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1/19/2018
10:30 AM
Liviu Arsene
Liviu Arsene
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Understanding Supply Chain Cyber Attacks

While the attack surface has increased exponentially because of the cloud and everything-as-a-service providers, there are still ways in which host companies can harden supply chain security.

Today's cybersecurity landscape has changed dramatically due to digitalization and interconnectivity. While the benefits of each push businesses toward adoption, security risks associated with interconnectivity between networks and systems raise major concerns. Everything-as-a-service removes traditional security borders and opens the door to new cyber attacks that organizations might not be prepared to recognize or even deal with.

Moving resources into the hands of the final consumer now involves creating systems that handle, distribute, and process goods using a complex network of suppliers and services. These supply chains are what cybercriminals try to exploit, as third-party suppliers usually have some level of access to their customer's network. This, coupled with an advancing software stack that's integrated with critical internal infrastructures, increases the attack surface that threat actors can exploit to breach perimeter defenses.

Trust Is Often Exploited
The relationship between humans and technology is far from perfect. Cloud technologies can themselves be unpredictable in that they may interact with each other in unforeseen ways. When you add the human factor, which is inherently unpredictable, it raises security concerns that can be impossible to predict.

The cloud has become an integral part of digital businesses, but the lack of proper authorization, accountability, and authentication in the cloud enables security threats that we've come to know as supply chain attacks. This increased adoption of cloud services must push organizations to constantly reassess external audit programs and due diligence processes. This practice of regular re-evaluation must go through constant iterations to identify potential security blind spots while decreasing incident response times.

Unfortunately, for the past few years we've seen a series of supply chain attacks that have led to millions of customers having personal and private data exposed because of blind spots inherent in current supply chain security. The Target incident in which 41 million customer records were exposed has become a case study for supply chain attacks that leverage third-party access into critical infrastructures.

Arguably, the biggest recent supply chain blunder is the GoldenEye ransomware incident that involved a tainted update to a popular accounting platform used by many companies. Compromising an update server with a legitimate piece of software, the malware spread across organizations using the accounting platform.

Supply chain attacks have even targeted the average user when a tampered version of a popular Apple Xcode IDE application development framework was injected with malicious code. App developers using the tainted framework unknowingly created applications bundled with malware that could not only steal personal and private data from users but also allow for complete remote control of devices. Dubbed XcodeGhost, this supply chain attack scenario demonstrates that threat actors can even breach organizations by targeting developers.

Because complex infrastructures are sometimes difficult to maintain by IT operations, the use of automated tools that can be deployed remotely throughout the infrastructure can be vital in ensuring a productive supply chain. Unfortunately, these tools — although legitimate — can also be leveraged as attack vectors into organizations, bypassing standard security procedures. CCleaner, a popular free tool for optimizing system performance, was tampered with by cybercriminals and injected with malware that targeted technology and telecommunications companies. Because IT operations widely deploy the tool within infrastructures, it's estimated that 2.27 million systems could have been affected by the backdoor capabilities of the injected malware.

Managing Supply Chain Risks
Host organizations now face having to adapt security procedures to include not just internal infrastructures, but also vendors, customers, and even partners. While internal IT and security departments might have strong security practices for thwarting a wide range of direct attacks, third-party collaborators might not adhere to the same culture. Consequently, programs for vetting vendors need to be in place before fully integrating them into internal infrastructures.

Building a vendor management program is ideal and should start with defining an organization's most important vendors. Building the program around a risk-based approach ensures that vendors are constantly evaluated and assessed, and their policies are consistent with the host organization.

Besides requiring vendors to provide timely notification of any internal security incident, periodic security reports should be included in the collaboration guidelines to regularly ascertain their security status. Because security is a dynamic and ongoing process, these procedures should be constantly updated and audited in accordance with best practices and the host company's security requirements.

Constantly reviewing technology, people, and processes — both internally and from suppliers — filters out easily exploitable supply chain attacks that could prove devastating for the host organization and the supplier. This procedure should encompass everything from employees joining the organization, to new technologies being integrated with existing systems and internal process regarding security incident responses, as well as the implementation of security best practices.

The Security Perimeter Is Borderless
No longer are strong perimeter defenses enough; security teams must consider that digitalization has taken down all network borders. And while the attack surface has increased exponentially because of it, there are still ways in which host companies can harden supply chain security even if it only involves the establishment of new procedures.

The borderless security perimeter that's a natural consequence of infrastructure-as-a-service shows that security models must change to cope with the new threat landscape. As previously mentioned, ongoing assessment processes are vital in building and maintaining a strong security posture, and it's only one of the security controls necessary to harden defenses. Cybercrime is committed in the digital arena; for that reason, organizations must have strict authorization, authentication, and accounting mechanisms for securing critical data and controlling who has access to it.

However, the deployment of security controls specifically designed for physical, virtual, locally deployed, or in-the-cloud infrastructures is also important. It's crucial for digital businesses and large organizations to implement a layered security approach customized to their risk profile, if they are to fully and successfully leverage the benefits of everything-as-a-service.

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Liviu Arsene is a senior e-threat analyst for Bitdefender, with a strong background in security and technology. Reporting on global trends and developments in computer security, he writes about malware outbreaks and security incidents while coordinating with technical and ... View Full Bio
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