Supply chain the new tempting attraction for hackers

Intruders finding 'weakest link' the best route into the information treasures of large companies


Verizon made headlines last December when it was revealed that 300,000 customer records had been pinched by a hacker and posted to the Internet.

After probing the breach, Verizon declared that none of its systems were breached, no unauthorized person had gained root access to its servers and, because much of the information was out of date, the number of customers affected was only a fraction of the numbers reported.

It also noted something else. The data had been nicked from a third-party marketing company, a part of Verizon's supply chain.

The attractiveness of company supply chains to hackers is growing, say security experts interviewed by CSO."It's a case of the hackers identifying the weakest link and breaking in," observed Michael de Crespigny, CEO of the Information Security Forum (ISF), an international association that focuses on cybersecurity issues and information risk management.

"Criminals are seeing the supply chain as a means of accessing information they wouldn't otherwise be able to get from a large, proficiently  run, well secured global organization," de Crespigny added.

In a report released Tuesday, the ISF noted that while sharing information with suppliers is essential for the supply chain to function, it also creates risks. "Of all the supply chain risks," the report noted, "information risk is the least well managed."

When it comes to information risk, most organizations focus on a small subset of their suppliers, typically based on contract size. There are three problems with that approach:

  • Contracts that pose risks, like legal services agreements, can be overlooked.
  • The method is not scalable for organizations with many small contracts.
  • It only reaches one level of risk -- the initial supplier -- not others who also pose risk, such as the supplier's suppliers.

Hackers mounting targeted attacks are always looking for a weakest point in an organization's defenses for their attack, explained Hugh Thompson, senior vice president and chief security strategist Blue Coat Systems.

[Also see: Most companies lag in supply chain risk management]

"Sometimes the weakest link is an employee at the company," Thompson said. "other times it's an IT system at a supplier.".

"That's why supply chain security is a hot topic right now," he added. "For many big companies, it might be the weakest link."

Risks for organizations arise not only for suppliers a company knows, he continued, but for suppliers it may not be aware of. "There's a group that's growing of unknown suppliers," Thompson said. "They are services and technologies that the business is using that were never sanctioned by IT."

For example, the popular cross-platform information management program Evernote is used by employees in many organizations, but would be under IT's radar.

Office workers store all kinds of information in the program, some of it, no doubt, of a sensitive nature to their employers. Such an account would pose an information risk to an organization that it wasn't aware about.

"There's a growing set of these business/consumer technologies that employees and small teams are using that make them unknown suppliers," Thompson explained. "If you're an attacker, you may want to go after one of these consumer services that might hold corporate data instead of going directly at a company."

Companies are becoming increasingly aware of supplier risk and taking measures to evaluate the security profile of their suppliers, according to Torsten George, a vice president with Agiliance.

"The practice has increased over the last 12 months," George noted. "We receive these vendor risk assessment surveys almost on a weekly basis. They range anywhere from 180 to 600 questions."

"The surveys provide these companies with a little bit of peace of mind," he observed. "But it doesn't guarantee a higher security level, especially if a vendor stretches the truth a bit."

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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