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cybersecurity for research laboratories

Cybersecurity for Research Information Systems

With increasing connectivity of computer workstations, mobile devices, information systems, and laboratory instruments, the attack surface for hackers is growing

Terry Haley, PhD

Before devoting his time to Just One Security, Terry Haley, PhD, served as the director of research technology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, one of the top five comprehensive cancer centers...

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When employees of the US-based pharmaceutical giant Merck arrived at their offices the morning of June 27th, 2017, they were greeted with a disturbing message upon turning on their computers. PCs throughout the company had been hacked and critical files locked up via encryption, with the hackers promising to release the files for $300 in bitcoin per affected computer.  

In response, Merck quickly disabled its email system and prohibited its 70,000 employees from touching their computers. After a few hours of confusion, all employees were sent home. All told, the ransomware attack impacted Merck’s global manufacturing, research, and sales productivity for nearly a week and cost the company an estimated $310 million dollars in the third quarter of 2017 due to increased operating expenses and lost sales. 

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Health care cybersecurity is a mounting concern. The HIPAA Journal reports that health care data breaches have increased every year (with the exception of 2015) since the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights began tracking breach data in October 2009. 2019 showed a marked increase in data breaches, with 510 health care data breaches of 500 or more records being reported, representing a 196 percent increase from 2018.

With increasing connectivity of computer workstations, mobile devices, information systems, and laboratory instruments, the attack surface is growing, and hackers are developing more sophisticated tools and techniques to gain access to important data. In addition, the remote work revolution ushered in by COVID-19 has stretched organizational digital boundaries significantly, making good cybersecurity practices even more imperative.

While large pharmaceutical companies are an enticing target for hackers, with large quantities of research, clinical trial, patient data, and intellectual property (IP) to protect, these organizations typically have the funds to invest in good cybersecurity systems and practices. Research collaborators (e.g., universities, research hospitals, teaching hospitals, etc.) that have access to a pharmaceutical company’s data, but may not have the same strict security protocols in place, provide the easiest target for hackers. Hackers look for the weak points in a network, and there can be notable cybersecurity gaps in the areas of clinical and research data for many of these smaller collaborators in the pharma research ecosystem. 

The life science industry has a need for a cybersecurity standard that serves to facilitate secure and productive collaboration in health research. In this article, we will propose a risk-based security framework to fulfill this need based on the model used by the grant issuing agency of the NIH. This model is cost-effective and allows research organizations to maintain high levels of productivity. 

Federal cybersecurity standards

Pharmaceutical companies seek to create a research ecosystem that is both productive and secure utilizing a variety of different collaborators. When sharing research data with a collaborator, they need assurance that the partner has an acceptable level of security practices to protect sensitive research data both in transit and when it arrives at its destination. 

In the payments industry, PCI DSS compliance is mandated by credit card companies to ensure the security of credit card transactions. Unfortunately, there is no official security standard in the life science industry that would serve to expedite the assessment of potential research partners for pharmaceutical companies. As a result, pharma companies will often send a massive 300-question survey to a potential collaborator to assess their security practices before moving forward with data sharing. For obvious reasons, this evaluation method is cumbersome, time-consuming, and subjective.

A proposed solution to this problem is to apply federal cybersecurity standards that are well documented and can be tailored to fit the pharmaceutical research ecosystem. In 2002, the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) was signed into law. The FISMA objective was to define the appropriate extent of security controls and measures commensurate with the risk and potential damage done by the unauthorized use, destruction, theft, or sequestering of federal agency data. This act gave National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) the ability to set security requirements to ensure the safe harbor and transfer of protected federal information. 

The security requirements NIST developed apply to all branches of the military and federal agencies, including the grant issuing agency of the NIH. The risk-based, flexible approach of the NIST framework makes it particularly well-suited for a research environment. The requirements are implemented to ensure the security of information in the following categories:

  • Confidentiality – Preserving authorized restrictions on information access and disclosure, including means for protecting personal privacy and proprietary information
  • Integrity – Guarding against improper information modification or destruction, including ensuring information nonrepudiation and authenticity
  • Availability – Ensuring timely and reliable access to and use of information

The NIST risk management framework (RMF)

In a typical research ecosystem, there is a central research IT group that effectively functions as a managed service provider for many different collaborating labs, all of which have different data security needs based on the type of work they are doing and the data they are handling. A collaborator’s risk profile can range from very low (e.g., doing research on low risk or model organisms) all the way up to high (e.g., clinical research where you are handling genetic profiles of patients). 

It doesn’t make sense from a cost or operational perspective for the central research IT group to apply the same stringent security standards to everyone in the network. They simply don’t have the capability to manage and/or embed resources in every single lab or collaborator that needs to be managed. What the managing IT group needs is a risk-based template that enables them to manage security for a variety of systems effectively under one roof with very few people. 

From the scientist’s perspective, those doing low risk discovery activities want to maximize data sharing and collaboration, and don’t want or need to be burdened with stringent security checklists that slow down their research. A risk-based approach to data security benefits researchers, as it is tailored to their individual data protection needs. This makes researchers happier, as they are getting the security level they need without hampering innovation.  

To address these needs in the context of FISMA, NIST developed a 6-step process called the Risk Management Framework (RMF). The grant issuing agency of the NIH uses this framework to manage security for the many different institutes and constituents that they work with, and they do not require a large security team to manage the program. The RMF is tailored to meet the requirements of confidentiality, integrity, and availability (CIA) based on the assessed risk of each organization in the network. 

The NIST RMF provides a comprehensive data security template that could be applied to a pharmaceutical research ecosystem. That said, organizations within the ecosystem would not follow RMF exactly as it is written. The idea here is to use the RMF as a template, while aspiring to not stray too far from it. 

An infographic which gives a brief overview of the RMF follows:


Customized security plans for pharmaceutical companies and collaborators

While some organizations in the pharma research ecosystem may want to pursue a comprehensive RMF approach, which can include NIST audits and internal certification, others may have less aggressive goals. For example, an organization that is interested in becoming a more attractive and/or trustworthy partner for a pharmaceutical sponsor or a grant issuing agency like the NIH may be interested in adopting the RMF. Some collaborators may be interested in an RMF program only for high-risk systems, while others may build a program for the entire organization. 

On the other hand, an organization that is simply interested in shoring up the security of operations may just want to increase researcher awareness of the security systems in place with a comprehensive training program. By employing a risk-based methodology, along with the right processes and technologies, organizations can secure their research data and maintain a high-level of productivity in their discovery activities to fuel innovation. A qualified third-party consultant who understands the RMF template and can help create a customizable security program based your organization’s unique needs is essential in this process.

Benefits of cybersecurity for research data

A quality cybersecurity program provides a number of important benefits for research organizations. A few of these include:

  • For collaborators pursuing NIST certification, it establishes a level of trustworthiness that sets the organization apart
  • The process of filling out a 300-question survey from a pharmaceutical company is easy and painless, as all your policies and procedures are well documented
  • Keeps researchers happy, as they get a security checklist that is appropriate for the data they are working with
  • Allows managers to allocate resources more intelligently based on the system risk profile
  • Helps to establish effective collaboration between research and security professionals by improving education and awareness
  • Helps to strengthen and mature business practices
  • Helps to maintain strong partnerships
  • Improves operational efficiency and security.


Scientific discovery in the life sciences is a highly data-driven and collaborative process. As such, facilitating secure and productive data sharing in health research is essential to fuel the innovation pipeline. In this blog, we described a risk-based cybersecurity framework for the life science industry that that aligns with federal grant agencies and is tailored to support the needs of researchers. Whether applied to a single system or a multi-cloud environment, the program scales as needed, is cost-effective, can be managed by a small team, and serves to facilitate secure and productive collaboration in health research. This model allows research organizations to maintain high levels of productivity, ultimately helping to facilitate the innovative research that delivers life-changing medications to patients in need. 

- This article was originally published on the Kalleid website. It has been edited for style