Tightening the Software Supply Chain in the Fight Against Ransomware | Hitachi Vantara
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Tightening the Software Supply Chain in the Fight Against Ransomware

Hu Yoshida

Hu Yoshida

CTO Emeritus at Hitachi Vantara.

Hubert Yoshida, is an Emeritus CTO, who retired from Hitachi Vantara in 2020 after 24 years helping to define the technical direction for Hitachi Vantara in helping customers address their Digital Transformation requirements. He was instrumental in evangelizing Hitachi’s unique approach to storage virtualization and is well known within the storage industry. His blog was consistently ranked among the “Top 10 Vendor blogs” by various organizations like Network World. Prior to joining Hitachi Data Systems in 1997, Yoshida spent 25 years with IBM’s storage division, where he held management positions in hardware performance, software development and product management. Yoshida is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in Mathematics. He was a Marine Corps Platoon Commander during the Vietnam War and was discharged with the rank of Captain. Yoshida has authored several papers on Storage Area Networks, Fibre Channel, multi-protocol SANs and storage virtualization technologies. He has also served on the advisory boards of several technology companies and was the chair on the Scientific Advisory Board for the Data Storage Institute of the Government of Singapore. As an Emeritus CTO, Mr. Yoshida stays current with Hitachi Vantara’s progress and contributes blogs to provide thought leadership and communicate Hitachi Vantara’s value to the community.

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July 11, 2022

Software, once the product of developers confined to writing long lines of code for specific applications, is now an exercise of integration – an amalgamation of third-party components provided by a variety of vendors, cloud providers and open source software (OSS) groups. In fact, today, as much as 90% of code comes from such outlets, creating a software supply chain.

There are great advantages to the software supply chain, including easy access to innovative functions, faster development cycles, greater efficiencies, and lower costs. But as one might expect, with so many external touchpoints and bits and pieces of third-party software being integrated, the opportunity for flaws and mistakes to be made, backdoors to be left open, and of course unauthorized access, increases.

Indeed, 2021 was a particularly big year for software supply chain attacks, the most destructive being that of the SUNBURST malicious code compromise of SolarWinds’ Orion Platform software. The sudden scourge prompted President Biden to issue a cybersecurity executive order in May 2021, detailing guidelines for how federal departments, agencies, and contractors doing business with the government must secure their software.

Although advanced data protection and data backup solutions can help organizations recover quickly from cyberattacks like ransomware, more must be done to attack the problem at the supply chain level.

Finding the Weak Links

Software supply chain cyberattacks work by exploiting a software component of a built product. They are distinct from traditional perimeter-penetration hacks, like email phishing attacks, as it is much easier to compromise a library, for example, that’s bundled into a main software build. With such hacks, products can be compromised at the factory, at the software-development level, or through maintenance upgrades that have been purchased and deployed into the network. After installation, the compromised nodes survey the network, then contact the command-and-control system owned by the cybercriminals.

This lets the perpetrators know their product is online. This particular type of hack is commonly called an Advanced Persistent Threat (APT), which is a prolonged and targeted cyberattack. With APTs, an intruder gains access to a network and remains undetected, or dormant, for a period of time until the cyber criminals decide it is the right time to initiate some action. That action may be confined to a particular group or business function, or widespread across multiple systems, like a critical infrastructure grid.

Another weak link in the software supply chain can be open-source software. Often, vulnerabilities and weaknesses within open-source code can go unmitigated, given the developers’ lack of resources. The Heartbleed bug in the open-source OpenSSL cryptographic library is just one example. OpenSSL was included in thousands of software solutions but maintained by minimal part-time staff. It was difficult to correct and replace when researchers found a flaw in the OpenSSL cryptographic library. Cybercriminals clued into the flaw, scanned for this version of OpenSSL on deployed software, and exploited it where possible. There is even older open-source code in existence with vulnerabilities that have no people or resources behind them to fix/update.

A New Era of Diligence & Vigilance

There is much that can be done to thwart such attacks, from diligently monitoring known vulnerability catalogs and lists, to legislating laws to identify and prohibit new activity when it arises.

Among the many functions of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), is the monitoring and cataloging of known software vulnerabilities. For the first quarter of 2022, alone, NIST’s  National Vulnerability Database lists 8,051 vulnerabilities, which is about 25 percent more than the year-ago period. 

Recently, the already infamous Log4J vulnerability was discovered. According to the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), Log4J is a remote code execution (RCE) of the Apache Software Foundation’s Log4J library.

“Apache’s Log4j software library, versions 2.0-beta9 to 2.14.1, known as "Log4Shell." Log4j is very broadly used in a variety of consumer and enterprise services, websites, and applications—as well as in operational technology products—to log security and performance information. An unauthenticated remote actor could exploit this vulnerability to take control of an affected system.” – CISA

In addition to the NVD, CISA also manages an up to date catalog of known exploited vulnerabilities. Be well aware, however, that hackers, too, have access to such lists. As a result, organizations that don’t routinely scan for exposures and install the upgrades and patches should not be surprised to find themselves in the crosshairs of the next attack.

As for President Biden’s 2021 Executive Order, the directive includes a requirement for software vendors contracting with the federal government to provide a “software bill of materials” (SBOMs) for the first time. Essentially, SBOMs are written records of the “ingredients” comprising a software product, open source and proprietary code. They include anything that went into, or affects, the software code – everything from who contributed to the code, what security tools were used, and known vulnerabilities, to the types of enterprise software it will support, and more.

Technically, the SBOM is a hierarchical and machine-readable inventory of all open source and third-party components present in a codebase. But the main goal of the SBOM is to try and ensure that components (physical and/or digital) are trustworthy (uncompromised) and come from vetted suppliers.

It’s Time to Tighten the Software Supply Chain

The world is now well aware of the threat and impact of ransomware; companies are paying more attention and educating employees about precautions needed, implementing cyber security systems, encrypting data, improving backup and recovery of critical data and systems. Many are working more closely with cybersecurity advisory groups like CISA and NIST and even making greater use of insurance.

But equal vigor must be applied to the software supply chain. Data protection and resilience is key to recovering quicky from cyberattacks like ransomware. But diligence and vigilance of all aspects of software development, must also be applied. Rigorous testing through the lifecycle, robust governance and a zero-trust policy within the development processes, as well as the vigilant monitoring of external vulnerabilities, are critical steps that need to be taken to start tightening the software supply chain – and slowing down ransomware.

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