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Software Supply Chain Security Explained

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Software product delivery relies on a combination of proprietary code, third-party libraries, external web APIs, code repositories, and cloud infrastructure. This assembly is called the software supply chain, and a single vulnerability in any of these elements can disrupt the entire software delivery process, potentially leading to sensitive data breaches that can directly impact customers.

As software developers and technology managers, securing the code you write is not enough. You must also secure all the external dependencies your software uses or connects to. Securing the software supply chain not only ensures that the software development lifecycle remains an engine of innovation but also guarantees the safety and trust of your customers and end users.

Here are some common challenges organizations face and best practices for ensuring supply chain security. But first, what is software supply chain security? 

What Is Software Supply Chain Security?

Software supply chain security consists of all practices, processes, and technologies designed to protect the integrity, confidentiality, and availability of the software supply chain.

The software supply chain includes every internal and external component involved in creating, distributing, deploying, and maintaining your software. This includes:

  1. Code Dependencies: The codebase you develop, its dependencies, libraries, frameworks, web APIs, and third-party components interacting with your codebase. 

  2. Development and Build Tools: The tools and environments you use for coding, testing, building, and packaging your software are also crucial parts of the supply chain.

  3. Infrastructure and Hosting: The systems, servers, cloud services, continuous integration/continuous deployment (CI/CD) pipelines, and source code repositories where your software is hosted.

Software supply chain security is important because software supply chain attacks are becoming increasingly common and costly. Cybersecurity Ventures predicts that the global costs of these supply chain attacks will reach nearly $138 billion by 2031. This is unsurprising because as software systems become more interconnected through APIs and third-party integrations, the attack surface expands, providing more opportunities for attackers to exploit vulnerabilities.

To protect your business and your customers’ businesses, it’s critical to secure all internal and external components involved in your software's lifecycle against malicious attackers.

Common Software Supply Chain Security Threats

A software supply chain attack is any instance where an attacker interferes with or hijacks the software manufacturing process (software development lifecycle) or any components used to develop software, exposing users of the finished product or service to risk.

Understanding these attacks is crucial for securing the entire software development lifecycle. Here are some common attack vectors throughout the software supply chain.

1. Attack Due to Vulnerable Open Source Packages

Modern software development heavily relies on open-source components. Attackers can exploit weaknesses in these open-source libraries or components, leading to data breaches, system compromises, and unauthorized access.

For example, the 2017 Equifax breach involved a critical vulnerability in the open-source Apache Struts framework. Hackers exploited this flaw to gain access to Equifax servers, compromising the personal information of millions of users.

2. Attack Due to Insecure Code Practices

Poor coding practices, like weak authentication and authorization, insufficient input validation, insecure data storage, or hardcoded credentials, can introduce vulnerabilities in the software. Insecure coding practices are often unintentional but can have devastating consequences.

For example, in May 2021, the Colonial Pipeline, a major fuel pipeline system in the United States, suffered a significant ransomware attack. The attack was caused by insecure coding practices that left an old Virtual Private Network (VPN) system vulnerable without multi-factor authentication. Using a compromised password, the hacking group gained initial access to Colonial Pipeline's network through the insecure VPN system. For several days, this attack disrupted fuel distribution on the East Coast, causing gas shortages and price hikes. 

3. Attack on the Software Delivery (CI/CD) Pipeline

In this attack, malicious actors target the code delivery pipeline to inject malicious code or tamper with the deployment process. CI/CD pipeline attacks can lead to the distribution of compromised software versions, introducing backdoors, malware, or unauthorized changes into production environments.

The 2020 Codecov supply chain attack targeted a popular code coverage service (Codecov). This tool sits in the CI/CD pipeline to check how much of an application is covered by automated tests. Attackers exploited an error in how Codecov created their docker images and put a backdoor into a Codecov update, exposing customer data to hackers.

4. Dependency Confusion Attacks

Dependency confusion attacks exploit the way software packages are downloaded and managed. Attackers will publish malicious packages with names similar to legitimate ones, tricking developers into downloading the compromised version. In 2020, security researcher Alex Birsan coined the name for this attack after successfully attacking well-known companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Shopify.

He started by installing malicious packages on public repositories like npm and PyPI. These packages had names designed to closely resemble those used by these companies for their private packages. This trickery fooled automated build systems into installing Birsan's malicious code instead of the legitimate private ones. This compromise potentially allowed Birsan to execute code remotely on some targeted systems.

5. Social Engineering Attacks

Social engineering attacks exploit human vulnerabilities. Attackers might target developers or other personnel involved in the software supply chain with phishing emails, malware-laden links, or social media scams. In the 2022 Uber hack, the attacker used social engineering techniques to gain initial access to Uber's systems.

Specifically, the hacker sent repeated push notifications to an Uber employee's authentication app, then contacted the employee over WhatsApp pretending to be an Uber IT worker, claiming the notifications were a technical issue. This tricked the employee into revealing their login credentials, allowing the hacker to bypass Uber's multi-factor authentication and access the company's internal systems and data.

Best Practices for Securing the Software Supply Chain

Your supply chain's security is only as strong as its weakest link. Combining security measures across the chain strengthens your defenses against various threats.

1. Assess Your Organization’s Threat Landscape and Establish a Security Framework

Conduct a thorough assessment of your threat landscape and identify potential attack vectors, vulnerabilities, and risks. Based on this information, evaluate your organization's ability to detect, respond to, and remediate threats. Then, establish a robust security framework that outlines policies, procedures, and technologies to mitigate identified risks.

2. Perform Code Reviews Before Code Is Checked Into the Repository 

Allowing unreviewed code into your repository increases the risk of introducing vulnerabilities and errors into your software supply chain. Define coding standards, conduct regular code reviews, and use automated tools to detect common issues such as code smells and other OWASP Top 10 security vulnerabilities. Ensure that code reviews focus not only on functionality but also on security best practices.

3. Implement Application Security Testing 

Incorporate various application security testing techniques into your development pipeline, such as static application security testing (SAST) and dynamic application security testing (DAST). These tools scan code for vulnerabilities and security misconfigurations. Integrate security testing into your CI/CD pipeline to ensure continuous monitoring and validation of application security.

4. Keep Configurations and Credentials Secure

Improperly managed configurations and credentials can lead to unauthorized access and data breaches, compromising the software supply chain. Implement authentication measures and strong access controls to secure configurations and credentials. Use role-based access control (RBAC), least privilege principles, and multi-factor authentication (MFA) to limit access to sensitive resources. Encrypt sensitive data at rest and in transit, and regularly rotate credentials to minimize the impact of potential breaches.

5. Keep Records of What Is in Your Applications (SBOM)

Maintain a Software Bill of Materials (SBOM) that lists all components, libraries, and dependencies used in your applications. You can perform a software composition analysis to ensure that all components, including open-source ones, meet quality and security standards before being integrated into the final product. Regularly update SBOMs to reflect changes in dependencies and versions and use them as a basis for vulnerability management and patching.

6. Verify All Open-source Supply Chain Dependencies

Verify all open-source dependencies' authenticity, integrity, and security before installing them into your software ecosystem. You can use automated tools like the OWASP Dependency Check to track open-source dependencies and identify known vulnerabilities.

7.  Prioritize Team Education and Training

Prioritize ongoing education and training for your development teams on secure coding techniques, social engineering attacks, and security best practices. Provide regular security awareness sessions, workshops, and certifications to build a strong security culture within the organization. Our 2024 State of Software Quality report found that many teams are already doing this, with 46% stating that they provide ongoing security training for developers.

Improve Your Software Supply Chain Security With Codacy

The complexity of the software supply chain demands a holistic approach to security. Implementing the best practices outlined above can significantly reduce the risk of supply chain attacks and build trust in your software. Codacy offers a robust suite of security features designed to empower you throughout the software development lifecycle:

  • Automated Application Security Testing: Codacy offers industry-leading SAST functionality to help identify coding vulnerabilities in your codebase early on.

  • Insecure Dependencies Detection: Codacy’s vulnerability scanning includes insecure dependency detection to help check for vulnerabilities within open-source libraries and frameworks you rely on.

  • Secret Detection: Codacy also helps prevent accidental exposure of sensitive data like API keys and passwords by identifying them within your code before deployment.

  • Security Dashboard and Reporting: With Codacy, you can gain a centralized view of security risks across your projects. 

By integrating Codacy into your development workflow, you can proactively address security concerns, collaborate effectively with your team, and build a more secure software supply chain. 

Start a 14-day trial today to see how Codacy can simplify your software supply chain security.

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