10 recommendations for securing the IT supply chain

The National Institute of Standards and Technology has streamlined its recommendations for securing the federal IT supply chain, focusing on a set of key elements to help ensure the security and reliability of information and communications systems agencies are acquiring.

Government increasingly relies on off-the-shelf hardware and software for cost-effective systems, but agencies often lack an understanding of the supply chain and its risks, exposing them to threats such as counterfeit materials, malicious software embedded in products, and other untrustworthy components.

Guidelines included in NIST draft Interagency Report 7622, “Notional Supply Chain Risk Management for Federal Information Systems,” are intended to provide repeatable and commercially reasonable practices. The current draft narrows the recommendations to 10 overarching practices, down from 21 practices in the original draft, released in 2010.


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Supply chain security has been recognized as an essential element of cybersecurity because of the possibility the software and equipment could be compromised at their sources. with back doors or malicious code that could allow adversaries later access to critical IT systems. There also is a threat that counterfeit or other substandard products could jeopardize the safety of systems in which they are used. At the same time, supply chains are becoming more decentralized and complex in a global economy.

“Federal agency information systems are increasingly at risk of both intentional and unintentional supply chain compromise due to the growing sophistication of information and communications technologies and the growing speed and scale of a complex, distributed global supply chain,” the report states.

The recommendations in the document are built primarily on existing practices, many of them already included in NIST and other documents, and are not limited to procurement. The chain extends from product research and development through acquisition and operation to system retirement. Recommendations are intended primarily for use on systems categorized as high-impact level in Federal Information Processing Standard 199.

The recommendations are not prescriptive. “Organizations should select and tailor the practices in this document based on the suitability for a specific application or acquisition and combined impact on the performance, cost and schedule,” the report states.

The recommended risk management practices are:

  • Uniquely identify supply chain elements, processes and actors. Without knowing who and what are in the supply chain, it is impossible to determine what happened, mitigate the incident, and prevent it from happening again.
  • Limit access and exposure within the supply chain. It is critical to limit access to only what is necessary to perform a job and to monitor that access.
  • Create and maintain the provenance of elements, processes, tools and data. Acquirers, integrators, and suppliers should maintain records of the origin of and changes to elements under their control to understand where they have been and who has access to them.
  • Share information within strict limits. Ensure that information gets to those who need it in to perform their jobs, but that it is controlled according to policy.
  • Perform supply chain risk management awareness and training. A strong risk mitigation strategy cannot be put in place without training personnel on policy, procedures, and applicable management, operational, and technical controls and practices.
  • Use defensive design for systems, elements and processes. Defensive design techniques address contingencies in the technical, behavioral and organizational activities that could result in adverse events.
  • Perform continuous integrator review to ensure that defensive measures have been deployed.
  • Strengthen delivery mechanisms. Delivery can be both physical (such as for hardware) and logical (software modules and patches). Because delivery may be compromised anywhere along the supply chain and life cycle, both physical and logical mechanisms should protect the confidentiality, integrity, or availability of elements being delivered.
  • Assure sustainment activities and processes. This includes maintenance, upgrade, patching, replacement and other activities that keep systems operational.
  • Manage disposal and final disposition activities throughout the system or element life cycle. Disposal can occur at any point in the life cycle. While poor disposal procedures can lead to unauthorized access to systems, disposal is often performed by actors who may not be aware of supply chain threats or procedures.

Comments on the draft Interagency Report 7622 should be sent by May 25 to scrm-nist@nist.gov.

 

About the Author

William Jackson is freelance writer and the author of the CyberEye blog.

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