Securing the Supply Chain: How to Mitigate Third-Party Cyber Risks in 2024


June 11, 2024

Cyberattack statistics are hard to pin down due to issues like under-reporting. However, we can safely say that tens of thousands of businesses are impacted by supply chain attacks each year. And when an attack vector works, you can count on cyber criminals to keep exploiting it. 

On top of any losses directly caused by a supply chain attack, business owners are often on the hook for breach investigation expenses, penalties, and regulatory fines. Not to mention loss of business and plummeting profits due to reputation damage. With so much on the line for companies and so much to gain for cyber criminals, it’s vital that business leaders have a clear understanding of what a supply chain attack is, how it can affect you, and what you can do to mitigate the risks. 

As always, our IT experts will fill you in on the basics, covering everything you need to know in a clear, simple, and easy-to-understand way. No tech jargon – just the facts you need to protect your business from supply chain attacks. Let’s start by clarifying what this style of cyber crime encompasses.  

What Is a Supply Chain Attack? 

In a supply chain attack, criminals target the weaker links in a company’s network of vendors and partners. The aim could be to infiltrate a single target company’s systems via its supply chain or to attack many companies at once via a single vendor. Once inside, hackers can steal sensitive data or disrupt critical operations.  

You might also hear supply chain attacks referred to as third-party attacks, value chain attacks, software supply chain attacks, vendor risk attacks, ecosystem attacks, or dependency chain attacks. 

Types of Supply Chain Attack

Supply chain attacks exploit vulnerabilities within seemingly trusted vendors or partners to infiltrate your digital defences. The most frustrating part about them is that you can have the best cyber defences in the world, but if one of your suppliers or partners doesn’t, you can still be at risk. 

Whether simple or sophisticated, these attacks pose a significant threat to businesses in all industries. From accountants and healthcare facilities to government agencies and critical infrastructure providers, no one can count themselves safe. 

Before we dive into the protective steps you need to take, let’s get a grasp on the different types of supply chain attacks and their devastating real-world consequences. That way, you’ll know what you’re up against.

Malware Injection

If malicious actors gain access to one of your provider’s systems, they may insert hidden code into legitimate products or services during development, manufacturing, or distribution (e.g., compromised hardware components). Since you trust this supplier, you could then unknowingly integrate these compromised products into your systems, potentially leading to data breaches or operational disruptions. 

In addition to your regular suppliers, malware injection can come via open source code packages, browser extensions, and JavaScript libraries. Your team may also fall victim to watering hole attacks, whereby criminals identify security weaknesses in a website commonly used by your employees and then exploit those vulnerabilities to deliver malware.  


Attackers create fake versions of legitimate products, often containing hidden vulnerabilities or backdoors that will give them remote access. These counterfeit products can enter the supply chain through various channels, posing a significant risk to unsuspecting users. 

Malicious Software Updates

Cybercriminals can manipulate software updates provided by vendors. By compromising the integrity of these updates, they can introduce malware or other malicious code into an unsuspecting business owner’s systems. The SolarWinds attack in 2020 serves as a stark reminder of the devastating consequences of such insidious attacks.

Supply Chain Attack Examples

Let’s now see how these attack vectors play out in the real world, starting with the infamous SolarWinds incident. 

The SolarWinds Cyberattack

In 2020, a trusted software company called SolarWinds accidentally served up malware with their software update. Hackers had infiltrated their system and poisoned a popular network monitoring tool. Thousands of organisations unknowingly downloaded the tainted update, giving the attackers a golden ticket into their networks.

The SolarWinds attack severely damaged the company’s reputation and finances. They faced lawsuits, millions in recovery costs, and lost trust from customers. It also sparked a major cybersecurity overhaul within the company.

CCleaner Security Issues

CCleaner was designed to keep computers running smoothly, but in 2017, hackers hit the software provider with an ironic twist. They replaced a legitimate update with a malicious one containing a backdoor for malware. Millions of users downloaded the infected update, essentially handing over the keys to their systems.

CCleaner’s security breach in 2017 was a major blow. Not only did it expose millions of users to potential data theft, but it also shattered trust in a widely used and generally well-regarded system optimisation tool. The company faced significant reputation damage and had to work hard to regain user confidence.

Huawei Spyware

Since at least 2012, Australia and the US government have been raising concerns about Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei. They accused Huawei of embedding hidden backdoors in their networking equipment, potentially compromising critical infrastructure. Cases like this highlight the importance of carefully vetting vendors, even if they’re well known, and especially if they’re providing essential systems.

The Huawei situation has arguably had the biggest impact, straining international relations between China and several countries, particularly the US and Australia. The accusations led to bans on Huawei equipment in some countries’ critical infrastructure projects and forced the company to invest heavily in rebuilding trust and transparency in its security practices.

How Can You Protect Your Business From Third-Party Attacks

As we connect with customers in more innovative ways, it’s inevitable that our supply chains will grow more complex. Add in the rise of remote and hybrid workforces, and modern businesses are unwittingly presenting a smorgasbord of new vulnerabilities to malicious actors. Of course, this doesn’t mean you should slam down the digital shutters and trudge back to the business practices of the 80s. 

Third-party attacks are a serious concern, but by implementing proactive measures, you can significantly strengthen your defences. Here’s a practical guide to fortify your business against these threats:

1. Rigorous Vendor Vetting

Your first line of defence lies in choosing reliable partners. Conduct thorough security assessments of potential vendors, focusing on their:

  • Security Policies and Practices: Look for documented security procedures and inquire about their incident response plans.
  • Data Security Controls: Ensure they have robust data encryption practices and access controls in place.
  • Penetration Testing Frequency: Regular penetration testing helps identify vulnerabilities before attackers exploit them. Hint: Visit this guide to learn more about penetration testing

2. Contractual Safeguards  

Ironclad contracts are key. Include clauses that:

  • Mandate Security Compliance: Require vendors to adhere to specific security standards aligned with your own.
  • Grant Security Audits: Stipulate your right to conduct security audits of their systems.
  • Define Breach Notification Protocols: Ensure prompt notification in case of a security incident.

3. Continuous Monitoring

Don’t be complacent. Regularly monitor vendor activity for suspicious behaviour and vulnerabilities:

  • Track Software Updates: Implement a system to track and manage software updates from vendors to avoid installing compromised versions like in the SolarWinds attack.
  • Threat Intelligence Feeds: Utilise threat intelligence feeds to stay informed about the latest cyber threats and vulnerabilities.

4. Training and Education

Empower yourself, your leadership team, and your employees to maintain impeccable cyber hygiene through:

  • Training on Social Engineering Techniques: Teach employees to recognise common social engineering tactics used in phishing attacks and malware distribution.
  • Training on Secure Data Handling: Educate employees on proper data handling procedures to minimise the risk of sensitive information leaks, both physical and digital.
  • Physical Security Awareness: Train employees on physical security measures to protect against unauthorised access to devices and data centres.
  • Reporting Procedures: Establish clear procedures for employees to report suspicious activity or emails.

5. Incident Response Planning

A security breach can be a stressful and chaotic situation. So it’s important to prepare for the worst by developing a comprehensive incident response plan (IRP). This plan should clearly outline the steps everyone needs to take in case of a security breach. Here’s what a comprehensive IRP should include:

  • Clearly Defined Roles and Responsibilities: Assign specific roles and responsibilities to different teams. This ensures clear communication and avoids confusion.
  • Detection and Analysis Procedures: Outline steps for identifying and analysing security incidents, including procedures for collecting evidence and identifying the scope of the breach.
  • Containment and Eradication Strategies: Define actions to contain the breach, such as isolating compromised systems or accounts, to prevent further damage. Additionally, establish procedures for eradicating the root cause of the attack, such as removing malware.
  • Recovery and Restoration Procedures: Outline a plan for restoring affected systems and data from backups. This includes testing your backup and recovery procedures regularly to ensure they function as intended.
  • Communication Protocols: Establish clear communication protocols within the organisation and with external stakeholders. This includes defining who needs to be notified, what information needs to be communicated, and how it will be communicated.
  • Post-Incident Review: Schedule a post-incident review after the breach is contained to analyse what went wrong and identify areas for improvement in your security posture and IRP.

Want a safe way to get a feel for what it would be like to go through a supply chain attack? Take a look at our breakdown of what goes on in the aftermath of a data breach

Perfecting Your Supply Chain Cybersecurity

By following these steps and staying informed about evolving threats, you can significantly reduce your risk of falling victim to third-party attacks. However, it always helps to have a skilled and dedicated team of IT experts backing you up. With Invotec, you can protect your systems with 24/7 monitoring and instant action on potential threats. Crucially, you’ll also receive proactive support, meaning vulnerabilities are addressed before they become a potential back door for malicious actors.  

If you want to rest a little easier knowing you have the best possible protection against supply chain attacks and other forms of cyber crime, contact Invotec for a free consultation. One of our cybersecurity experts will help you develop a plan perfectly suited to your industry, business size, needs, and budget.

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