Cybersecurity risks in your laboratory and how to mitigate them

by | 05. 10. 2021 | Laboratory digitalization

Reading Time: 9 minutes

In 2020, the average cost of a data breach was $3.86 million, and it has been steadily increasing by 10% since 2014. The records that are usually compromised are customers’ personal identifiable information (PII) and intellectual property (IP). Healthcare, energy, finance, pharma, and technology are the industries that have the highest cost of a data breach. In healthcare, this can go up to $7.13 million per only one malicious cyberattack (IBM).

The digital revolution and accessibility of the internet gave data a different meaning than it had in the past. Data has become a business asset, and data processing has become a crucial piece of operations at companies and organizations of all types.

Data can also represent a liability within the organizations. That is why it is important to understand cybersecurity and how implementing cybersecurity measures can mitigate the risk of cyber-attacks.

What is cybersecurity

Cybersecurity deals with preventing unauthorized access to a company’s digital resources to protect the company’s or organization’s cyber assets. It includes employees, policies, processes, and technologies that are used in an organization.

The field of cybersecurity is constantly changing as cyber threat actors (hackers or hacker groups) are always trying to find a new way to break into hardware or software systems. That is why it is important to always update and improve your cybersecurity systems and be careful with how you handle your data.

Cybersecurity deals with protecting software, hardware, and digital data from unauthorized use and/or access. Data security (a subdiscipline of cybersecurity), on the other hand, focuses solely on the protection of digital data.

Some of the common undesirable outcomes of bad data handling and lack of cybersecurity are:

  • Cyberattacks
  • Corrupt data
  • Loss of company reputation
  • Direct financial damage
  • Downtime (when a company cannot operate)
  • Data loss
  • Theft of trade secrets
  • Loss of trust of customers and business partners

Types of Cyberattacks

There are two main types of malicious cyberattacks:

Untargeted/opportunistic attacks

These cyberattacks are not targeting a specific company or organization. The victims of untargeted attacks are in most cases SMEs, but also individuals, who are using the internet in their free time.

CNBC stated that more than 43% of the attacks are aimed toward small businesses, and only 14% had appropriate cybersecurity measures in place to fight off the attack.

Untargeted attacks are usually in the form of malware (malicious software) worms and viruses that are mostly delivered by internet connection.

In comparison to the targeted attacks, opportunistic attacks generally carry less risk but can still cause significant business damage to an organization. They are relatively easy to mitigate because they usually aim for the well-known weak points in computer systems and human errors with data safety.

Targeted attacks

Targeted attacks are aimed at a specific organization or company to cause serious damage. The damage can be either revealing national/business secrets, gaining money, stealing intellectual property, and others.

These attacks are usually well organized by malicious actors and are hard to prevent. Organizations at high risk of targeted cyberattacks need to expand their cybersecurity beyond only computer systems to their employees.

Cybersecurity risks

Computer systems and infrastructure consists of many different layers and are constantly changing. That means that it is practically impossible to list all the cybersecurity risks. However, it is crucial to understand the most common weak points in cybersecurity and implement measures to mitigate the risks. You can see some of the pathways that malicious actors usually use to gain unauthorized access in the chart below (Figure 1).

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Figure 1: Graphical presentation of pathways and interfaces that malicious attackers commonly use to gain unauthorized access to computer systems (Source: Digital Transformation of the Laboratory: A Practical Guide to the Connected Lab).

Physical access

All digital data is stored on physical hardware either in organization premises, backup locations, or large cloud services data centers. So, the simplest way that attackers can gain access to the organization’s digital resources is by physically break into the organization or data center.

Another security risk regarding physical access is associated with mobile devices, such as laptops, tablets, phones. These devices are used on the go in many cases, especially with salespeople, business developers, and project managers often traveling for business purposes. The biggest security risk with these is the theft or loss of the device.

Software access

Software access risk comes from the fact that (almost) no computer is running completely in isolation. Most of the computers are interfacing with other computers, either via the internet connection or internal organizational network, which poses a risk for cybersecurity.

Privileged users

In an organization, an employee or a team has privileged access to the computer infrastructure. It is necessary for them to have privileged physical and software access to the organization’s computer systems to do their work and maintain the normal operations of the organization’s software and hardware systems. As they have a privileged position, these people must be well trained in cybersecurity topics.

Data in transit

As computers interact with each other, important data are being sent over the networks.

When using an organization’s internal network, attackers need to gain physical access to the network to perform a malicious attack. In case that the organization is using wireless networks, such as Wi-Fi, a malicious actor can break into it and gain unauthorized access that way. Once the malicious actor is connected to the network, he/she can tap into all the computer network traffic.

As organizations are moving towards using cloud services, it is crucial to understand that the internet is a big threat to the security of the data in transit. We can even assume that anyone can access the data that is being sent via the internet. To mitigate this risk, extra security measures need to be implemented to prevent unauthorized access to data.

Social engineering

Social engineering is an increasing problem in the cybersecurity sphere. It essentially means that the malicious adversaries are psychologically manipulating people into performing actions that enable the attacker to gain unauthorized access to the organization’s computer systems and digital data. The usual targets for social engineering are employees at the organization that is a target of the attack.

Physical and software access, privileged users, data in transit, and social engineering are a few of the most common risks for cybersecurity. Interestingly, more than half of the cyberattacks happen due to different software access incidents (Figure 2).

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Figure 2: Percentage of malicious data breaches by their root cause (IBM).

Cybersecurity measures

Cybersecurity covers a wide variety of topics as malicious adversaries are constantly on the hunt to find new ways to gain unauthorized access to an organization’s computer systems and digital data.

We prepared a list of the most common cybersecurity risks and suggested some measures to help you get your cybersecurity at a higher level (Table 1).

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Table 1: A list of common cybersecurity risks and measures that you can take to prevent malicious cyber-attacks

Data safety

Data safety is a part of cybersecurity that aims to prevent data from being lost, corrupted, stolen, or misused. That usually involves safely storing the data and performing regular data back-ups.

Data safety risks

To ensure that data is safe, it is crucial to be aware of the risks that lead to data loss. That step allows for a successful mitigation strategy to be implemented and prevent losing data.

Some of the common risks are:

  • Manual errors: in many cases, an IT administrator or other privileged user in a company performs the data mitigation strategies manually. That usually means that they are replicating and/or replicating data to ensure data safety. However, every manually performed task, including these, is prone to human error. In an undesirable case that this privileged user makes a mistake, an entire segment of data can be corrupted or lost.
  • Software malfunction or failure: at any point, there is a chance that software systems could fail. If you are using more software systems to process your data, every software system you are using increases the likelihood of one of them failing and potentially damaging your data. Even if only one software system failed, it can cause data that were processed at the time of malfunction to be corrupted or deleted and lost.
  • Hardware failures: Similar to software malfunction, hardware components failure is also a constant risk to data safety. If failed, the hardware components can cause processed data to be lost, most commonly the hard disk drives.
  • 3rd party vendor bankruptcy: Many organizations are using 3rd party vendors’ services to process their data, but we rarely think of this as a liability. However, we need to be aware that businesses go bankrupt and that data processing businesses are no different.
  • Power shortage: in case of electricity loss, that can damage the computer systems and lead to data loss. In many cases, the data that was processed before the power shortage is also corrupted, deleted, and lost.
  • Natural disaster: in case that natural disaster physically destroys devices storing data, that data is lost.

Data safety measures

There are different mitigation strategies to improve your data safety. However, the most used and generally accepted among them is backing up your data.

1. Backups

A backup is a duplicate or copy of the data at a certain point in time. Since the backups are in a certain time, they can also be called snapshots.

With more backups, you reduce the risk of losing all your digital data due to the risk factors mentioned above. In case that the data collection gets corrupted or lost, you can go back to the last backup and restore it to the state before the incident with data safety occurred.

The backup processes are usually partially manual and partially automated.

While having backups is a wise move, it takes extra storage and comes with an extra cost. To ensure that you balance the risks and unnecessary expenses, you can define the processes regarding the backups. That includes the instructions on how to perform a backup as well as how to restore the data in the case that data is lost.

2. Data replication

Data replication is essentially an additional step to backups. It means that you are copying the data to different physical locations (it might be countries or even continents).

3. 3rd party vendor guarantee

As mentioned before, 3rd party vendors that are in the business of data processing can go bankrupt. It is important to be prepared for this worst-case scenario beforehand. You can do so by paying attention to the contracts and agreement terms that define the steps for the case of a vendor going out of business. This is called business continuity and should (minimally) allow vendor’s customers a reasonable timeframe to export their digital data to a different storage place.

Data storage

It is clear that we need to save our data and that backups and replication are necessary to ensure that the data is as safe as possible. Now we come to the logical question of WHERE to keep all this data and there are a few options:

1. Magnetic storage

This is the most common type of physical media – hard disk drives and magnetic tapes. Its advantage is that the data can be stored and retrieved after the power is turned off.

  • A hard disk drive (HDD) is a data storage component that can record data and play them back in a non-sequential manner. An example of HDD is data storage in your laptop or desktop computer, as well as many audio-visual devices.
  • Magnetic tapes: are a data storage component that needs to read data in a sequence rather than in random order (as is the case with the HDD). Since they are a cheaper option for storing data, they are usually used as media for backups.

It is important to note that magnetic storage also has a lifespan and that, to ensure data safety, you need to replace them before the failure occurs. While (modern) magnetic tapes can last up to 15 years or more, hard-disk drives have a shorter life span, and the failure occurrence increases after 3 years of use.

2. Solid-state drives

Solid-state drives or SSD are non-magnetic storage technology that is used as an alternative to hard-disk drives. They are used as data storage in computers and mobile devices and are defined by an end user’s needs. SSD’s advantages to HDD are that it is more resistant to physical stress and has better reading time. However, it is more expensive than HDD.

3. DNA storage

Storing data in the DNA is not a widely used option at the moment. However, it is a promising technology that could address the challenges that magnetic storage is facing. Storing data in the DNA would save a lot of space since, in theory, 450 petabytes can be stored in one single gram of substance. DNA is also more durable and resistant to the outside physical environment, as well as electromagnetic radiation. Another benefit of storing data in the DNA is that the storage does not require any electricity to preserve data.

DNA data storage is a fairly new approach to storing data, and we are working on a project to improve its technology. You can read more about our DNA data storage project here.

Take-home messages

  • Cybersecurity and data safety are very important topics for every company or organization.
  • Cybersecurity deals with preventing unauthorized access to a company’s digital resources to protect the company’s or organization’s cyber assets.
  • Cyberattacks can cause big business damage. Most of them are untargeted/opportunistic, and we can use measures to prevent those from happening (to a certain extent).
  • The most common cybersecurity risks are physical and software access, privileged users, data in transit, and social engineering.
  • Data safety concerns measures to prevent data from being lost.
  • The most useful data safety measure is backing up your data.


You can read more about the cybersecurity topic in our latest book:

Digital Transformation of the Laboratory: A Practical Guide to the Connected Lab