Are Your Vendors the Weak Link in Your Cybersecurity Defenses?

Are Your Vendors the Weak Link in Your Cybersecurity Defenses?

A wide-scale cyberattack revealed how easily an entity’s IT systems can be compromised by the vulnerabilities of an entity’s software vendors and other third parties...

As the SolarWinds breach made clear, one supply chain attack can wreak havoc on thousands of organizations. The wide-scale cyberattack also revealed how easily an entity’s IT systems can be compromised by the vulnerabilities of an entity’s software vendors and other third parties. 

SolarWinds Cyber Attack

In 2020, a high-profile supply chain attack occurred against SolarWinds, a provider of network management software.  The vendor was unknowingly hit with a malware attack and the breach resulted in the malicious code being inserted into a software update, which was then transmitted to 18,000 SolarWinds customers, including the U.S. Department of Defense, Department of Commerce, Microsoft, and Cisco. The code created a backdoor to the impacted entities’ information technology systems, which hackers then used to install additional malware that allowed them to spy on companies and government agencies. The hackers were undetected for months, with the breach first discovered by a cybersecurity firm that noticed its own system was compromised.

The SolarWinds Attack is the most high-profile and invasive IT software supply chain attack to date. It demonstrates how dangerous embedded malware inside a legitimate product can be. If left unchecked, it can allow hackers to access the networks of many organizations using one piece of code.

Managing Third-Party Cyber Risks

The SolarWinds attack, which has now been linked to Russian-backed hackers, resulted in numerous government investigations and hearings. Most recently, the New York State Department of Financial Services (NYDFS) released its report on the cyberattack.

The NYDS Report on the SolarWinds Supply Chain Attack summarizes the SolarWinds Attack, as well as the response by NYDFS-regulated companies. It also identifies four “key cybersecurity measures” that can reduce supply chain risk.

Overall, NYDFS found that companies under its oversight responded quickly. According to the report, 94 percent of the reporting companies removed the vulnerabilities from their IT systems within three days of the SolarWinds Attack’s announcement. However, NYDFS also found that some companies were not applying patches as regularly as needed to ensure timely remediation of high-risk cyber exposure. 

Most importantly, the NYDFS identifies the following cybersecurity measures as critical practices when evaluating the risks posed by vendors and similar third parties (Third Party Service Providers):   

  • Fully assess and address third party risk. Third Party Service Provider and other vendor risk management policies and procedures should include processes for due diligence and contractual protections that will ensure the company can monitor the cybersecurity practices and overall cyber hygiene of critical vendors. Furthermore, contracts with critical vendors should include provisions requiring immediate notification (ideally to at least two persons in different roles at an organization) when a cyber event occurs that impacts — or potentially impacts — an organization’s Information Systems or any non-public information (NPI) that is maintained, processed, or accessed by the vendor.  
  • Adopt a “zero trust” approach and implement multiple layers of security. Organizations should anticipate and prepare for breaches in the supply chain by incorporating supply chain risk analysis into their requisite risk assessments and risk management programs. To do this most effectively, organizations should adopt a “zero trust” mindset and assume that (1) any software installation and (2) any Third Party Service Provider could be compromised and used as an attack vector. Access should be limited “to only what is needed” and systems should be monitored “for anomalous or malicious activity.” Organizations should have layers of security and extra protection for sensitive information so that if one layer is compromised, other controls can detect or prevent an intrusion.
  • Promptly address vulnerabilities through patch deployment, testing, and validation. Organizations should have a vulnerability management program that prioritizes the organization’s patch testing, validation processes, and deployment — including which systems to patch and in what order they should be patched. Furthermore, an organization’s patch management strategy should include performing tests of all patches to the internal system environment with defined rollback procedures if the patch creates or exposes additional vulnerabilities.
  • Address supply chain compromise in incident response plans.  An effective and tested incident response plan with detailed procedures and playbooks is crucial. Incident response plans should include the following, at a minimum, to address supply chain compromises or attacks: procedures to isolate affected systems; procedures to reset account credentials for users of all affected assets and users of assets controlled by compromised software; procedures to rebuild from backups created before the compromise; procedures to archive audit and system logs for forensic purposes; and procedures to update response plans based on lessons learned. Companies should also understand what assets reside in the environment — including their versions and configurations — and enable timely notifications when changes occur. The incident response playbook should include plans to respond to unauthorized changes.

As the NYDFS report notes, there is no silver bullet that will stop all supply chain attacks. Nonetheless, there are steps companies can take to reduce the risks posed by vendors and other third parties. We encourage all businesses to review their cyber security policies and procedures to ensure that include measures to mitigate third-party risk.

If you have questions, please contact us

If you have any questions or if you would like to discuss the matter further, please contact me, Maryam Meseha, or the Scarinci Hollenbeck attorney with whom you work, at 201-896-4100.


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AboutMaryam M. Meseha

Maryam Meseha, Counsel, is a member of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Litigation practice group. Ms. Meseha has a decade of experience handling a wide range of litigation matters in varying industries from inception to resolution.Full Biography

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