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What You Need to Know About Supply Chain Attacks

New threats to organizations’ cybersecurity emerge every day, and supply chain attacks are becoming increasingly common. While physical supply chain attacks occur, attacks on software supply chains are rising due to the widespread use of technology and software tools. These attacks not only negatively impact businesses but are also costly to address. According to IBM’s 2023 Cost of a Data Breach Report, the global average data breach cost was $4.45 million in 2023, a 15% increase over the past three years.

The best way to fight a supply chain attack is by preventing one from occurring at all. By proactively maintaining and updating your cybersecurity protocols, your data can remain safe from exploitation by malicious actors. In this article, we’ll discuss what a supply chain attack is, how it works, and what you can do to protect your organization.

What Is a Supply Chain Attack?

As the name suggests, a supply chain attack is a cybersecurity attack targeting organizations through weaknesses in their supply chain. If you think of a supply chain as a connected network of employees, products, resources, and technology, potential weaknesses emerge wherever those individual assets connect and exchange data. Malicious actors often gain backdoor access to a target organization through a third-party vendor with weak cybersecurity protocols. For example, an attacker might target the producer of a cloud-based file-sharing system that stores sensitive Client A’s data, instead of targeting Client A directly.

How Does a Supply Chain Attack Work?

Cybercrime is often a crime of opportunity, meaning the lowest barrier to entry is the most attractive. In supply chain attacks, cybercriminals attack an organization through its supply chain network, typically through a third-party vendor. One of the most common frameworks is an advanced persistent threat (APT), in which an unauthorized user will gain long-term undetected network access to assess supply chain weaknesses. Once these attackers gain access, they attack the system by injecting malicious software code (malware). Some common malware types include:

  • RansomwareFiles or systems are encrypted, and attackers demand payment in exchange for the decryption key
  • Virus — Malware attaches itself to programs and spreads throughout a network when users access them
  • Trojan Horse — Attackers disguise malware as legitimate software, tricking users into installing it
  • Spyware — User activity and data are monitored and then used for exploitation, such as keystrokes for passwords, web browsing, and personal information

Real-Life Examples of Supply Chain Attacks

In recent years, more and more organizations have come under attack from supply chain exploits across dozens of industries.

  • In 2013, attackers gained access to retail giant Target’s database and stole the financial and personal information of nearly 110 million Target customers. Hackers gained backdoor access through a small third-party HVAC vendor in Pennsylvania.
  • In December 2023, cybercriminals shut down the IT network of many credit unions by gaining access through the unions’ IT provider, Ongoing Operations. Ongoing Operations quickly investigated and stopped the attack, but approximately 60 credit unions suffered system downtime
  • Atlassian was the victim of a supply chain attack in October 2023. An exploit in the Atlassian Confluence Data Center and Server enabled malicious actors to access sensitive data through unauthorized administrative accounts.
  • One of the biggest IT attacks occurred in March 2020 when SolarWinds was targeted through its performance monitoring system, Orion. Orion is used by more than 30,000 public and private organizations, including local, state, and federal government entities. Attackers first gained access to SolarWinds’ network in September 2019 and tested their code at least once before attaching the backdoor malware to an Orion update on March 26, 2020.

How to Protect Your Organization from Supply Chain Attacks

Just like preventive maintenance on an HVAC system ensures you’ll have access to cool air in the summer, proactively maintaining cybersecurity protocols is the best way to protect against supply chain attacks. Here are six tips for preparing and protecting your organization against a supply chain attack.

1. Conduct a Risk Assessment

First, create a baseline for your organization by conducting a risk assessment to identify which assets are vulnerable in your current ecosystem. An assessment will help your organization prioritize areas of greatest risk while making plans for how you’ll improve your security measures on an ongoing basis.

2. Assess the Security of Your Vendors

If you’re like millions of other organizations, you and your employees most likely use at least one third-party vendor or tool. The more secure your vendors are, the less at-risk you are when it comes to supply chain attacks. Make sure you evaluate and understand your vendors’ cybersecurity measures, and when investigating a new vendor, ask to see their written security policies and inquire about their protective measures.

3. Limit Access to Systems and Data

Once cybercriminals access your systems, they will attempt to move quickly to compromise as much of your network as possible through privileged accounts. Regularly assess who has access to what (and make sure critical systems and data are carefully monitored) and limit the number of privileged accounts available in your organization so that attackers have fewer points of exploitation available.

4. Encrypt Data

Encryption of data is key for cybersecurity. Even if an attacker accesses your system, encrypting data will prevent the attacker from being able to read any sensitive information.

5. Regularly Evaluate Your Incident Response Plan

Having an incident response plan is the first step toward recovering and protecting data, but the plan isn’t effective if it’s outdated. Regular evaluation and testing are needed to ensure that your response plan meets the latest protocols and your needs as you grow and scale.

6. Run Regular Vulnerability and Penetration Scans

Find exploits in your supply chain before attackers can through regular vulnerability and protection scans. These scans will uncover potential weak points in your systems so you can proactively patch them.

Mitigate Your Risk From Supply Chain Attacks with Help From TPx

Cybersecurity is critical for protecting any organization. While the process can feel intimidating, TPx can help you start on your path to becoming more secure. Our team offers expert security advisory services to identify and assess security concerns. TPx also offers a full suite of managed security services to tackle the heavy lifting of your organization’s cybersecurity routines. Ready to get started? Get a free consultation today and learn more.

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