Over the last few years we have experienced a huge expansion and adoption of online services precipitated by a global pandemic. By all accounts, a good proportion of these changes will become permanent, resulting in greater reliance on resilient, secure services to support activities from online banking and telemedicine to e-commerce, curbside pickup, and home delivery of everything from groceries to apparel and electronics.

The growth of digital services has brought with it new and expanding operational risks that have the potential to impact not just a particular entity or industry, but are a serious concern for all private and public industries alike. Recently we witnessed just how serious and threatening a particular risk – the compromise of a widely used supply chain – can be. When we think about supply chain attacks, we tend to conjure up an image of grocery or pharmaceutical products being deliberately contaminated or some other physical threat against things we buy or the components that collectively become a finished product. What the 2020 SolarWinds breach has starkly highlighted, to a much broader audience, is the threat that is posed to our digital tools and the truly frightening cascade effect on the digital supply chain from a single breach to other industries and, in turn, to their end customers. When we embrace a technology or platform and deploy it on-premise, any threat associated with it is now inside our environment, frequently with administrative rights – and although the threat actors may be external to the company, the threat vector is internal. Essentially, it has become an insider threat that is unfettered by perimeter defenses, and if not contained, may move unchecked within the organization.

To illustrate, consider the potential risk to a software solutions provider compromised by a digital supply chain attack. Unlike most physical supply chain attacks, the compromised systems are not tied to a downstream product. The risk of lateral movement in the digital realm once inside perimeter defenses is far greater: in a worst-case scenario, malicious actors could gain access to the source code for multiple products. Viewing the inner workings of an application may reveal undisclosed vulnerabilities and create opportunities for future malicious activity and, in extreme cases, may allow an attacker to modify the source code. This in itself represents a potential future supply chain compromise. The entities who had potentially been breached due to their use of SolarWinds included both private and public sector organizations. While neither relied on SolarWinds directly for their business activities, the nature of a supply chain compromise exposed them to the possibility that one breach can more easily beget another.

What should private and public institutions do to protect themselves? When we examine organizational risk, we look, primarily, at two things – How can we reduce the probability of a successful attack? How do we mitigate damage should an attack be successful?

Preparing the environment

  • Identify what constitutes appropriate access in the environment – which systems, networks, roles, groups or individuals need access to what and to what degree?
  • Baseline the environment – ensure we know what “normal” operation looks like so we can identify “abnormal” behavior in the environment.
  • Ensure an appropriate staffing level, what our team/individual roles and responsibilities are and ensure staff are trained appropriately. No amount of technology will prevent a breach if the staff are not adequately trained and/or processes break down.
  • Implement the tools and processes mentioned in later sections. Test the staff, tools and processes regularly – once an attack is underway, it’s too late.

Reducing the probability

  • Ensure users are who they claim to be, and employ a least privilege approach, meaning their access is appropriate for their role and no more. This can be accomplished by deploying Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) and a Zero-Trust model, which means that if you are not granted access, you do not have implicit or inherited access.
  • Enforce that only validated secure traffic can enter, exit or traverse your environment, including to cloud providers, by leveraging NextGen Firewalls (NGFW), Intrusion Prevention/Detection Systems (IPS/IDS), DNS validation and Threat Intelligence information to proactively safeguard against known malicious actors and resources, to name a few.
  • For developers, implement code validation and reviews to ensure that the code in the repository is the same code that was developed and checked into the repository and enforce access controls to the repository and compilation resources.

“There are two types of companies: those that have been
hacked, and those who don’t know they have been hacked.”
– John Chambers

Reducing the impact

Former Cisco Chairman John Chambers famously said, “There are two types of companies: those that have been hacked, and those who don’t know they have been hacked”. You can attempt to reduce the probability of a successful attack; however, the probability will never be zero. Successful breaches are inevitable, and we should plan accordingly. Many of the mechanisms are common to our efforts to reduce the probability of a successful attack and must be in place prior to an attack. In order to reduce the impact of a breach we must reduce the amount to time an attacker is in the environment and limit the scope of the attack such as the value/criticality of the exposure. According to IBM, tin their annual Cost of Data Breach 2022 Report, data breaches taking more than 200 days to identify and contain cost on average $4.86M, but are $1.12M, or 26.5%, less costly on average if identified and contained in less than 200 days.

  • A least privilege or Zero-Trust model may prevent an attacker from gaining access to the data they seek. This is particularly true for third party tools that provide limited visibility into their inner workings and that may have access to mission critical systems.
  • Appropriate segmentation of the network should keep an attacker from traversing the network in search of data and/or from systems to mount pivot attacks.
  • Automated detection of, and response to, a breach is critical to reducing the time to detect. The longer an attacker is in the environment the more damage and loss can occur.
  • Encrypt traffic on the network while maintaining visibility into that traffic.
  • Ensure the capability to retrospectively track where an attacker has been to better remediate vulnerabilities and determine their original attack vector.

The SolarWinds breach was a harsh example of the insidious nature of a digital supply chain compromise. It’s also a reminder of the immeasurable importance of a comprehensive security strategy, robust security solution capabilities, and technology partners with the expertise and skills to help enterprises – including financial services institutions – and public institutions meet these challenges confidently.

To learn more about how to secure your financial institution, read our 2021 Security Outcomes for Financial Services and its follow-up report, Security Outcomes Study, Volume 2.


Mark Scanlan

Global Industry Lead for Retail

Industry Solutions Group, Cisco Systems