What is Supply Chain Attack? How To Prevent Supply Chain Attacks?

In this rapidly evolving threat landscape, cybersecurity has become essential. It has been described in the simple terms of trusts_ Do not hand over credentials to fraudulent websites and beware of the email attachments or links from unknown sources. But sophisticated hackers are undermining this basic sense of trust and finding more robust ways to attack. What if a legitimate software or hardware making up your network has been compromised at the source?

This subtle and increasingly common form of hacking is called a supply chain attack. In recent years, most of the high-profile and damaging cybersecurity incidents have been considered supply chain attacks. This article will dive deep into the supply chain attack, how it works, and what you can do to prevent it. 

What Is Supply Chain Attack?

supply chain attack is commonly referred to as a value-chain or a third-party attack, occurs when an attacker accesses an organization’s networking by infiltrating a supplier or business partner that comes in contact with its data. Hackers generally tamper with the manufacturing process by installing hardware-based spying components or a rootkit. This attack aims to damage an organization’s reputation by targeting less secure elements in the supply chain network. 

Supply chain attacks are designed to manipulate relationships between a company and external parties. These relationships may include vendor relationships, partnerships, or the use of third-party software. Cybercriminals compromise an organization and then move up the supply chain to take advantage of trusted relationships and gain access to other organizations’ environments.

How Does A Supply Chain Attack Work?

Supply chain attack works by delivering malicious code or software through a supplier or vendor. These attacks use legitimate processes to get uninhibited access into an organization’s ecosystem. It starts with infiltrating a vendor’s security measures. This technique is much simpler than attacking a target directly due to the unfortunate shortsighted security measures of many vendors.

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Penetration could occur through attack vectors. The malicious code requires embedding itself into a digitally signed process of its host once it is injected into a vendor’s ecosystem. A digital signature validates that a piece of software is authentic to the manufacturer permitting the transmission of software to all networked parties. 

Compromised networks unknowingly distribute malicious code to the entire client network. The software patches facilitating the hostile payload contain a backdoor that interacts with all third-party servers. It is the distribution point of the malicious software or code. A service provider could infect thousands of organizations with a single update that helps attackers achieve a higher magnitude of impact with less effort.


Supply chain attacks allow attackers to infect multiple targets without deploying malicious code on each target’s machine. This increased efficiency boosts the prevalence of this attack technique. Here are some most common examples of supply chain attacks.

U.S government supply chain attack

This event is a pervasive example of supply chain attacks. In March 2020, nation-state criminals penetrated internal U.S government communication via a compromised update from a third-party vendor, SolarWinds. This attack infected up to 18,000 customers, including six U.S government departments. 

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Equifax supply chain attack

Equifax, one of the biggest credit card reporting agencies, faced a data breach through an application vulnerability on their website. This attack impacted over 147 million customers. The stolen data included driver’s license numbers, social security numbers, date of birth, and addresses of users. 

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Target supply chain attack

Target USA faced a significant data breach after hackers accessed the retailer’s critical data using a third-party HVAC vendor. Cybercriminals accessed financial information and Personal Identifiable Information (PII) that impacts 40 million debit and credit cards and 70 million customers. Hackers breached the HVAC third-party vendor using an email phishing attack.

Panama papers supply chain attack

Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca exposed over 2.6 terabytes of clients’ sensitive data in a breach. The attack leaked the devious tax evasion tactics of over 214,000 organizations and high-risk politicians. Law firms are supposed to be the most desirable target due to the treasure of highly sensitive and valuable customer data they store in their servers.

Impact Of Supply Chain Attacks

Any breach can be devastating, but a supply chain attack can be exponentially worse because the attacker usually has a high level of access to the network, which is hard to detect. This combination of factors highly increases the risk for a supply chain attack. The longer an attacker stays inside the target’s network, the more damage they can cause, either through ransomware, data theft, or other types of malware disruptions.

Supply chain attacks provide a criminal with another method of attacking an organization’s defenses. These attacks are commonly used to perform data breaches. Cybercriminals often manipulate supply chain vulnerabilities to deliver malicious code to a target organization. 

How To Prevent Supply Chain Attacks?

Here are the tips to reduce the impact and risks of supply chain attacks.

●    Determine who has access to critical data_ To manage complex footprints, organizations should map their third parties to data they handle for prioritizing risk management activities. 

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● Identify the assets that are at greater risk_ Understanding assets more likely to be targeted, such as customers’ sensitive information or intellectual property, is an important step to prevent supply chain attacks. Security teams should monitor these assets using third-party risk management platforms, providing ongoing and fast visibility into threats within complex supply chains.

●    Apply vendor access controls_ Cybercriminals look to access data using a path of least resistance to infiltrate an organization’s network through one of its suppliers. Apart from understanding the rights to access digital assets, organizations need to apply string perimeter controls for vendor access, such as network segmentation and multi-factor authentication. Service providers should only have access to the necessary information they require to provide services.

●    Identify insider threats_ Whether due to lack of training, carelessness, or malicious intent, employees represent a considerable insider threat to information security. Targeting business partners or employees with phishing or social engineering campaigns is one of the common and easiest ways for cybercriminals to infiltrate a network. However, it is difficult to know when and how privileged access has been compromised by an attacker. Using a monitoring technology that can automatically alert security teams when a system gets compromised can help to prevent supply chain attacks.

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