What is a Supply Chain Attack?

What is a supply chain attack?

A supply chain attack, also known as a value chain or third-party risk attack, is a type of cyberattack that aims to compromise an organization by targeting vulnerabilities in its supply chain or third-party vendors rather than attacking the organization directly. In a supply chain attack, the attacker seeks to exploit the trust that an organization places in its suppliers or partners. These attacks can have serious consequences and can affect organizations of all sizes and industries.

Here's how a supply chain attack typically works:

  • Target Selection: The attacker identifies a target organization and its supply chain or third-party vendors. These vendors may provide software, hardware, services, or other components that the target organization relies on.
  • Infiltration: The attacker finds a way to compromise one of the suppliers or vendors. This could involve inserting malicious code into software updates, tampering with hardware components, or gaining unauthorized access to the vendor's systems.
  • Distribution: The compromised component (e.g., a software update) is then distributed to the target organization, often through legitimate channels. Since the component comes from a trusted source, the target organization is more likely to accept it without suspicion.
  • Exploitation: Once the compromised component is integrated into the target organization's systems, the attacker can exploit it to gain unauthorized access, steal data, disrupt operations, or carry out other malicious activities.

Supply chain attacks can take various forms, such as:

  • Software Supply Chain Attacks: Malicious code is inserted into legitimate software updates, which are then distributed to the target organization.
  • Hardware Supply Chain Attacks: Malicious hardware components or firmware are implanted in devices or equipment before they reach the target organization.
  • Service Provider Attacks: Attacks on third-party service providers, such as cloud providers or managed service providers, can have a cascading effect on their customers.
  • Credential Theft: Attackers may compromise a vendor's credentials to access the target organization's systems.

Supply chain attacks can be highly sophisticated and difficult to detect, as the compromised components often appear legitimate. They can lead to significant data breaches, financial losses, and damage to an organization's reputation.

To mitigate the risk of supply chain attacks, organizations should implement security best practices, conduct thorough vendor assessments, and continuously monitor their supply chain for signs of compromise. Additionally, it's important for organizations to have incident response plans in place to address and recover from supply chain attacks if they occur.

What is an example of a supply chain attack?

One notable example of a supply chain attack is the SolarWinds cyberattack that was discovered in December 2020. This attack affected a wide range of organizations, including government agencies, corporations, and cybersecurity firms. Here's an overview of the SolarWinds supply chain attack:

  • Target: The primary target was SolarWinds, a company that provides network management and monitoring software used by thousands of organizations worldwide, including many government agencies and Fortune 500 companies.
  • Infiltration: The attackers compromised the software supply chain by inserting a malicious backdoor into SolarWinds' software product called "SolarWinds Orion." This backdoor was included in software updates that were distributed to SolarWinds' customers. SolarWinds unwittingly distributed the compromised updates to its clients, including major government agencies.
  • Distribution: SolarWinds' customers, including various U.S. government agencies and private corporations, downloaded and installed the malicious software updates, believing them to be legitimate and secure.
  • Exploitation: Once installed in the target organizations' systems, the malicious software allowed the attackers to gain unauthorized access to sensitive data, move laterally within the networks, and carry out espionage activities. The attackers had extensive access and could steal sensitive information.

The SolarWinds supply chain attack is notable for its scale and sophistication. It is believed to be the work of a Russian state-sponsored hacking group, and it had far-reaching consequences, leading to a massive cybersecurity incident that affected both public and private sector entities. The U.S. government and cybersecurity community responded with investigations, countermeasures, and increased awareness of the risks associated with supply chain attacks.

This incident highlights the importance of robust cybersecurity measures and supply chain security practices for both software and hardware providers and their customers. It also underscores the need for organizations to continually monitor their supply chain and be prepared to respond to such attacks if they occur.

How common are supply chain attacks?

The frequency of supply chain attacks has been increasing in recent years, making them a growing concern in the cybersecurity landscape. These attacks have become more common due to several factors:

  • Complex Supply Chains: Modern organizations rely on complex and interconnected supply chains that involve multiple third-party vendors and service providers. The more components and dependencies an organization has, the more potential entry points there are for attackers.
  • High Payoff for Attackers: Supply chain attacks can be highly lucrative for cybercriminals or state-sponsored actors. By compromising a supplier or a third-party vendor, they can gain access to multiple targets through a single intrusion.
  • Software and Hardware Vulnerabilities: Vulnerabilities in software and hardware components are common, and attackers are quick to exploit them. Once a vulnerability is discovered in a widely used product, it can be a prime target for a supply chain attack.
  • Sophistication of Attackers: Cybercriminals and nation-state actors have become more sophisticated, making it easier for them to compromise and infiltrate supply chains.
  • Increased Interconnectivity: With the growth of the internet of things (IoT) and cloud computing, more devices and services are interconnected, increasing the attack surface for supply chain attacks.
  • Lack of Visibility: Many organizations lack full visibility into their supply chains and may not thoroughly assess the security practices of their suppliers and vendors.

While supply chain attacks are a growing concern, it's important to note that not all organizations are equally at risk. High-profile targets, such as government agencies, critical infrastructure providers, and major corporations, are more likely to be targeted due to the potential for greater impact and financial gain. However, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are not immune to supply chain attacks, and they can also be affected.

To mitigate the risk of supply chain attacks, organizations need to implement robust cybersecurity practices, including thorough vendor assessments, continuous monitoring, and incident response plans. Governments and regulatory bodies are also taking measures to enhance supply chain security through legislation and guidelines to protect critical infrastructure and sensitive data.

How can NAC help to prevent a supply chain attack?

Network Access Control (NAC) can play a role in preventing supply chain attacks by helping to enhance the security of an organization's network and access control mechanisms. NAC is a security technology that enforces policies for controlling access to an organization's network and devices, ensuring that only authorized and compliant devices can connect to and operate within the network. Here's how NAC can help prevent supply chain attacks:

Device Visibility and Assessment:

  • NAC provides organizations with comprehensive visibility into the devices that are connecting to their network, including those brought in by employees, suppliers, or partners.
  • NAC can assess the security posture of devices, checking for proper security configurations, up-to-date antivirus software, and compliance with security policies.

Access Control:

  • NAC enforces access control policies based on device compliance and user identity, allowing or denying network access accordingly.
  • It can automatically quarantine or isolate non-compliant or suspicious devices to prevent them from accessing sensitive resources.

Device Authentication:

  • NAC can require devices to authenticate themselves before gaining network access. This can help ensure that only trusted and authorized devices are allowed onto the network.
  • NAC can enforce network segmentation, isolating different types of devices and limiting lateral movement within the network. This segmentation helps contain potential threats, including those that may originate from a compromised supply chain component.

Policy Enforcement:

  • NAC enables organizations to define and enforce security policies that are specific to their needs. These policies can include rules related to the use of specific applications or protocols, which can help prevent supply chain attacks that rely on exploiting certain network behaviors.

Continuous Monitoring:

  • NAC solutions continuously monitor devices on the network, reevaluating their compliance and security posture as conditions change. This proactive monitoring can detect anomalies or suspicious behavior, potentially alerting administrators to a supply chain attack in progress.

Integration with Other Security Tools:

  • NAC can be integrated with other security solutions such as intrusion detection and prevention systems, firewalls, and endpoint security tools to provide a layered defense against supply chain attacks.

In the context of supply chain attacks, NAC can help by ensuring that devices introduced into the network from external suppliers or partners meet certain security standards and are not carrying malware or vulnerabilities. By implementing NAC, organizations can reduce the risk of unauthorized or compromised devices gaining access to their network, thus making it more difficult for attackers to infiltrate the supply chain through the network.

It's important to note that while NAC is a valuable component of a comprehensive security strategy, it should be used in conjunction with other security measures to provide robust protection against supply chain attacks.