine who is connecting to the network and to identify abnormal activity. 
  • Endpoint Protection – This is one of the least adopted controls. Endpoint protection is critical for onsite and remote workers alike. 
  • Digital Certificates for Email – Up-to-date certificates help prevent attackers from providing their own or spoofing legitimate certificates.
  • Patch Management – After lists of IT and OT assets are created, organizations should assign owners who are responsible for timely updates.
  • Routine Scanning – On a weekly or monthly basis, scan gateways, networks and endpoints to identify and fix vulnerabilities. 
  • Network Segmentation – Separation of marketing traffic from finance traffic from OT network traffic and so on, allows the IT team to block communications from unreliable IP addresses and limit attackers’ lateral movement.
  • Managed Detection and Response (MDR) – Logs by themselves, are not enough. MDR monitors gateways, networks and endpoints (fixed and mobile) for malicious activity by combining analytics and human intelligence to detect and eliminate threats. MDR also includes threat hunting, a proactive way to remove intruders and malware.

User Awareness Equals Improved Security

Vaccine supply chains are regulated. Compliance is required, but compliance does not equal security. At the end of the day, an organization’s security is just as dependent on people, if not more so, than on technology – which is why user awareness training is a critical component of a multi-layered defence strategy. 

When everyone in a supply chain is on high alert, insider threat risk decreases and organizations can more efficiently and effectively identify, react to and remediate spear-phishing and other threats.


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