If you attended Black Hat this year, you couldn’t avoid the topic of supply chain attacks. From keynotes to vendor messaging to booth presentations, they were a ubiquitous topic in Las Vegas this year.
Supply chain attacks are cyberattacks targeting an upstream vendor for the ultimate purpose of compromising one or more of its customers. Cybercriminals are aware that, by compromising updates from trusted vendors, they can easily bypass installed security software to infect all customers that install it.
Essentially, compromising a software vendor allows damage to cascade down the supply chain to another supplier– a consequence sometimes known as the “waterfall effect” – to increase collateral damage against multiple targets.
Black Hat founder Jeff Moss even began this year’s conference with a few words about software supply chains.
“We all rely on the software supply chain,” he said. “We’re building tools and systems based on it. We’re trusting it. We’re hoping that people in the supply chain…are doing things to help everyone else in the supply chain. Because, if they don’t, everything we do is potentially vulnerable.”
“We all depend on the supply chain being fully immunized,” he continued, “and it’s not there yet.”
Now, “not there yet” is putting it mildly. A few recent, high-profile attacks bear recalling to demonstrate the scope of the problem.
For many within cybersecurity, the SolarWinds attack by what are widely believed to be state-sponsored cybercriminals was the most significant supply chain attack since the Cleaner attack of 2018 and a worrying reminder of the damage made possible by the tactic.
SolarWinds is a Texas-based IT management platform that unknowingly pushed a Trojanized update to a large portion of its some 300,000 customers. It’s believed that the attackers concealed their presence within the victim’s network for some time to ensure they could carefully select their next targets and preserve time for intelligence gathering.
While not widely known at the time, it’s now assumed that this wide-net attack was ultimately an effort to compromise a handful of high-value intelligence and governmental agencies. Second-stage infections were then pushed against these targets, plus some of the world’s most influential technology vendors.
Critically, this type of espionage-inspired cyberattack differs a great deal from moneymaking practices embraced by for-profit hacking groups. These broadly targeted attacks against suppliers cause widespread disruption without obviously disrupting a specific target.
Another supply chain attack targeted Codecov, a software development firm that makes tools for developers, in January 2021. Investigators told the newswire service Reuters that attackers were able to use the access they’d gained to breach hundreds of Codecove customers.
As was the case with SolarWinds, compromising Codecov may have presented access to other software vendors, which could have initiated the waterfall effect presented previously. The firm counts among its clients giants like IBM, Hewlett Packard and Atlassian.
The infosec researcher Matt Tait, who spoke at this year’s Black Hat on the topic of supply chain attacks, called the Codecov compromise an instance of high-volume disruption based on indiscriminate targeting.
According to the company, information stolen from customer devices was then sent to a third-party server outside of Codecov’s control, suggesting that espionage may have once again been the end-goal of the attackers.
Perhaps the most far-reaching supply chain attack conducted by a non-state actor in the history of the tactic took place this July. This time, Kaseya, one of the world’s largest IT management platforms, was compromised by the Russia-based hacking group REvil. Unlike in the SolarWinds and Codecov, this attack included a ransomware stage meant to deliver financial rather than intelligence returns for the attackers.
REvil targeted Kaseya’s remote monitoring and management (RMM) solution, known as Kaseya VSA, which is used to manage client machines from afar. Again, targeting was indiscriminate, but unlike with espionage actors, the ransomware gang could focus on maximizing financial returns of the attack rather than trying to avoid detection.
Describing the impact of this attack, the USC Berkeley infosec researcher Nicholas Weaver noted that, “Each victim is a small-to-medium-sized business that is going to, at best, find its computers unusable and, at worst, have all their data lost forever.”
In terms of the cascading effects of a supply chain attack, the Kaseya VSA compromise hit MSPs and their small business clients especially hard.
Like a technology that advances through state-sponsored R&D but then becomes available to a wider public, recent supply chain attack techniques were honed by state-backed actors but have now been adopted by more run-of-the-mill ransomware actors. This is bad news for MSPs.
While agencies like the FBI and CISA have been warning for some time that MSPs are likely targets of advanced persistent threats (APTs), the Kaseya attack seems to have crossed a threshold. The problem is a significant security challenge, and one that some think only vendors can solve.
But there are a few measures MSPs can take to enhance their defenses against supply chain attacks. These include:
- Layer cybersecurity defenses for both you and your clients. Supply chain attacks commonly evade defenses by sneaking in with a trusted update. But after the initial compromise, network security can block communication with known-malicious IP addresses to limit damage.
- Mandating two-factor authentication (2FA) wherever possible. While 2FA isn’t the end of security issues, it makes things more difficult for cybercriminals at every turn.
- Monitor for anomalous web traffic. Be wary of communications with previously unknown IP addresses, unusual application traffic and other out-of-the-ordinary happenings on your network. Consider following these steps to reducing the time to detection of a compromise if one occurs.
- Push patches and updates with urgency. Zero-day vulnerabilities often play a key role in advancing the spread of supply chain infections. Closing those gaps as soon as possible is an actionable step MSPs can take to protect themselves and their clients.
- Back up everything. One of the most surefire ways of reducing the leverage an attacker has over you and your clients is keeping multiple backups of critical business data. Cybercriminals can’t be trusted to restore data even after a ransom is paid, so don’t be left relying on them.
- Test your backup plan. The day disaster strikes is not the time to discover if your disaster recovery plan is well designed. Instead, simulate a worst-case scenario ahead of time and see if any gaps emerge.
As global cybercrime collectives continue to experiment with supply chain attack techniques, we should expect more indiscriminate, wide-net infections to make headlines. To prevent passing these infections along to their clients, vendors must take the lead in security their products and processes. But MSPs aren’t helpless in protecting themselves and their clients.