Vulnerabilities in the food supply chain have been visibly exposed during the Covid-19 pandemic, subsequent cost of living crisis and Russian invasion of Ukraine. On top of these factors is the threat of malicious hackers that seek to threaten food supply. Cybersecurity has therefore become an often-overlooked theme, but it is becoming increasingly important as digital technologies and automation make their way into the agricultural process.

The increasing use of smart technology has minimised human labour in warehouses and farming, however, it has heightened the risk of coming under attack from malicious hackers. Bad actors can exploit flaws in hardware used to harvest plants, such as automatic crop sprayers. For packaging providers, digitalisation has enabled huge efficiencies through automation and waste reduction, however, it has also opened up vulnerabilities to tampering from bad actors.

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The packaging industry is particularly vulnerable due to its reliance on inter-connected industrial control systems (ICS). Greater digitalisation has meant the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) has led to an increasing number of devices connected to the internet at a rapid pace. To mitigate future attacks, companies should implement firewalls; and consider working with Firewall-as-a-Service vendors to boost their cyber resilience.

One of the biggest threats for packaging companies is a ransomware attack, in which hackers threaten to leak data or perpetually block access until payment of a ransom. For firms dealing with advanced materials, the objective may not necessarily be financial gain, but access to intellectual property (IP) on emerging technologies and applications, such as graphene. Cyber protection is therefore especially important as a core safe business operation for those dealing with sensitive information, where data breaches may exceed the severity of financial loss incurred on production downtime.

Last year, glass and metal packaging manufacturer Ardagh Group admitted falling victim to a cyber-attack that ultimately cost the company $34m. Although the company’s metal beverage packaging and glass packaging facilities remained operational, malicious activity caused shipping delays and interruptions in some supply chain operations. These inefficiencies exemplify another effect of cyberattacks when companies are forced to undertake alternative solutions. This can include manual workarounds to ensure continued operations, at the cost of temporarily withdrawing labour from other locations. Geopolitical instabilities only serve to suggest cyber-attacks will grow in frequency as bad actors and state-sponsored attacks remain significant threats. Packaging companies must build their cyber resilience to ‘expect the unexpected’, mitigating potential insider attacks from disgruntled employees and avoiding complacency when operating in markets that may not appear vulnerable to cyber-attacks.