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The Importance of Understanding Your Software Supply Chain: Managing Risks in Third-Party Code

In any industry, a supply chain is an aggregation of in-house resources, external dependencies, production infrastructure, and workforce. It is an essential component in the product pipeline that takes it from requirement gathering to ready-to-use. 

Like every other industry, the supply chain exists and also plays a vital role in software engineering. In this article, let us dive deep into understanding its importance and how to manage the risks involved in the process.

SDLC or software supply chain?

When developing software, we usually focus on the software development life cycle that outlines the various stages involved, from ideating to developing and testing. If so, how is a software supply chain different? While the primary goal of SDLC is to develop and test software, its supply chain is a broader concept that encompasses the entire development lifecycle, which extends to distribution and maintenance that also takes into account the various dependencies and components that make up a software product, as well as the potential risks and vulnerabilities associated with them.

Risks in the Software Supply Chain

Nowadays, developers rely on external sources, including open-source libraries, to produce software, as it helps differentiate their product, speeds up development, lowers costs, and maintains competitiveness. However, this reliance on third-party code poses risks to software supply chains, making open source analysis a crucial component of the process.

While it is possible to build software without relying on third-party code, doing so from scratch would result in high inefficiencies and be overkill. Therefore, it is not recommended to avoid third-party code altogether. Instead, developers must prioritize open-source analysis and risk assessment to ensure the security and integrity of their supply chains.

So, where do vulnerabilities and risks in the supply chain arise? There is no single point of failure, and multiple backdoors can exist. One of the most common reasons is the use of open-source components/libraries in the application. Open-source projects typically grant trusted contributors authorization to commit code. However, if an attacker manages to compromise a trusted account, they can insert malicious code into the repository. Lack of open-source analysis could also unintentionally open access to your organization’s environment.

Another common reason for vulnerabilities is the injection of malicious code from third-party developers who are hired as freelancers or contractors. Compromised updates that are accepted after the attacker has manipulated the update can also pose risks.

Software Supply Chain Security

Software security risk is largely influenced by software vulnerabilities in general. Eliminating every software vulnerability is both impractical and unattainable, as many of them pose a threat to supply chain security. However, there are significant approaches for lowering and controlling these risks. 

Below are some of the best practices to incorporate into your application to improve the overall security posture of your software supply chain. 

To begin with, it is advised that organizations should conduct a comprehensive security assessment of any third-party code they plan to use. This should involve an analysis of the vendor’s security protocols and a software vulnerability analysis.

Once a thorough assessment is performed to ensure that software is created securely from the start, organizations should adopt secure development methods, such as threat modeling and code reviews.

Parallelly, if an attacker gains access to a system, they often try to move laterally across a network to identify a privileged account, typically to gain escalated access control.

The security team should therefore keep a watchful eye out for any unexpected behavior in privileged accounts. It should keep track of login activities, password changes, and permission changes and react accordingly. For instance, consider a Domain Admin account that has been the target of numerous failed password attempts. The security staff should then look into the situation and lock the account until they are certain it was a real instance of unsuccessful attempts.

Organizations should also inculcate best practices like mandating writing input validation, error handling, and other sanity checks wherever necessary.

Further, in addition to implementing security controls, it is important for organizations to continuously monitor their supply chain for security threats and respond immediately to any incidents.

When it comes to establishing partnerships, organizations should form partnerships with their software suppliers to make sure that their software providers are adhering to security best practices and provide a direct line of contact in the event of security incidents or breaches. Due diligence should also be carried out for the vendors and service providers.

Finally, find and fix vulnerabilities. Software that is not patched is a key cause of supply chain intrusions. Attackers look for vulnerable systems to exploit after a vulnerability advisory is made public. In order to find flaws in third-party code and suggest fixes like patches and upgrades, your IT staff needs to use a software composition analysis testing tool.

Bonus Tip: Create a Response Plan

One should always be prepared for the worst-case scenario so that even if the worst happens, there’s a practical plan in place to mitigate the effect.

An incident response plan outlines what must be done, by whom, and in what order in the event of an attack. The RACI matrix could be used as an indicator for identifying who should be told only during such an incident, who should be consulted, and who is accountable for taking action. 

Conclusion

Your catastrophe recovery strategy needs to be well-thought-out and put through its paces. System compromises and ransomware attacks can be averted using a proven recovery procedure.

Attacks on the software supply chain are scarce, but they can be quite disruptive.

For the security and integrity of software applications, it is essential to comprehend and manage third-party code in the software supply chain. The software supply chain may be exposed to dangers and risks as a result of dependencies and security flaws introduced by third-party code.

Knowing your supply chain, evaluating the third parties you rely on, scanning software components for vulnerabilities, and having a strong incident management plan are the first steps in providing a solid defense against this kind of attack.

Tanya Bhateja

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