xorl %eax, %eax

Supply chain attacks, 2018 and the future

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It’s been a while since my last post but I thought that there is some value in this topic… Supply chain attacks are nothing new, they have been around for very long time. What is different though, is the rise of this trend this year outside the common nation-state and cyber-espionage world. Here is a high level overview of what implicit trust connections most organizations have today.



And where it gets even more complicated is that every single instance of the above diagram is also another organization. There are some unforgettable supply-chain attacks such as the RSA SecureID in March 2011 which was later used to comprise many organizations, the MeDoc in June 2017, the NSA hardware backdoors, etc. However, almost all of them were part of cyber-espionage operations, typically from nation-states. Some threat actors are more active than others but overall, it was a nation-state game.

What has changed recently is the rise of the supply-chain attacks outside the cyber-espionage world. We see non-enterprise Linux distributions being targeted such as Gentoo and Arch. Widely used open source projects such as npm modules, Docker images from official public registries, cyber-criminals hacking 3rd parties to eventually attack corporations such as Ticketmaster, backdoored WordPress plugins, browser extensions, and many more examples like these just in 2018.

And the question is, are organizations ready for this type of intrusion? Unfortunately, for the majority of the cases the answer is no. Most organizations implicitly trust what is installed on their devices, what libraries their software utilizes, what browser extensions and tools their employees install and use, etc. How can this be fixed?

The answer is not simple or easy. Everyone likes to say “trust but verify” but to what degree? Some might argue that solutions such as Google’s Titan is the way to go, but most organizations don’t have the resources and capacity to implement this. Should they fall back to the built-in TPM? Identifying all suppliers and doing risk assessments? Detecting anomalies and modifications on 3rd party components? All of them are valid options depending on the organization’s threat model.

But the answer starts with a mindset change. Organizations need to realize and accept that this is a real threat and yes, there are technical and non-technical ways to combat it but it requires conscious effort.

Based on my experience and observations I predict that this will become one of the most popular attack vectors in the near future. The reason is simple. Organizations are focusing more and more improving THEIR security but as we all know for thousands of years, security is as strong as its weakest link. You can have the best security in the world but if you include random JavaScript files without any control from 3rd parties, this is what adversaries will use. Remember this Sun Tzu quote from The Art of War?

In war, the way is to avoid what is strong, and strike at what is weak

So, identify your weak points and don’t limit your view to your organization as a standalone instance. Locate where all the components used are coming from and expand your threat model to cover those as well. As Sun Tzu said, you have to know your enemy, but you also have to know yourself.

If you know the enemy and know yourself,
you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.

If you know yourself but not the enemy,
for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.

If you know neither the enemy nor yourself,
you will succumb in every battle.

Written by xorl

July 15, 2018 at 14:20

Posted in security

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