Escalating Supply Chain Cyber-Attacks Need a Strategic Response 

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What Are Supply Chain Cyber-Attacks? 

A supply chain cyber-attack is an organized and finely targeted attack that exploits weaknesses in a supplier network to access the data and systems of an organization and infiltrate its digital infrastructure. Typically, the weakness is found through a vendor, supplier, or business partner who is part of the chain of trust and who has access to the data and systems of the main target of the attack.  

Supply chain cyber-attacks are slow and methodical. Typically, once a weakness is identified and exploited and the infiltration has already taken place, the cybercriminal or criminal organization will lay low and try to stay hidden until they find the right moment to pounce where they can steal the most sensitive data, cause the most damage, or when they identify the best time to lock down a system and demand a ransom.  

Attacks on a supply chain can affect every type of industry as more businesses have expanded their supply chain network to include more third-party suppliers of physical goods, third-party companies to handle software solutions, and even third-party companies that handle IT solutions and cloud services. Supply chains have become so complex with so many moving parts in the digital age, that it is extremely difficult to identify when a bad actor has infiltrated your supply chain, and when they eventually do attack, it typically is too late.  

Every link in the supply chain is vulnerable due to one single successful infiltration into the weakest link of the chain.   

What are the main types of software supply chain cyber-attacks? 

The three main categories of supply chain cyber-attacks are physical, software, and digital supply chain attacks. Although, the physical supply chain is vulnerable to cyber-attacks, by far software and digital supply chain attacks are more destructive, more costly, and can have the largest impact on a company or several companies that are part of the same supply chain.  

Here is a breakdown of the software and digital supply chain and how vulnerabilities within these chains are exposed to infiltrate the digital infrastructure of one or several high-value targets within the supply chain.  

Software supply chain cyber-attacks 

Software is built in a way that kind of resembles the physical supply chain because a modern application is hardly ever developed by one single software developer. Just like how a finished product or good is built by key components that are sourced from multiple vital suppliers and vendors, the software is built from pre-made components like proprietary code, open-source components, and third-party APIs that are sourced from suppliers and vendors located all over the world.  

The term often used to describe the premade components that are available for purchase is plug-and-play code. Plug-and-play code can help software developers create applications in a much shorter period of time, however, it can expose them to supply chain cyber-attacks.  All it takes is for one vulnerability to compromise a single plug-and-play code product and hundreds or even thousands of organizations could be at risk of infiltration.  

The most common way a cybercriminal or cybercriminal organization conducts a software supply-chain attack is by putting a malicious segment of code into a trusted plug-and-play product.  Once the code has been placed in the plug-and-play product and the software developer uses it to build its new application, the malicious code can sit there dormant and provide a backdoor for cybercriminals to infiltrate.  

Digital supply chain cyber-attacks 

Digital supply chain attacks are one of the fastest-growing types of cyber-attacks due to how easy it can be to exploit a vulnerability deep within a digital supply chain to spy on and observe the intended high-value target when the time is right. A digital supply chain attack occurs when a cybercriminal or cybercriminal organization gains access to a business’s digital infrastructure through a partner or service provider who has trusted access.  

Typically, once infiltration has taken place, a cybercriminal could access and capture all the information that is visible on a web browser. For example, an attacker who has infiltrated a business’s digital infrastructure may be able to install credit card skimming software to capture all the customer credit card information used on the website.  

Why are supply chain cyber-attacks increasing? 

It has been reported that in the second half of 2021, supply chain cyber-attacks increased by over 51%. So, what is behind this dramatic increase and why can we expect supply chain cyber-attacks to continue to increase through 2022? 

The main reason that supply chain cyber-attacks have been and continue to increase is due to the fact that cybercriminals have truly identified an easy way to infiltrate an entire network of businesses or one key high-value target because businesses have been so careless when it comes to stipulating security standards for all of their suppliers. It is estimated that about 33% of organizations do not regularly monitor and risk assess their suppliers’ and vendors’ cybersecurity infrastructure. Until supply chains can work together to have a set of uniform cybersecurity standards throughout the entire chain, cybercriminals are going to continue to identify the weak links and infiltrate them to their benefit.  

What should you do in response to a cyber-attack on your supply chain? 

As soon as a supply chain cyber-attack is detected, the first thing an organization needs to do is track down the extent of the infiltration with forensic analysis and work toward restoring normal operations.  

In preparation for responding to a potential supply chain cyber-attack, companies should fully utilize emerging breach and attack simulation tools to explore the network, and potential scenarios, and to test their security defenses.  

Related article: Will Disruptions Make Supply Chains More Vulnerable to Attack? 

How to prevent cyber-attacks on your supply chain? 

Once businesses realize that supplier risk is one of the biggest cybersecurity challenges they face, action can follow. The first thing to do as a business owner is to increase budgets devoted to cyber security and IT. Aside from increasing budgets, businesses need to work with their cyber-security teams to focus on threat detection and response, cybersecurity reviews and assessments of all suppliers, security awareness and training for employees, and consistent testing of digital infrastructure and all applications. 

To help prevent software supply chain cyber-attacks, businesses and software developers have to be aware of every line of code in every plug-and-play product or application and every code dependency the company relies on whether it is free, commercial, open source, cloud, mobile, or firmware.  

Code dependency is a general software engineering term used to describe a piece of software that relies on another software.  Any business that relies on dependencies must be extremely careful when they choose which software and code they would like to include in their product because it can open them up to any vulnerabilities that the dependency may have as well as if for some reason the dependency shuts down, it could take out an entire product or line of products that a business has developed.  

Learn more about the CMMC risk assessment and security services provided by AWA International. 

About The Author

CISSP - Certified Information Systems Security Professional
CEH - Certified Ethical Hacker
CISM - Certified Information Security Manager

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