What Are Supply Chain Attacks and How Can They Be Prevented?

9 min read
June 13, 2023

As supply chains rely more on digital infrastructure to complete daily operations, they become increasingly vulnerable to cyberattacks. These attacks target system vulnerabilities to steal sensitive information, change coding, or take other malicious actions. Cybercrimes have increased by 300% since the COVID-19 pandemic, and these numbers continue to expand each year.

Comprehensive cybersecurity solutions are necessary to reduce and mitigate the impacts of these attacks. Your security strategies can address specific attack approaches and lower the risk of them succeeding. By learning more about common attack methods, you can shield your supply chain from the most severe effects.

What Is a Supply Chain Attack?

A supply chain attack is a targeted infiltration of supply chain networks or systems. Attackers can partner with outside vendors or related partners with network access to break into your digital infrastructure. After they breach your system, attackers can access sensitive data, infect applications with malware, or complete other malicious activities.

Attackers search for unsecured networks, incomplete coding, or other system vulnerabilities. They use these weak points to infiltrate networks and change codes or implant dangerous software.

Supply chain attacks range broadly in scope. Malicious attackers can target any supply chain point, from manufacturing to distribution. Many supply chain businesses work with dozens of other companies to carry out regular operations, making it difficult to trace attack origins. Attackers identify vulnerabilities in your partnerships and target them.

Attacks can have severe consequences for companies and end users. Malicious software can paralyze crucial systems, resulting in lengthy downtime. Attackers could access sensitive data like financial records or bank account information, then use it to their advantage. As a result, your company could lose credibility and trust with clients, impeding your success.

Robust security solutions and techniques are necessary to reduce attacks.

SolarWinds Supply Chain Attack

A critical and recent example of a supply chain attack occurred with the company SolarWinds. SolarWinds is a software company that aids with systems management tools. The company serves over 300,000 clients worldwide, including government organizations. Their network management system, called Orion, monitors all components in business networks to keep systems as secure as possible.

In early 2020, SolarWinds released a software update for the Orion program. It was intended as a basic update with bug fixes and performance enhancements. However, malicious attackers implanted a harmful code while developers adapted the upgrade. When the update went live, users only had to log into their accounts for it to deploy automatically.

Hackers could communicate with their servers if users downloaded the update and used Orion while connected to the internet. Using this approach, the attackers compromised more than 100 global companies and a dozen government agencies. They accessed sensitive data and placed all affected users under severe vulnerability.

Once attackers gain entry to a system, it becomes extremely difficult to secure it again. The attack’s lasting impacts and wide-reaching effects make it a significant example of a supply chain cyberattack.


5 Types of Supply Chain Attacks

Cyberattackers use many strategies to break through security defenses and access supply chain systems. The more you learn about these attacks, the better you can protect your networks.

Here are five common types of supply chain attacks:

1. Pre-Installed Malware

Malware is any intrusive software that damages computers or online networks. Developers manufacture malware to steal data and resources or for pure sabotage. After malware breaches your system, it could steal emails or passwords, destroy computer systems, lock networks, or complete other malicious actions. Some use malware for monetary gain by selling sensitive data on the dark web.

Pre-installed malware is loaded onto devices or software systems before users activate them. Like the SolarWinds attack, attackers break into the system and implant malware before the developers notice. Then, when the software or update launches, the malware activates. In addition to software programs, attackers could load malware onto cameras, USBs, and other physical components used during daily operations.

Supply chains partner with trusted vendors for software and other tools. Vendors are usually unaware of pre-installed malware and proceed with launches like normal, which threatens the safety of all their supply chain partners.

Types of malware include:

  • Spyware
  • Viruses
  • Adware
  • Worms
  • Bots

2. Targeted Ransomware

Ransomware is a common endpoint attack targeted at supply chain infiltration. It's another form of malware that paralyzes online systems.

Ransomware uses a targeted approach — it encrypts files until they’re unreadable, preventing systems from working properly. Companies lose access to valuable files and are forced to stop operations. Then, malicious attackers demand ransom from the companies for decryption. They often use anonymous web pages and pop-up messages to demand money and may request the sum in cryptocurrency.

Ransomware can be devastating for supply chain companies. Over 490 million ransomware attacks occurred in 2022, making them one of the most common cyberattacks. Attackers can request millions of dollars from businesses, and even if you pay the sum, there's no guarantee they'll release your documents. Many law enforcement agencies urge companies to not pay ransoms because attackers will continue to target victims as a result.

If you don’t pay the demanded amount, ransomware attackers could threaten further action, such as publishing your sensitive data online. Your systems might also remain infected, causing long-term problems later.

3. Stolen Certificates

Another cyberattack type uses stolen digital certificates to breach supply chain systems. Digital certificates are electronic documents that prove the identity or authority of a person or organization. Organizations issue certificates to trusted parties, who can then access company systems. It allows them to access company websites requiring authentication, receive emails containing sensitive information, and other approved tasks.

Hackers often target certificates to conduct a series of supply chain attacks. For instance, if they steal a user's username and password combination, they can access important company systems. They could issue themselves a digital certificate that mistakenly vouches for their identity. Then, attackers could use the certificate to sell unsafe software under the guise of authenticity.

Attackers might successfully sell malware to many organizations before getting caught. Stolen certificates can cause long-term problems — it might be challenging for supply chains to trace the malware’s source because they use many vendors and systems in daily operations.

4. Hijacked Hardware

Cyberattackers can also aim for hardware. Gaining access to physical equipment is typically more challenging than breaching software, but attackers have developed many strategies to breach systems. They target components like:

  • Network appliances
  • Surveillance equipment
  • Communication infrastructure

Many supply chains use a combination of hardware and software in daily operations. Extensive hardware downtime can restrict efficiency or make some tasks impossible.

Hardware attacks include many approaches, including strategies like:

  • Examining the electronic emissions from computer monitors or other equipment
  • Evaluating how long it takes for a system to respond to various inputs
  • Stealing in-transit devices and implanting malicious software before it reaches the company
  • Selling illegal or fraudulent equipment gives hackers access to networks

Attackers often target devices that move through the entire supply chain for maximum effects.

5. Firmware Attacks

Firmware is the software embedded in hardware that enables it to function. It rests in the device's memory and provides instructions for operation. Many firmware pieces are equipped with protective features that safeguard from security threats.

A common approach for firmware attacks is to manipulate updates. Many firmware forms need regular updates to keep devices running smoothly. Hackers can install unauthorized updates on computers, phones, and other internet-connected devices that result in malware.

Many updates have backdoors, which are vulnerabilities that make it easier to steal data or compromise functionality. After attackers gain complete access to the device, they can alter coding, steal personal data, or stop it from working altogether. 

It's challenging to remove malicious software from firmware. End users can only delete or modify firmware if they use special codes, making it nearly impossible to remove the modified additions. Because of this trait, firmware attacks can have lasting impacts on supply chains.


Tips for Protecting Your Supply Chain Against Attacks

Despite the wide range of attacks, you can develop robust cybersecurity strategies to protect your supply chain. Your security approaches help you protect against threats and prepare for upcoming supply chain trends.

Cyber supply chain risk management (C-SCRM) is the process of identifying and mitigating threats to your operations. A critical component of C-SCRM is building response plans for supply chain attacks.

These are tips for shielding your supply chain against specific attack types:

Malware and Ransomware

Hackers use many strategies to load malware and ransomware into supply chain programs. To create a strong defense system, your company should adopt multiple protective methods, like:

  • Keeping programs updated: Program updates are essential for software to function properly. Outdated software can lack the necessary security features to prevent cyberattacks. By staying on top of updates, you reduce the chance of attackers manipulating this vulnerability.
  • Implementing thorough employee training: Many cyberattacks succeed because of human error. Employees might click on fake links or download incorrect software, resulting in malware downloading to their devices. You should conduct thorough training sessions about cyberattack risks, how they impact the supply chain, and how to recognize and prevent them from occurring.
  • Investing in antivirus software: Antivirus software actively scans for cyber threats, reducing manual monitoring loads. Digital solutions can inform you of suspicious activity and take necessary actions to resolve threats with minimal effort on your part.
  • Monitoring all incoming communications: Increased transparency benefits your supply chain on all fronts. An end-to-end view of all supply chain operations and communications helps you catch security threats before they become more severe. Techniques like setting up spam filters and only allowing messages from authorized users prevent communication-based malware attacks.

Stolen Certificates

Attackers that use stolen certificates often target login credentials to break into company systems. Strengthening your authentication methods can reduce these threats. You could try supply chain cybersecurity techniques like:

  • Implementing two-factor authentication: Two-factor authentication requires another trusted device or phone number to validate a user via a code before granting them access to their account. This extra layer of security reduces successful login-based attacks. You could add this step when employees create their company accounts.
  • Requiring strong passwords: Attackers often use brute force attacks to guess users' passwords and break into systems. Strong passwords can limit these attacks from succeeding. You can require employees to follow password protocols when setting up accounts. For instance, passwords should be longer than eight characters, use a combination of letters and numbers, and not match any of their existing passwords.
  • Assessing vendors: Before committing to a new supply chain partnership, make sure their security approaches and systems are secure. You should conduct comprehensive inspections on all suppliers and distributors with access to your systems to prevent internal attacks.


Hardware Attacks

Hardware attacks require different security approaches than software attacks. Here are some ways to keep your equipment safe:

  • Strengthen your physical security: Hardware attacks can occur from internal and external sources, so it's vital to keep hardware as secure as possible. You should keep equipment in locked areas that only authorized users can access. Locks and other protective devices prevent physical attacks on your hardware. You can also use security cameras or other surveillance tools to monitor who approaches your hardware. These tracking strategies make it easier to trace in-person hardware attacks.
  • Turn off automatic connections: After using a device, you should log off and switch the device off. When equipment remains connected to the internet, hackers can exploit vulnerabilities when it's not in use. You can also avoid using your hardware in places with public internet connections. These networks often have limited monitoring, making it easier for hackers to watch your online history and steal login information.
  • Avoid unfamiliar removable drives: Attackers often load malicious files onto USB drives and other inconspicuous devices. Avoid using any unrecognizable equipment pieces before a thorough inspection.
  • Back up data and documents: You should also ensure sensitive files have several backup copies. If you only keep one copy of a document stored in hardware and the hardware becomes compromised, you lose the data forever. By downloading data to the cloud or other protective storage options, you reduce the disastrous effects of a breach.

Firmware Attacks

Because firmware attacks often exploit devices during upgrades, you can enhance your security for these procedures. Some protocols include:

  • Only allow authorized users to complete updates: You should keep close track of who performs updates and what processes they use. Even small errors can leave firmware open to vulnerabilities, giving attackers more chances to damage devices. Only authorized users with extensive training should download and install updates. In addition, only process updates over secure, private internet networks.
  • Inspect systems before updating: You should also evaluate system updates before downloading them. If you think an update could be harmful, wait before moving forward. 


Learn More About Osa

Digital solutions increase efficiency and accuracy during daily supply chain operations. However, your technology also increases the possibility of cyberattacks. Robust supply chain security strategies are necessary to prevent various attacks from succeeding.

At Osa, we understand the importance of secure and well-functioning supply chains. We offer many technology solutions that can transform your daily operations and increase visibility. Our Unified Commerce Collaborative Visibility Platform connects all supply chain integrations and applications for an end-to-end view of operations. With increased visibility, you can monitor security from all points of your supply chain, catching threats before they grow more significant.

To learn more about our solutions, contact us today.

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