Secure Your IT System from Supply Chain Attacks

Blog Reading Time 8 Min Read
January 6, 2024
By: Jude Perera

Secure your IT system from supply chain attacks

What is an Information technology (IT) system? An IT system is a combination of hardware, software, and other equipment that are used to collect, store, process, and transmit data and information. As we can see various components are consolidated to complete an IT system. No IT system is completely built in-house without any third-party components. There are many suppliers involved from hardware to software implementation. It could involve various elements such as hardware, licensed software, freely available and open-source software components, or even outsourcing tasks to external parties. A security incident from one supplier may have a chain reaction on many components in an IT system. To ensure the security of the entire IT system, it is crucial to monitor third-party components and their security.

A supply chain attack, commonly referred to as a software supply chain attack or third-party supply chain attack, is a type of cybersecurity threat that focuses on exploiting vulnerabilities or weaknesses in the software, hardware, or services supplied by external vendors and suppliers. These attacks aim to breach the security measures of an organization by leveraging the trust placed in these third parties. Supply chain attacks can prove challenging to detect and mitigate due to their reliance on trusted partners, making them particularly insidious. Furthermore, these types of attacks have the potential to propagate across multiple organizations if a single supplier is compromised, leading to a cascading effect. Understanding the key features and aspects of supply chain attacks is crucial for effective IT security strategies.

Third-Party Involvement

Supply chain attacks take advantage of the trust relationship between an organization and its third-party suppliers, vendors, or service providers. These third parties are often seen as trusted sources, and their products or services are integrated into the organization’s environment.

Attack Vectors

There are several ways that attackers can breach the supply chain, such as:

  • Malicious Software Insertion: Cybercriminals may inject malware or backdoors into software or firmware during the development, distribution, or update processes. This tainted software is then distributed to customers.
  • Compromised Hardware: Attackers may tamper with hardware components or devices before they reach the customer. For example, malicious hardware implants can be added to servers or networking equipment.
  • Vendor Accounts: Attackers may gain unauthorized access to vendor or supplier accounts, allowing them to manipulate software updates or distribute malicious updates.
  • Software Dependencies: Supply chain attacks can target software dependencies, such as libraries or packages used by an application. If a compromised dependency is used, it can impact the security of the entire application. Keep this in mind if you are using open-source and third-party libraries for your software development.

Scope of Impact

Supply chain attacks can have a broad impact because many organizations may widely distribute and use compromised software or hardware. A single successful supply chain attack can affect numerous victims.

Stealthy Nature

These attacks are often stealthy and difficult to detect because the compromised components or software appear legitimate. Attackers may wait for an extended period before executing malicious actions, making attribution and detection more challenging.


Attackers may have various motivations for supply chain attacks, such as seeking financial benefits, conducting espionage, data theft, causing disruptions, or compromising specific targets.

Here are examples of supply chain attacks and their impact on the affected systems and these are some real-world attack examples you should be aware of:

  • SolarWinds Orion attack: One of the most notorious supply chain attacks in history is the SolarWinds Orion attack. In 2020, attackers compromised SolarWinds Orion, a popular network monitoring and management software platform. The attackers injected malicious code into Orion updates, which were then installed by thousands of organizations around the world. This allowed the attackers to gain unauthorized access to the computer systems and networks of various organizations, which included both government agencies and private companies.
  • NotPetya ransomware attack: In 2017, the NotPetya ransomware attack targeted organizations in Ukraine and around the world. The attack was carried out through a compromised accounting software program called M.E.Doc. Once installed, NotPetya encrypted the files on infected computers and demanded a ransom payment. The cyber-attack resulted in extensive financial losses amounting to billions of dollars for businesses and organizations globally.
  • CCleaner malware incident: In 2017, hackers compromised the CCleaner software update server and injected malicious code into the CCleaner installer. This malware was installed on over 2 million computers, giving the attackers access to these computers. The attack was attributed to a Chinese hacking group. The attack granted hackers access to data from over 2 million users, potentially enabling unauthorized control of the affected systems.

What should you do to mitigate possible supply chain attacks?

To mitigate the risks associated with supply chain attacks, organizations should:

  • Conduct thorough due diligence when selecting and evaluating third-party vendors and suppliers.
  • Monitoring suppliers: Organizations should monitor their suppliers for suspicious activity. Regularly assess and monitor the security practices of third parties. By doing so, we can effectively manage risks associated with third-party involvement and maintain the trustworthy nature of our operations.
  • Segmenting networks: Organizations should segment their networks to prevent attackers from moving laterally within the network if a supplier is compromised. The goal is to minimize the attack surface and limit the potential widespread impact as much as possible.
  • Integrate libraries and packages from trusted sources into your application. To ensure the security and reliability of your application, it is essential to incorporate libraries and packages from reputable sources. Before doing so, scan and validate these components to prevent any potential threats or errors.
  • Implement strong access controls, authentication, and authorization mechanisms for third-party interactions. Organizations should implement strong authentication measures such as multi-factor authentication (MFA). By doing so, they can effectively prevent unauthorized access and safeguard sensitive information.
  • Verify the integrity and authenticity of software updates and patches from trusted sources. There can be compromised server updates that give you malicious software updates without your notice.
  • Implement network segmentation to limit the lateral movement of attackers within the network.
  • Maintain up-to-date incident response and disaster recovery plans to respond quickly to potential supply chain compromises.
  • Regular audits help organizations proactively identify and address these vulnerabilities, enhancing their overall security posture.
  • Audits are not a one-time event; they should be part of an ongoing process of continuous improvement.
  • Establishing effective security policies.
  • Constant Monitoring and Incident Response Planning: Having a solid incident response plan (IRP) is crucial for rapidly identifying and addressing security breaches. Constant monitoring allows for early detection of suspicious activities within your network, while an IRP details the steps to take upon identifying an attack.
  • Collaboration with security communities: Organizations should actively engage in security communities to remain informed about the latest threats and best practices for mitigating them. Exchanging information and collaborating with other organizations can help enhance overall cybersecurity posture across various industries.