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Fighting Supply Chain Threats Is Complicated

Relying on the kindness of strangers is not an ideal strategy for CISOs and CIOs. And yet that is the precise position where most find themselves today while trying to battle cybersecurity issues across their supply chain. While these supply chains have plenty of their own challenges, such as global disruptions of distribution, our recent research shows that it’s the cybersecurity problems that will long survive for the long term.

It’s not as though enterprises rely on their partners any more today than they did ten years ago. Their needs have not changed and are unlikely to change, except those rare instances where an enterprise will choose to manufacture their own supplies rather than rely on partners. Consider, for example, Costco creating its own gigantic chicken farm. Other than outlier examples like this, partner reliance is relatively stable.

What is changing with the supply chain is how much system access is being granted to these partners. They are getting access they didn’t always get and are getting far deeper access as well. As technology has advanced to allow such access, enterprises have accepted.

Given the wide range of partners–suppliers, distributors, contractors, outsourced sales, cloud platforms, geographical specialists, and sometimes your own largest customers–the cybersecurity complexities are growing by orders of magnitude. In addition, the more integrations that enterprises accept, the higher the level that their risk is. To be more precise, the risk doesn’t necessarily grow with the number of partners as much as the risk grows with the number of partners whose cybersecurity environments are less secure than the enterprise’s own environment.

To even begin to craft a cybersecurity strategy to manage partners and a global supply chain, the enterprise CISO needs to have a candid understanding of what their partners’ security level truly is. That is tricky, given that many of those partners themselves do not have a good sense of how secure or insecure they are.

One suggestion is to revise contracts to make it a requirement for all partners to maintain a security level equal to the enterprise customer. The contract must not only specify penalties for non-compliance–and those penalties must be sufficiently costly that it makes no sense for a partner to take that chance–but it must specify means to determine and re-verify that security level. Surprise inspections and the sharing of extensive log files would be a start.

Otherwise, even the strictest security environment such as Zero Trust may be unable to plug supply chain holes due to sloppier partner security practices. Let’s say that a large enterprise retailer is working with a large consumer goods manufacturer as a partner. A good environment will start with strict authentication, making sure that the user from the partner is really that authorized user. The enterprise environment must also watch the user throughout the session to make sure the user doesn’t do anything suspicious. But if the partner has been breached, malware could sneak in through the secure tunnel and, if it’s not caught by the enterprise, there’s a problem and now they can be breached.

This is not hypothetical. Since the beginning of the pandemic, our research found that a vast majority of global enterprises (81 percent) said that they are seeing far more attacks since the beginning of COVID-19.

Almost every business is dependent on the supply chain, making it a prime target for cybercriminals looking to cause disruption and breach wider networks. As the holiday season approaches, we are already seeing a spike in consumer and business activity across the supply chain, making it a prime target for cybercriminals looking to target essential and lucrative services.

Attackers are going to continue to leverage the global supply chain as an initial entry vector, accessing the network through a trusted connection, system, or user. The fact that these attacks exploit trusted channels makes them very difficult to prevent or detect. As organisations continue their digital transformation, including ever-more cloud services, managed services and endpoint modernization, the risks of supply chain threats will increase as its prevalence as a vector does so.