To Reduce IT Supply Chain Risk, Watch for Insider Threats and External Attackers

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True or not, Bloomberg’s recent "Big Hack" article should have agencies thinking about the security of their IT systems.

A recent Bloomberg Businessweek report claims that China’s military infiltrated the supply chain used to build hardware that Apple and Amazon Web Services both use. Both tech giants deny the story’s allegations. Supermicro, the component maker that was allegedly hacked, also says it’s not true. Despite this, Bloomberg stands behind it. Regardless of whether “the big hack” happened, it raises the specter of whether hacks against the IT supply chain are taking place and if risk is being mitigated.  

The idea that a supply chain attack could compromise hardware used to power critical systems has troubled the public and private sectors alike for several years. Most experts agree that executing a successful attack that could infiltrate the IT supply chain would be difficult. They also agree that it’s possible. In fact, The Guardian and ArsTechnica have both published stories alleging that government and military entities infiltrated IT supply chains in the past.  

No single defensive effort could fully protect the IT supply chain. The federal government will need to lend support and the private sector will have to approach the problem by doing all it can to address gaps in physical and digital security. Although the task seems daunting, there are steps public and private sector organizations can take to reduce IT supply chain risks. As a starting point, organizations should ask themselves if they’ve taken at least these four as part of their IT supply chain defense strategy.

1. Vet vendors.

No one wants to ostracize a supplier, especially if there is doubt as to whether one has been compromised. Nonetheless, effective security dictates that anyone with access to your cookie jar have clean hands. With supply chain tentacles now reaching into businesses from all corners of the earth and internet, it is more important than ever that vendors and contractors be scrutinized, held accountable to security audits and threat scoring, pass rigorous checks, and be required to adhere to access criteria.

2. Address insider threats.

One of the easiest ways for attackers to infiltrate networks and processes is through insiders. The security world is rife with examples of malicious insiders who have compromised systems and negligent insiders who opened doors to attackers through mistakes and carelessness. To get a handle on both types of insider threats, organizations need to have solutions in place that monitor behaviors, detect when high-risk activities are in play, and that provide alerts to security operations and risk teams.  

3. Manage vulnerabilities.

The software used to power IT supply chains is subject to vulnerabilities, patching failures and misconfigurations. Several recent reports revealed that code vulnerabilities account for a great many breaches. No organization will ever be able to eliminate all software bugs, but a robust vulnerability scanning and patching program can help to reduce risk. Most experts agree, prompt patching executed along with additional procedures are essential to security.

4. Educate humans.

Even the most security-conscious individuals can be taken advantage of by skilled hackers. While phishing is a primary means by which attackers fool people, there are other avenues created by humans that hackers exploit. To strengthen your human defenses, make people aware of the value that two-factor authentication delivers, ensure they know how important it is to use strong passwords, teach them why they should never share credentials, and incentivize them to report any suspicious activities or behaviors they witness.  

To fully secure the supply chain, more than just these four steps will need to be taken. If executed correctly, these can assist any organization with significantly reducing overall risks.

David Wilcox is vice president of Federal for Dtex Systems and formerly of the National Security Agency.