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What is a supply chain attack and how can it be prevented?

What is a supply chain attack and how can it be prevented?

Supply chain attacks occur when attackers exploit vulnerabilities in a company's supply chain to gain unauthorized access to their systems and data. Hackers can bypass the company's defenses and compromise their infrastructure by infiltrating trusted third-party providers or partners. 


Understanding supply chain attacks

supply chain attack refers to the exploitation of an outside provider or partner that has access to a company's data and systems. Instead of directly targeting the company's defenses, hackers focus on infiltrating the network through the vulnerabilities of trusted third parties. Once the attackers gain access to the third party's systems or compromise their products, they can easily penetrate the target company's infrastructure.


Common sources of supply chain attacks

There are three main sources of supply chain attacks: 


Commercial software products

As many companies rely on the same software vendors and solutions, hackers can exploit vulnerabilities within these products to gain access to multiple targets. By injecting malicious code into software or compromising the software company's system, attackers can bypass the need to directly breach the target company's defenses.


Open-source supply chains: 

Open-source software solutions allow anyone to contribute to their development. While this collaborative approach fosters innovation, it also allows hackers to introduce vulnerabilities into the software. Attackers can target companies that use these software products by injecting malicious code into open-source solutions. 


Foreign-sourced threats 

In some countries where the government exercises control over private companies' production, software products may contain malicious code mandated by the government. However, even without government involvement, malicious actors can infiltrate companies and insert their code into otherwise legitimate products. When these products are purchased by other countries, the hackers gain full access to sensitive systems.


How supply chain attacks work

To execute a successful supply chain attack, hackers must insert malicious code or malware into software or compromise network protocols and components. Once they identify a vulnerability, they exploit it to gain unauthorized access to critical digital resources. The trust between the target company and its suppliers makes it easier for attackers to penetrate the company's defenses.

Read more: What is malware?


Types of supply chain attacks

Stolen certificates

Attackers can steal certificates that vouch for the legitimacy or safety of a company's product. By using these stolen certificates, hackers can distribute malicious code under the guise of a trusted company, making it easier to bypass security measures.


Compromised software 

Hackers can exploit vulnerabilities in software development tools to introduce security weaknesses during the development process. By compromising the tools used to build applications, attackers can create backdoors and other vulnerabilities even before the software is distributed.



Attackers can place malware on devices such as phones, USB drives, cameras, and other mobile devices. When the target connects these devices to their system or network, the malware is introduced, allowing the attacker to gain unauthorized access.



Firmware controls the operation of digital hardware, enabling it to run smoothly and interact with users and other systems. Hackers can insert malicious code into the firmware to gain unauthorized access to a system or network.

Related: Types of cyber threats 


Best practices to counter supply chain attacks

Preventing supply chain attacks requires addressing vulnerabilities at various levels of the organization. By implementing the following best practices, companies can enhance their security posture and reduce the risk of supply chain attacks:


Audit shadow IT infrastructure

Shadow IT refers to using unauthorized software and services within an organization. The IT department often does not oversee these services, creating potential vulnerabilities that supply chain attackers can exploit. Regular audits of shadow IT infrastructure can help identify and address these vulnerabilities.


Software asset inventory

Maintaining an up-to-date inventory of all software assets the company uses is necessary for identifying potential security issues. By categorizing software solutions based on their security level, companies can prioritize their efforts to address vulnerabilities. 


Validation of supplier risk

The risk associated with suppliers can change over time. It is necessary to continuously evaluate and validate the security practices of each supplier. Periodically verifying the safety of suppliers and their products ensures that potential vulnerabilities are identified and addressed promptly.


Use endpoint detection and response (EDR) solutions

Endpoints are often the entry point for supply chain attacks. Deploying an endpoint detection and response (EDR) solution provides an additional layer of security, protecting endpoints from infection and preventing the spread of attacks within the network. 

Read more: How healthcare can avoid devastating supply chain cyber attacks 

See also: HIPAA Compliant Email: The Definitive Guide  

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