The Rise of Supply Chain Attacks: How to Prevent Them

Supply chain attacks have been gaining popularity in recent years, with cybercriminals shifting their focus away from traditional methods of attacking organizations’ networks and instead targeting their supply chain partners. A supply chain attack is a cyberattack that targets a company’s supply chain network or service provider. This type of attack can have devastating consequences for the targeted company and any of their customers who use their services. In this article, we will discuss what supply chain attacks are, how they work, and some real-life examples of supply chain attacks that have taken place in recent years.

What is a Supply Chain Attack?

A supply chain attack involves hackers infiltrating a company’s network through one of their supply chain partners. Typically, the target of such an attack is a company that provides a service, such as a software provider or cloud service provider. In these cases, hackers look for vulnerabilities in these companies' systems and use them as an entry point to the targeted company's systems. Once they gain access to the supplier's network, they can move laterally within the system, searching for valuable data to steal, corrupt or destroy.

For hackers, supply chain attacks are an attractive proposition as they represent a weak link in an organization's security, providing a backdoor to access sensitive data without directly targeting the primary company. Additionally, supply chain partners are often smaller and less sophisticated, making them an easier target for cybercriminals to gain access to their networks.

How Do Supply Chain Attacks Work?

Supply chain attacks often involve a multi-stage process. The first stage involves hackers attempting to gain access to a company’s supply chain network or service provider. This could be achieved through a variety of tactics, such as social engineering, phishing email attacks, or exploiting known vulnerabilities in the supplier's software.

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Once hackers have successfully gained access to the supplier's network, they can then move laterally within the system to escalate their privileges and gain access to critical data. They may deploy malicious software or backdoors to persistently maintain access to the system. In some cases, attackers might also manipulate the system’s software, such that it becomes a Trojan horse for the targeted organization.

Finally, the attackers will find and harvest valuable data and use it to achieve their objectives. These objectives can include cyber espionage, intellectual property theft, blackmail, or destruction of the targeted company's infrastructure.

Real-Life Examples of Supply Chain Attacks

A number of high-profile cyberattacks in the last few years have involved supply chain attacks. One of the most notable examples is the SolarWinds hack, which affected numerous US government agencies and private sector companies. In December 2020, it was revealed that hackers had gained access to SolarWinds' software build system, allowing them to tamper with the software update and infect it with malware. The infected update was then downloaded by thousands of SolarWinds customers, including the US government and Fortune 500 companies. The attack is believed to have been conducted by the Russian group APT29, and it is thought to be one of the most significant cyberattacks in history.

Another example of a supply chain attack is the NotPetya malware outbreak, which affected numerous companies across the globe in 2017. NotPetya was initially delivered via an update to a tax accounting software suite used in Ukraine. Once it was on a computer, the malware was able to spread rapidly across networks, infecting computers in Ukraine, Denmark, Russia, and other countries. The attack caused widespread disruption and significant financial losses, with some companies losing hundreds of millions of dollars as a result of the outbreak.

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How to Prevent Supply Chain Attacks

Preventing supply chain attacks requires a multi-faceted approach, with security experts recommending several strategies to mitigate the risk of an attack. Some of the most common strategies include:

1. Risk Assessment - Encourage vendors, suppliers, and partners to assess their systems' vulnerabilities, regularly updating, and patching systems.

2. Monitoring - Monitor vendor and partner activity regularly to ensure potential attacks can quickly identify compromises.

3. Notification - Establish clear lines of communication between a company and its partners to ensure an efficient response to suspected attacks.

4. Training - Educate employees and partners to be aware of potential vulnerabilities and to take precautions to prevent attacks.

5. Cybersecurity Controls - Implement cybersecurity policies and technologies such as firewalls, intrusion detection, and prevention systems, and continuous monitoring procedures to detect and prevent attacks.


In summary, supply chain attacks are a growing threat to businesses, with potentially devastating consequences. These types of cyberattacks are successful as attackers leverage the gap between companies and agents within the supply chain. Knowledge of the threat and applying well-designed cybersecurity measures, monitoring tactics, and employee education will lessen, if not entirely prevent, a successful cyber attack. Organizations need to pay attention to their third-party supply chain providers and put stringent standards to guarantee security best practices are in place as an additional layer of defense. Supply chain attack may become more daunting, but it can be averted with proactive risk management.

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