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The Age of Software Supply Chain Disruption

The software supply chain is swiftly becoming a widespread attack vector, and securing it is now in the spotlight. Software supply chain attacks have become a given in 2022, reports Darktrace.

SolarWinds, Kaseya and GitLab are just a few examples of organizations that have been vulnerable to attack in recent years. We’ve also witnessed an increasing number of exploits, like Log4j and Log4Shell that have the potential to affect billions of devices. What these instances have in common is they leverage vulnerabilities in open source software and third-party dependencies commonly used in the software delivery process — meaning one corrupt package could have broad encompassing impacts on the tech industry at large.

I recently chatted with Doug Dooley, COO, Data Theorem, about the consequences of today’s intricate software supply chains. “The software supply chain problem is bad, but it’s only going to get worse in the next five years,” he said. According to Dooley, application security requires a continuous context of how the app functions at runtime in a software ecosystem—otherwise, it will continue to miss gaping holes in the big picture.

Understanding Software Supply Chain Disruption

Most people understand what a traditional product supply chain is—it encompasses all the components involved to bring a product to the end consumer, from raw materials to manufacturing, distribution and retail locations. But, amid the pandemic and recent international conflict, we’ve witnessed how brittle this chain is. If you shut down one of these components, all consumers feel the effect, resulting in everything from gas hikes to baby food shortages. A full 61% of organizations were hit by supply chain attacks in 2021.

In software, the supply chain can be thought of similarly—there are many components involved between a software product and the end consumer. The developer writes code, integrates third-party libraries and frameworks, puts it in source code systems, pushes it to test environments and eventually deploys it to production. And often, DevOps has the view of this whole picture.

“DevOps has become some of the most powerful people in the business,” said Dooley. “They can take a business person’s idea and turn it into reality in the form of an application.”

Third-party exposures can create huge disruptions in this above workflow. This could take the form of insecure libraries, underlying cloud vulnerabilities or API vulnerabilities, says Dooley. “Customers will embed APIs in the software stack—to them, it’s a black box.” There’s also the potential for misconfigured S3 buckets, which continually leak millions of records. More serious application security threats include remote code execution, which can invoke a detrimental loss of control.

Why Now?

So, why the sudden peak in software supply chain-related security incidents? After all, open source software, APIs and third-party vendors have been around for decades. Well, according to Dooley, there are several factors at play here.

For years, the Silicon Valley mantra has been to ‘move fast and break things.’ Take Netflix engineering, for example, which is constantly evolving services and releasing dozens of changes per day. According to Dooley, such rapid application development often means that security is following development rather than preceding it or becoming integrated into the process, à la DevSecOps. This could lead to what he calls an “ambulance chaser moment.”

The attack surface is heightened as the number of third-party suppliers and dependencies increases. The average company has 254 SaaS apps, Productiv data found. Also, on the attacker side, we’re seeing increasing levels of automation and sophistication. “You only have to be right one time when attacking,” said Dooley. “The deck is stacked in an attacker’s favor.”

Strengthening The Chain

The software supply chain issue is a complex problem that won’t be solved by any single action. However, Dooley offered several tips for companies to consider as they confront this broad problem:

  • Source code analysis and vendor management. It’s important to vet partners and have a process to audit new software by scanning for common vulnerabilities and exposures (CVEs). Yet, source code analysis falls short in many areas, admitted Dooley, as it is unlikely you will be able to view the source code behind cloud API calls and production behavior doesn’t always match documentation.
  • Continuous runtime security monitoring. New exploits are being found constantly. Thus, organizations require a continuous defensive posture at runtime, even if they were found to be secure in development. Continuous full-stack discovery must consider many third-party components, like SDKs, open source code, mobile apps, web services, cloud services, APIs and identity and access management, explains Dooley.
  • Increased transparency with SBOMs. More widespread use of software bills of materials (SBOMs) will be critical to increasing transparency across the industry. Just as nutrition facts describe the food we eat, SBOMs spell out the internal makeup of software components. “We’re trying to get to a place where we get more transparency into the software we depend on,” Dooley said.
  • Rapid vulnerability detection. Have a good handle on the attack surface. Businesses will want to collect an accurate inventory of what can be attacked.
  • Build protection around the “crown jewels.” Sometimes, you must prioritize which steps to take first. Dooley reiterated that securing applications that interface with customer data is critical, as these are the “crown jewels”—leaks here could have serious consequences around regulatory penalties and brand reputation.

Caution: Heavy Lifting Required

“The moment you ship a piece of software, you’ve taken on a risk,” said Dooley. But at the same time, if you’re not creating digital interfaces, you’re missing out on massive opportunities.

Reusing code and open source packages have become necessary to maintain agility to help continuously release digital products. “Even if you build everything from scratch, you’re still reusing a lot,” said Dooley. “Without it, you’d never get to market.” While these tools enable unprecedented speed, we can’t overlook the potential vulnerabilities that may lie within the software supply chain.

With its unique window into the software deployment and automation process, the DevOps sphere will undoubtedly have a role to play in protecting this paradigm. “Let’s push for more transparency and disclosure,” said Dooley. “But don’t hang your hat on that to make your program great—if you really care about this problem, you’ll have to do some heavy lifting in the real world.”

Bill Doerrfeld

Bill Doerrfeld is a tech journalist and analyst. His beat is cloud technologies, specifically the web API economy. He began researching APIs as an Associate Editor at ProgrammableWeb, and since 2015 has been the Editor at Nordic APIs, a high impact blog on API strategy for providers. He loves discovering new trends, researching new technology, and writing on topics like DevOps, REST design, GraphQL, SaaS marketing, IoT, AI, and more. He also gets out into the world to speak occasionally.

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