Threat actors have increased their focus on supply chain attacks since 2017, with 73% of engineering firms reporting a supply chain attack in 2018. In the first quarter of 2019, Operation Shadowhammer was revealed to have compromised the software update mechanism of a major PC manufacturer. According to eSentire, 44% of firms have suffered a significant supply chain breach through a vendor.
These high-profile breaches have either been used to deploy ransomware or steal the intellectual property produced by engineers. As engineers create and access intellectual property such as CAD designs or manufacturing data, achieving persistence in an engineering firm gives a threat actor unparalleled insight into upcoming product designs and manufacturing processes.
Much of the media focus has been on the financial damage from supply chain breaches, the nation-state actors behind the breaches, and the ill-defined "supply chain" itself. But surprisingly, despite the overheated media coverage, most electrical engineering (EE) firms are not the targets of a bear, kitten, or panda, which are frequently cited as advanced persistent threat groups behind the attacks. Most EE firms are targeted by threat actors of opportunity because they have two necessary ingredients: people and computers. This article lays out four best practices for individual EEs to help protect their firms.
1. Don't Click That Link NOW NOW NOW
Threat actors base phishing emails on two primary motivations: fear or wanting to be helpful. A staggering majority of breaches are traced back to someone who has clicked a link that arrived by email. Whether it was from the "IT Depirtment" about a password reset or an unexpected invoice that's suddenly due tomorrow, threat actors want you to panic and act irrationally. The best practice before replying to or clicking a link in an email is to take a minute. Get a coffee. That intentional pause will give you the ability to think clearly and unemotionally before responding or clicking. Because mobile screens make it difficult to determine where a link goes without clicking it, you might have to wait to take action until you get to a bigger screen. And if it is a suspicious email, send it to your security department so that it can spot larger trends.
2. Stop Using the Same Password
The second way that threat actors compromise EE firms is weak passwords. This goes beyond them guessing your Windows password; the password you're using to access your printed circuit board design software can be more of a risk because threat actors can then access your work. If you're not using a password manager, pick one and start using it. Then ask your management team to consider getting everyone in the firm a password manager. It's a minimal cost to reduce a massive threat.
3. Let Your IT Team Install Updates
The third way that threat actors break into companies is by attacking old and out-of-date software. This can be both run-of-the-mill software but also discipline-specific software. This is a particularly thorny issue because often the supply chain depends on everyone using the same version of a software package. However, the longer a piece of software has been around, the longer threat actors have had time to break it. So, if your IT team asks you to reboot your computer and you aren't working on a critical deadline, schedule the time to reboot. If you are working on a critical deadline, let them know and ask for a short exception.
4. Check in Your Work Regularly
Successful cyberattacks frequently depend on destroying or encrypting files on a user's workstation, hoping there are no backup systems in place. By checking in your work regularly, you'll make it easier for your project team to stay up to date, upgrades will be easier, and you'll be helping to defend your company against dangerous cyber weapons.
Following these best practices individually will help manage the risk of a cyberattack, and following these as a team will further reduce the risks. If you have an opportunity to talk to your security team or chief information security officer, ask them what else you can do to help. They'll appreciate your having asked as security is a team sport.
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