Supply Chain Attack 101: Defining and Understanding the Threat

What is a Supply Chain Attack?

In recent times, cybersecurity threats have become increasingly sophisticated and targeted. Hackers and cyber-criminals are always coming up with new ways to breach cybersecurity defenses and gain access to critical systems and sensitive data. One of the most insidious types of attacks that have emerged in recent years is the supply chain attack.

This type of attack is highly sophisticated and differs from traditional attacks in that it doesn’t target the victim company directly. Rather, it targets a third-party provider that the victim company relies on for a product or service. The attacker then uses this third-party provider as a gateway to infiltrate the target company's network.

The process of a Supply Chain Attack

Attackers employ various techniques and methods to execute a supply chain attack. However, the most common method is by injecting malicious code into the software or hardware components utilized by the third-party provider. When the victim company installs or uses a compromised component from the third-party provider, the malicious code is released into the target company's network, giving the attacker access to sensitive data, accounts, and systems. These attacks are often challenging to detect as they are executed upstream in the supply chain and occur before the victim company takes possession of the product or service.

Real-Life examples of Supply Chain Attacks

The prevalence of supply chain attacks in recent years has led to some high-profile attacks that have affected millions of individuals and organizations. Here are some recent examples:

1. SolarWinds Attack: One of the most significant supply chain attacks that occurred recently was the SolarWinds attack. In late 2020, it was discovered that a known threat actor had inserted malicious code into SolarWinds Orion Software. This went undetected for a long time, and around 18,000 customers of SolarWinds, including major US government departments like Homeland Security, Department of State, and Department of Justice, installed the compromised software. The attackers then utilized these entry points to infiltrate the networks of these organizations.

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2. Target Corporation Attack: The Target Corporation Attack is a classic example of supply chain attacks. In 2013, Target, one of the largest retailers in the US, was breached, and the attackers stole the credit card information of about 40 million customers. The attackers had gained access to Target's network by first compromising the login credentials of an HVAC contractor that worked for Target. These credentials were then used to access Target's payment network and steal customers' credit card information.

3. CCleaner Attack: In September 2017, one of the most popular PC optimization tools, CCleaner, was compromised in a supply chain attack. Attackers had tampered with the software update mechanism used by CCleaner to replace the legitimate updates with their malware-laden version, which was then pushed out to customers. Researchers later discovered that CCleaner's developer’s servers were compromised, and numerous organizations, including big tech companies like Google and Microsoft, were affected.

Preventing Supply Chain Attacks

Given the frequency and severity of supply chain attacks, it is crucial for organizations to take steps to prevent them. Here are some best practices to help mitigate the risk of a supply chain attack:

1. Vet Your Third-Party Providers: Organizations need to choose their third-party vendors carefully. It is essential to review the vendor's security practices and determine whether they have implemented robust security protocols.

2. Limit Access Privileges: Organizations should limit the privileges that third-party vendors have access to. This reduces the extent of the attack if a breach happens.

3. Implement a Secure Development Process: Organizations should regularly check for vulnerabilities in the software code of their third-party providers. This will help detect and mitigate threat vectors early and reduce the opportunity for attackers to gain access to the organization's network.

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4. Conduct Ongoing Security Assessments: Organizations should conduct regular security assessments of their own systems, as well as those of their vendors. This would help detect any potential vulnerabilities that could be exploited in an attack.


Supply chain attacks are a clear and present danger to organizations. They are highly effective and challenging to detect, making them an attractive option for attackers. Organizations need to develop a comprehensive cybersecurity program that addresses supply chain risks, including risk mitigation, vendor management, regular security assessments, secure development, and ongoing monitoring. With these measures in place, organizations can reduce their risk of a devastating supply chain attack.

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