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An Introduction to Software Supply Chain Attacks

November 9, 2023
Edward Chopskie

The alarming rise in Software Supply Chain (SSC) attacks has catapulted this issue into a hot topic in the cybersecurity landscape. A staggering 742% increase in these attacks over the past three years, as reported by CSO Magazine, underscores the urgency for organizations to address this escalating threat. SSC attacks continue to be newsworthy with notable examples of software supply chain attacks including SolarWinds, Home Depot, and NotPetya incidents.

In response to this heightened risk, businesses are redoubling their efforts to implement robust safeguards against SSC attacks. Concurrently, leading industry organizations are continually releasing targeted guidance aimed at assisting enterprises in fortifying their software supply chains against potential breaches.

What is the Software Supply Chain?

To fully grasp the nature of a supply chain attack, it is important to understand the contemporary landscape of application development. Gone are the days when applications were monolithic entities, crafted entirely in-house from the ground up. Modern application development is more akin to assembling a complex mosaic, where each piece—a library here, a framework there, complemented by various web services and databases—comes together to form a functional and efficient whole.

This modular approach allows developers to accelerate the development cycle, reusing code that has been proven effective, and focusing their efforts on innovating rather than reinventing the wheel. However, this interconnectedness also brings to light a new set of complexities. Each component integrated into an application may itself be constructed from other subcomponents, creating a nested hierarchy of dependencies.

Take the widely used Log4J logging library within the Apache framework as a case in point. When a critical vulnerability within Log4J was uncovered, it cascaded through the ecosystem, impacting any and all applications that relied on it, illustrating just how pervasive and profound the effects of a single weakness can be.

The modern, layered approach to building applications enables rapid development and innovation. Yet, it simultaneously introduces a systemic risk: if any single component in the network of dependencies is compromised, the entire structure can be at risk, making it imperative for developers to diligently manage and monitor these interdependencies.

What is a Software Supply Chain Attack? 

Supply chain attacks strategically focus on infiltrating an organization by compromising the products, in this case the software that the targeted entities depend on. In this type of cyber-assault, attackers covertly implant a backdoor within the software or its development infrastructure. Once established, this concealed entry point grants them the ability to tamper with the software’s update and patching mechanisms. They exploit this capability to deliver “trojanized” updates—updates that appear legitimate but are laced with malicious code. 

When the unsuspecting organization applies these tainted updates, they unknowingly open the floodgates for an array of cyber threats. This can include sophisticated malware intrusions, ransomware attacks, and even advanced persistent threats (APTs) that lurk stealthily within the network, gathering intelligence or waiting for an opportune moment to strike. 

The insidious nature of software supply chain attacks makes them particularly dangerous, as they abuse the inherent trust organizations place in their software suppliers and the updates they provide. This makes it all the more imperative for organizations to diligently scrutinize their software supply chain for potential vulnerabilities.

Historically, supply chain attacks have referred to attacks against trusted relationships, in which an unsecure supplier in a chain is attacked in order to gain access to their larger trading partners. This is what happened in the notorious 2013 attack against Target, where the threat actor gained access to an HVAC contractor in order to enter Target’s systems.

What Are the Types of Attacks?

Software supply chain threats include, but are not limited to:

  • Malicious code injection: Insert malicious code into the software during the development or distribution stage leading to serious security breaches and data theft.
  • Tampering with updates: Attackers can modify software updates to include malicious code compromising the security of the software and leading to data theft.
  • Unauthorized access to the code repository: Attackers can gain access to the code repository and make changes to the software code, leading to security vulnerabilities.
  • Compromised third-party libraries: An attacker may gain access to the code repository and make changes to the software code.

What Can Be Done to Prevent Attacks?

Preventing supply chain security attacks involves implementing various security measures throughout the software development lifecycle, from design to deployment and upgrades. Here are some steps that can be taken to prevent attacks on your software supply chain:

  • Establish security policies and standards: Access control, authentication, data validation assessment, and protection.
  • Verify the integrity of software: Digital signatures, checksums, or other methods.
  • Secure build environment: Secure build system access, secure software repositories, scan-build artifacts, and images for vulnerabilities.
  • Run security assessments: Analysis to identify vulnerabilities and weaknesses in the software, including static and dynamic code analysis and vulnerability scanning.
  • Use trusted sources: Use trusted sources for software and components, such as official repositories, verified vendors, and licensed and verified versions.
  • Implement security controls: Use firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and access controls to protect against attacks.
  • Monitor and respond to security incidents: Monitor vulnerabilities and security incidents and respond quickly to any incidents to minimize the impact.
  • Foster a security culture: Easy-to-use tools for training employees on secure coding practices, password management, content analysis, and incident response.


Defending against software supply chain attacks is of paramount importance due to their ability to stealthily compromise widespread systems through a single point of vulnerability. As software increasingly relies on a complex network of third-party components and services, the risk surface expands, making it crucial to ensure that each element within the supply chain is secure. These attacks can lead to significant data breaches, operational disruptions, and loss of customer trust, affecting not just individual organizations but also the broader ecosystem that relies on the integrity of the software supply chain. 

Effective defense against these threats requires rigorous security practices, including thorough vetting of third-party components, continuous monitoring for anomalies, and swift incident response protocols. By safeguarding the supply chain, organizations can protect their assets, maintain compliance with regulations, and uphold their reputations in an increasingly interconnected digital landscape.

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