From contract tracing data to disease-monitoring metrics to testing and vaccine records, digital information has been a crucial tool in the combat against COVID-19. And as use of these types of digital resources grows, so does the need to shield sensitive biological data from cyberattacks.
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) epidemiologist Mary Lancaster addresses this pressing issue in the recently published book chapter, “Cyberbiosecurity and Public Health in the Age of COVID-19.” Lancaster co-authored the chapter for the open-source book, Emerging Threats of Synthetic Biology and Biotechnology, part of the NATO Science for Peace and Security Series C: Environmental Security book series.
The chapter explores how the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the urgency for cyberbiosecurity—defined by the authors as “the aspect of biosecurity involving the digital representation of biological data.”
The authors discuss how the scramble to control a global pandemic—coupled with the race to develop COVID-19 treatments and vaccines—has left patient medical records, public health data, treatment and vaccine intellectual property, and other biological information at increased risk of cyberattacks.
While the pandemic highlights the challenges of cyberbiosecurity, safeguarding biological data against hackers had been a rising concern long before COVID-19, Lancaster said.
“We are seeing more examples of what can go wrong when biological data are compromised,” she said. “With the digitization of health-related and bioscience data—and more broadly with the Internet of Things and networked medical and laboratory devices—it’s important to understand the cyber vulnerabilities and risks, and how those threats can potentially affect the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of these data.”
At PNNL, Lancaster applies expertise in epidemiology and data analysis to develop approaches and tools for the modeling, analysis, and mitigation of biological threats. Her research focuses on biosurveillance, public health emergency preparedness and response, public health capacity building, risk assessment, and cybersecurity.
Lancaster’s book chapter co-authors include Aaron Adler, Jake Beal, and Daniel Wyschogrod—all from the research and development company Raytheon BBN Technologies.