What is a supply chain attack? Definition, types and prevention (2023)

Attacks on the supply chain have become a significant oneDangerin organizations of all sizes in recent years.

This is due to the increasing complexity of supply chains and the increasing use of technology in all phases of the supply chain process.

The widespread use of cloud-based services, Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) and the Internet of Things (IoT) has also made it easier for attackers to attack the supply chain and wreak widespread damage.

In this article, we will demystify this attack.

What is a supply chain attack?

A supply chain attack is a type of cyber attack that targets every point in a product or service's supply chain, from production to delivery to the end user.

The goal of these attacks can vary, but they often include compromising the quality of the product or service, accessing confidential information, or introducing malware into the supply chain.

Overview of recent trends in supply chain attacks

According to recent studies, attacks on supply chains are increasing in number and becoming more complex and sophisticated. In 2021, a report by cybersecurity firm Symantec showed that supply chain attacks increased by 40% compared to the previous year.

Additionally, these attacks are now targeting more critical components of the supply chain, such as: B. software libraries and firmware, making them harder to detect and prevent.

Some of the most well-known supply chain attacks are theSolarWindsinjury thatNot PetyaMalware attack and the compromise ofMedocSoftware in Ukraine.

TheSolarWindsFor example, the breach affected thousands of organizations, including government agencies, and gave the attackers access to sensitive information.

TheNot PetyaMalware attacks, on the other hand, caused widespread damage to businesses and critical infrastructure, disrupting operations and exposing sensitive information.

The increasing frequency and severity of supply chain attacks highlight the need for organizations to implement tighter security measures and conduct regular security assessments of their suppliers.

This is particularly important given the increasing reliance on complex and interdependent supply chains, which can make supply chain attacks more difficult to detect and prevent.

How do supply chain attacks work?

Supply chain attacks can be carried out using a variety of methods, including:

  • Compromise of a supplier's software or hardware.
  • Injecting malicious code into a software update.
  • Manipulation of hardware components.

Attackers can also use social engineering tactics such as phishing to gain access to sensitive information or compromise a supplier's systems.

The process of a supply chain attack typically begins with reconnaissance and planning, in which the attacker attempts to identify potential targets and vulnerabilities in the supply chain.

Next, the attacker can use various methods, such as B. exploiting vulnerabilities or using malicious code, gain access to the target systems or components.

Eventually, the attacker carries out their goal, be it stealing confidential information, affecting the quality of the product or service, or injecting malware.

The motivations behind supply chain attacks can vary, but often include financial gain, political or espionage motives, or a desire to cause disruption.

(Video) What is Supply Chain Attack | Supply Chain Attacks in Cyber Security | Intellipaat

Some attackers may target specific organizations, while others focus on exploiting widespread components in the supply chain, such as: B. software libraries to compromise in order to achieve a broader impact.

Types of Supply Chain Attacks

Supply chain attacks can take many different forms, each with their own tactics and potential impact.

Some of the most common types of supply chain attacks are:

1- Third party software attacks:

In this type of attack, a hacker compromises a software application or product offered by a third party and then uses that product to gain access to the primary target's systems.

An example of this type of attack is the SolarWinds hack, in which hackers were able to compromise the software of a large software company, gaining access to the systems of numerous organizations.

2- Attacks on counterfeit parts:

In this type of attack, a malicious actor creates counterfeit parts for a product and then sells those parts to the manufacturer.

The counterfeit parts can contain malware or other malicious code that can compromise the end product and the systems that use it.

For example, a hacker can create fake microchips and then sell them to a computer manufacturer.

3- Attacks by insiders:

In this type of attack, an attacker attacks an organization from the inside, using insider knowledge and access to gain unauthorized access to sensitive information.

An example of this type of attack is the recent attack on the Colonial Pipeline, in which a hacker was able to use insider access to compromise the pipeline's systems and hold them for ransom.

How do you prevent and detect a supply chain attack?

Preventing and detecting a supply chain attack is a complex process that requires a comprehensive approach including technical, organizational and political measures.

Technical measures:

Keep software up to date:

Regularly updating software to the latest version is critical to mitigate the risk of supply chain attacks.

Software vendors often release updates to fix vulnerabilities that could be exploited by attackers.

Implement code signing:

Code signing is a technique that helps verify the authenticity of software before it runs.

It helps prevent installation of crafted malware.

Using a Secure Software Development Lifecycle (SDLC):

SDLC involves following a number of security practices during the software development process, such as: B. Threat modelling, code review and penetration testing to identify and fix vulnerabilities before they can be exploited by attackers.

Use of intrusion detection systems (IDS) and intrusion prevention systems (IPS):

These systems help to detect and prevent unauthorized access to a network or system.

They can be configured to detect known attack patterns and warn or prevent them from running at all.

Organizational measures:

Implementation of supply chain risk management (SCRM) policies:

SCRM involves assessing and mitigating the risks associated with a company's suppliers and their products.

This can help organizations identify and combat potential attack vectors in the supply chain.

(Video) Supply Chain Attacks Explained – What is a Supply Chain Attack? How do Supply Chain Attacks Work?

Carrying out risk assessments by third parties:

Regularly assessing the security posture of third-party vendors can help organizations identify and remediate potential vulnerabilities.

Conducting background checks on suppliers:

It is important to ensure suppliers have a track record of safe practices and that they hold the necessary safety certifications.

Political measures:

Development of a Security Incident Response Plan (SIRP):

Establishing a SIRP is critical in the event of a supply chain attack.

It describes the steps that must be taken to respond to an incident, contain the damage and restore normal operations.

Establish clear communication channels:

Establishing clear communication channels between the organization and its suppliers can help ensure that all security incidents are promptly reported and addressed.

Implementation of data protection regulations:

Organizations should comply with data protection regulations such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) in the United States to prevent sensitive information from falling into the hands of attackers.

Sources of Supply Chain Attacks

Supply chain attacks occur when malicious actors compromise the supply chain to gain unauthorized access to sensitive information or systems. The following are common sources of supply chain attacks:

1- Third Party:

Third parties are a common source of supply chain attacks as they often have access to sensitive information and systems.

Attackers can target these providers to gain access to their customers' systems.

2- Software components:

Attackers can target software components such as libraries and plugins to inject malicious code into a software system. This can allow attackers to bypass security measures and gain access to sensitive information or systems.

3- Hardware components:

Hardware components such as motherboards and firmware can be targeted by attackers to inject malicious code into a system.

This allows attackers to keep control of the system even after a restart.

4- Malicious insiders:

Malicious insiders can use their access to sensitive information and systems to launch a supply chain attack. This can include employees, contractors or even partners.

5- Phishing Attacks:

PhishingAttacks are a common way attackers target people within an organization.

Attackers can use phishing emails to trick individuals into revealing sensitive information or download malware.

6- Social engineering:

Attackers can useSocial DevelopmentTechniques such as hate speech and subterfuge to trick individuals into revealing confidential information or installing malware.

Supply chain attacks can target any industry or sector that relies on a complex supply chain to produce or deliver goods or services.

However, some industries and sectors are more likely to be targeted due to their critical infrastructure, sensitive data or valuable intellectual property.

Here are some of the industries and sectors that are often targeted by supply chain attacks:

1- Technology and Software

Technology and software companies are often targeted because they often rely on complex supply chains to develop and distribute their products.

Attackers can target these companies to steal valuable intellectual property or compromise the security of their products.

(Video) Anatomy of a Supply Chain Attack Detection and Response

2- Healthcare

health organizationsare often targeted because they contain sensitive personal health information (PHI) that is valuable to attackers.

Supply chain attacks on healthcare organizations can result in the theft of PHI, which can be used for identity theft or sold on the dark web.

3- Finance

Financial organizations are often targeted because they hold sensitive financial information such as account numbers and passwords that are valuable to attackers.

Supply chain attacks on financial organizations can lead to theft of financial information or unauthorized transactions.

4- Energy and Utilities

Energy and utility companies are often targeted because they are critical to a country's infrastructure and their systems can have far-reaching consequences if compromised.

Attackers can target these companies to disrupt critical services or steal sensitive information.

5- Government

Government agencies are often targeted for possessing sensitive information of national security concern.

Attackers can target government agencies to steal sensitive information or disrupt critical services.

Impact of Supply Chain Attacks

Supply chain attacks can have a significant impact on businesses and individuals. Some of the most common effects of these attacks are:

1 - Data Loss:

Attacks on the supply chain can lead to the loss of confidential information, e.g. B. intellectual property, personal health information (PHI), financial information and more. This information can be sold on the dark web or used for malicious purposes such as identity theft.

2- Financial loss:

Supply chain attacks can result in financial losses such as unauthorized transactions or cash theft. Organizations may also incur additional costs to respond to the attack and restore normal operations.

3- Reputation damage:

Supply chain attacks can damage a company's reputation as customers and partners may lose confidence in the company's ability to protect their confidential information. This can result in lost business and reduced market value.

4- Interruptions of critical services:

Supply chain attacks can disrupt critical services such as power outages, communications disruptions and more. This can have far-reaching consequences, e.g. B. affecting public safety, national security and more.

5- Compliance Violations:

Attacks on the supply chain can lead to compliance violations, e.g. B. Violations of data protection laws and regulations. Organizations may be subject to fines and legal penalties for these violations.

Common gaps in supply chain risk assessment

Supply chain risk assessments are a critical component of an organization's security posture as they help organizations identify and mitigate risks associated with their supply chain.

However, there are often gaps in supply chain risk assessments that can result in missed threats and increased risk. Some of these gaps are:

1- Lack of visibility:

Organizations may lack visibility into their supply chain, making it difficult to assess the security posture of third-party vendors and other partners. This can result in missed threats and increased risk.

2- Incomplete reviews:

Supply chain risk assessments may not be comprehensive because important aspects of a company's supply chain, such as B. software or hardware components are omitted. This can result in missed threats and increased risk.

3- Insufficient tests:

Supply chain risk assessments may not include adequate testing, such as B. Penetration tests or vulnerability scans to identify and assess risks. This can result in missed threats and increased risk.

4- Relying on self-assessments:

Organizations may rely on third-party self-assessments, which may not provide an accurate representation of the vendor's security posture. This can result in missed threats and increased risk.

(Video) Supply Chain Attacks And Its Prevention | Assignment 1 | Computer Security

5- Lack of ongoing reviews:

supply chainrisk assessmentsmay not be performed continuously, resulting in missed threats and increased risk as the supply chain evolves and changes over time.

Examples and use cases of supply chain attacks

There are numerous real-world examples of supply chain attacks that underscore the need for organizations to be vigilant in protecting their supply chain. Some of the most notable examples are:

1- SolarWinds:

In 2020, a supply chain attack was discovered in SolarWinds' Orion network management software, used by numerous organizations, including the US government.

The attackers were able to gain access to sensitive information and data, including intellectual property and sensitive information.

2- Niece Petya:

In 2017, a malware attack called NotPetya spread through the software supply chain of multiple organizations.

The attack resulted in significant financial losses as well as disruption to critical services such as shipping and logistics.

3- CCleaner:

In 2017, it was discovered that the popular software tool CCleaner had been compromised in a supply chain attack.

The attackers were able to distribute malware to millions of users and compromise sensitive information and data.

4- Fire Eye:

In 2020, cybersecurity company FireEye fell victim to a supply chain attack in which the attackers stole advanced hacking tools and techniques.

This attack underscores the need for organizations to protect not only their own systems, but also those of their partners and suppliers.

5- Anthem:

In 2015, health insurance provider Anthem suffered a supply chain attack that allowed attackers to steal sensitive information, including personal health information (PHI) and financial information, from millions of customers.


In this article, we have discussed various aspects of supply chain attacks, including the sources of supply chain attacks, the industries and sectors affected, the impact of supply chain attacks, and supply chain gapsrisk assessments, and real-world examples of supply chain attacks.

Organizations must prioritize supply chain security throughout their security strategy to mitigate the risks associated with these attacks.

This includes conducting regular third-party security assessments, implementing technical security measures, and creating a plan to respond to a supply chain attack.

Failure to prioritize supply chain security can result in significant financial losses, reputational damage, and the loss of sensitive information and data.

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