[Pinned] Top 12 Clever Supply Chain Attack Tactics

A supply chain attack is one of the most dangerous form of cyberattack that targets the software supply chain, which comprises the elaborate network of vendors and dependencies responsible for delivering essential components to software applications. In orchestrating such an attack, a malicious actor skillfully identifies and exploits a vulnerability within a third-party component or software library that the targeted application depends on. Successfully breaching this component allows the attacker to infiltrate the system, exfiltrate sensitive data, or assume control of the application, causing significant damage to the targeted organization.

As a responsible and diligent software developer, it is vital for you to maintain constant vigilance over security concerns in the ever-evolving world of technology. This entails developing a comprehensive understanding of the tactics and techniques employed by attackers, including the various nuances of supply chain attacks. With this knowledge, you can implement appropriate countermeasures to defend against potential threats. It is crucial for you to adhere to secure coding practices, regularly perform vulnerability assessments and penetration testing, and ensure that your software and its dependencies remain up to date with the latest security patches. By proactively embracing these strategies, you can not only effectively deter supply chain attacks but also bolster the security and integrity of your software applications.

To better equip you in understanding the evolving landscape of cybersecurity threats, we have compiled a list of the top 12 ingenious methods that blackhats use to exploit supply chains. These tactics demonstrate the creativity and persistence of malicious actors, highlighting the importance of staying informed and maintaining robust security measures to protect your software applications and their users.

1. Creating a Compromised Plugin or Extension

An attacker targets a popular open source project with a thriving ecosystem of plugins or extensions. The attacker develops a seemingly useful and well-crafted plugin or extension that contains hidden malicious code.

The attacker promotes their compromised plugin through various channels, such as social media, online forums, and blog posts. As users adopt the plugin, they unknowingly introduce the attacker’s malicious code into their systems, compromising their security.

The attacker can then leverage the compromised plugin to gain unauthorized access to user data, manipulate system behavior, or launch further attacks. The malicious plugin may continue to operate undetected, as users typically trust the plugins and extensions available for a popular open source project.

2. Masquerading as a Superior Alternative to Popular Projects

First, the attacker identifies a popular open source project and its close competitor. They decide to create a counterfeit version of either the original project or its competing project, mimicking its features, appearance, and branding, but embedding malicious code within its source.

To make their counterfeit project even more appealing, the attacker forks the popular project and implements the most requested features that the original project has not yet incorporated. By doing this, they increase the chances of attracting users who have been eagerly waiting for these features in the original project.

The attacker then launches a disinformation campaign, promoting their counterfeit project as a superior alternative to both the original project and its competitor. They use tactics such as fake reviews, social media posts, and blog articles to market their counterfeit project. The attacker may also attempt to undermine the reputation of both the original project and its competitor by spreading false information or exaggerating their flaws.

Unsuspecting users, believing the counterfeit project to be a legitimate and improved alternative, adopt it and inadvertently expose their systems to compromise. The attacker can then exploit the malicious code embedded in the counterfeit project to gain unauthorized access to user data, manipulate system behavior, or perform other malicious activities.

3. Establishing Trust with Project Administrators

In this hypothetical scenario, a malicious attacker carefully selects popular packages and libraries, aiming to identify projects in need of volunteers where they can contribute as an open source developer. The attacker’s strategy revolves around ingratiating themselves with the project’s community and building trust with the package administrator or owner.

The attacker may spend a considerable amount of time—months or even years—working diligently on the project, actively participating in discussions, and resolving issues. They cultivate a positive image, appearing as a dedicated and reliable community member who is genuinely invested in the project’s success. By contributing valuable work, the attacker gradually gains the trust of the package administrator, who may have other obligations, such as a day job, that limit their availability for the project.

Once the attacker has established themselves as a trusted contributor, they may request write access to the supply chain or exploit their influence in the community to assume a more prominent role in the project. This strategy capitalizes on the natural turnover of administrators and maintainers in open source projects, which can result from various factors such as burnout, loss of interest, or personal reasons.

4. Exploiting a Third-Party Dependency

An attacker analyzes the dependencies of a popular open source project to find a less-known, but widely-used, third-party library. The attacker then focuses their efforts on compromising this library, either by becoming a trusted contributor or exploiting an existing vulnerability.

Once the attacker gains control over the third-party library, they introduce malicious code that is difficult to detect. Since the library is a dependency of the popular open source project, the project’s maintainers unknowingly integrate the compromised library into their codebase.

As users of the open source project update their systems, they inadvertently install the compromised library as well. This allows the attacker to exploit the vulnerability on a large scale, potentially affecting numerous users and organizations.

5. Co-opting a Trusted Contributor’s Account

An attacker targets a trusted contributor of a popular open source project by studying their online presence and habits. The attacker identifies a vulnerability in the contributor’s personal security, such as a weak password or susceptibility to phishing attacks.

The attacker exploits this weakness to gain access to the contributor’s account on the project’s version control system. With access to the account, the attacker can now make changes to the project’s source code under the guise of the trusted contributor.

By carefully crafting malicious commits that appear innocuous, the attacker is able to introduce vulnerabilities into the project’s codebase without raising suspicion. Users of the project, trusting the contributions made by the compromised account, unwittingly introduce the attacker’s code into their systems, leading to a large-scale supply chain compromise.

6. Acquiring Open Source Projects Through Monetary Incentives

In some cases, attackers have been known to obtain ownership of open source projects by offering financial incentives to the original developers. This approach can be particularly effective if the developers are experiencing financial difficulties, lack the resources to continue maintaining the project, or have lost interest in the project.

By gaining ownership of the project, the attacker can introduce vulnerabilities or backdoors into the code, compromising the supply chain and potentially affecting a large number of users. They may also exploit the project’s reputation and user base for their own gain or leverage the project’s resources and infrastructure for other malicious activities.

7. Manipulating Project Documentation

In this creative scenario, an attacker focuses on the documentation of a popular open source project. They seek out vulnerabilities in the documentation hosting platform or infiltrate the project’s documentation team, gaining the ability to edit and modify the documentation.

The attacker subtly alters the documentation to introduce incorrect or misleading information, encouraging users to implement insecure configurations, use deprecated functions, or download malicious packages disguised as legitimate dependencies.

As users follow the manipulated documentation, they unknowingly expose their systems to compromise. The attacker can exploit the vulnerabilities introduced through the altered documentation to gain unauthorized access to user data, manipulate system behavior, or launch further attacks.

8. Infiltrating the Hiring Process

A malicious attacker targets a specific organization known for its open source project, which has a significant impact on a particular industry. The attacker researches the company’s structure and identifies an open position that would grant them access to the project’s source code and infrastructure. They then create a fake, yet impressive, resume and apply for the job, successfully landing an interview.

During the interview process, the attacker exhibits exceptional technical skills and a deep understanding of the project’s domain, impressing the hiring team. Once hired, the attacker gradually earns the trust of their colleagues and supervisors, gaining more access and influence over the project’s development.

With time, the attacker subtly introduces vulnerabilities or backdoors into the codebase, leading to a compromised supply chain. By the time their actions are discovered, they have already inflicted significant damage and potentially affected a large number of users.

9. Hijacking a Popular User Support Channel

An attacker identifies a popular open source project with a bustling user support channel, such as a forum or a chat group. The attacker infiltrates the support channel, posing as a helpful and knowledgeable community member.

Over time, the attacker gains the trust of users seeking assistance and offers tailored advice to solve their problems. However, the attacker begins to distribute seemingly harmless solutions that actually contain hidden exploits, such as recommending a specific patch or configuration that introduces a vulnerability.

As users implement the attacker’s suggested solutions, they unknowingly expose their systems to compromise. The attacker’s deep involvement in the support channel allows them to stay up-to-date on the latest issues and user concerns, enabling them to craft increasingly targeted and effective attacks.

10. Exploiting Insecure Update Servers

An attacker targets an open source project that has a large user base but an insecure update server. The update server hosts the update files and is responsible for delivering new versions, patches, and improvements of the software to the users.

The attacker conducts extensive research on the update server to identify potential vulnerabilities or weaknesses in the system. These vulnerabilities could be due to poor encryption, lack of authentication, or insufficient validation of the update files being delivered to users.

Once the attacker identifies a weakness in the update server, they exploit it to gain unauthorized access and tamper with the update files hosted on the server. The attacker injects malicious payloads into the update files, which could be malware, ransomware, or code designed to create backdoors, granting them unauthorized access to users’ systems.

When users trustingly download and install the compromised updates, they inadvertently introduce the attacker’s malicious code into their systems. As a result, the attacker gains control over the users’ systems and can execute various malicious activities, such as data exfiltration or remote code execution.

The compromised update server may remain undetected for an extended period, allowing the attacker to continuously exploit the vulnerability, affecting numerous users and systems in the process.

11. Compromising Core Team Members and Trusted Contributors

An attacker targets the core team members and trusted contributors of a popular open source project. The attacker employs social engineering tactics, such as phishing emails or other deceptive communication methods, to trick the core team members and contributors into revealing sensitive information, such as login credentials or access tokens.

Once the attacker gains access to the accounts of core team members or trusted contributors, they can use their privileged positions to introduce malicious code into the project’s source code or manipulate project decisions. They may discreetly modify the codebase, introduce security vulnerabilities, or compromise the project’s infrastructure without raising suspicion, as the changes appear to come from legitimate and trusted sources.

As users continue to rely on the compromised project, they unknowingly introduce the attacker’s malicious code into their systems. This can lead to unauthorized access to user data, manipulation of system behavior, or the execution of other malicious activities. The attacker can maintain their covert presence within the project by exploiting the trust placed in the compromised accounts, making it difficult for the project maintainers to detect and respond to the attack.

12. Sabotaging Project’s Reputation Through Covert Misconduct

In this innovative scenario, an attacker targets a popular open source project with the intention of sabotaging its reputation and driving users away. Instead of directly compromising the project’s code or infrastructure, the attacker opts for a more covert approach to avoid detection.

The attacker infiltrates the project’s development team or online community by posing as a helpful and enthusiastic contributor. They build trust and rapport with the project maintainers and other contributors over time, becoming an influential figure within the community.

Once established as a respected member, the attacker subtly starts to engage in misconduct or introduce intentional flaws in the project. They may advocate for the use of insecure practices, insert subtle bugs, or push for controversial changes that divide the community. Their actions are calculated and discreet, making it difficult for other members to pinpoint the source of the problems.

As the project starts to experience a decline in quality, stability, and community cohesion, its reputation suffers, and users begin to abandon it in favor of alternatives. The attacker’s objective is to weaken the project’s standing and potentially benefit a competing project or their own interests. This sabotage method is challenging to detect and counter, as the attacker remains concealed within the community while gradually eroding the project’s foundations.


Here are some ways to mitigate these attacks:

1. Delayed Updates and Validation of Package Releases

This strategy is applicable to all programming languages

  1. JavaScript: npm, yarn, pnpm
  2. Python: pip, conda, Poetry
  3. Java: Maven, Gradle, Ant
  4. C#: NuGet, Paket
  5. C/C++: Conan, vcpkg, CMake
  6. PHP: Composer, PEAR
  7. Ruby: RubyGems, Bundler
  8. Swift: Swift Package Manager (SPM), CocoaPods (for iOS)
  9. Kotlin: Gradle, Maven
  10. TypeScript: npm, yarn, pnpm
  11. Go: Go Modules, Dep
  12. Rust: Cargo
  13. Scala: sbt, Maven, Gradle
  14. R: CRAN, Bioconductor
  15. Lua: LuaRocks
  16. Dart: Pub
  17. Groovy: Grape, Maven, Gradle
  18. Elixir: Hex, Mix
  19. Haskell: Cabal, Stack
  20. Julia: Pkg

One effective strategy to defend against supply chain attacks is to delay updating packages and dependencies for a predetermined period, such as 3-6 months, based on the package’s popularity. This approach allows for a buffer period during which any vulnerabilities in the package may have already been identified and addressed by the open source community. Your strategy is to delay eager updates and not expose yourself to the latest supply chain attacks.

By waiting to update packages, you reduce the likelihood of introducing new vulnerabilities into your production systems. Before applying updates, it is crucial to verify, validate, and confirm that the latest version resolves known security issues without introducing new ones. Carefully review the release notes and changelogs to understand the changes and their potential impact on your system.

For beginners, it is essential to recognize that updating packages too quickly may expose your systems to undiscovered vulnerabilities. Allowing time for the community to identify and fix potential issues in new releases can significantly improve the security of your software. The key is to strike a balance between updating packages to benefit from the latest features and improvements, and waiting long enough to ensure that potential vulnerabilities have been addressed.

2. Favor Packages with Fewer Dependencies

Selecting packages with fewer dependencies is a prudent strategy for minimizing the attack surface and reducing the risk of supply chain attacks. When a package has fewer dependencies, it is easier to evaluate the security and quality of the entire dependency tree.

Merits of Favoring Packages with Fewer Dependencies:

  1. Simplified evaluation: With a smaller number of dependencies, it is more manageable to assess the quality, security, and maintainability of the package and its associated libraries. This makes it easier to spot potential vulnerabilities and maintain a secure codebase.
  2. Reduced attack surface: A smaller dependency tree means fewer entry points for potential attackers. This reduces the likelihood of vulnerabilities being introduced through third-party libraries and makes it harder for attackers to exploit your code.
  3. Better maintainability: Packages with fewer dependencies are generally easier to maintain, as updates and changes to dependencies are less likely to cause conflicts or break functionality. This allows your development team to focus on improving your application’s core functionality rather than troubleshooting issues caused by third-party libraries.
  4. Increased stability: When a package has fewer dependencies, it is less likely to be affected by breaking changes or bugs introduced in those dependencies. This can help ensure the stability of your application and reduce the amount of time spent on fixing issues related to external libraries.
  5. Easier security audits: A smaller dependency tree means fewer components to review during security audits. This can save time and resources, making it easier to stay on top of potential security risks and ensure that your application remains secure.

By favoring packages with fewer dependencies, you can improve the security and stability of your software projects while minimizing the risk of supply chain attacks. This approach requires a careful evaluation of the libraries you use and may involve investing additional time in researching and selecting the most suitable packages for your needs. However, the long-term benefits of a more secure and maintainable codebase will likely outweigh the initial investment.

3. Implementing Strong Access Controls and Monitoring

To minimize the risk of unauthorized access and tampering with your codebase or infrastructure, it is essential to implement strong access controls. Limit write access to essential personnel only and use multi-factor authentication (MFA) to secure their accounts. Regularly review and update access permissions to ensure that only necessary personnel have access to sensitive resources.

Additionally, monitor user activities and access patterns, especially those with elevated privileges. Implementing a monitoring system can help detect suspicious activities or unauthorized changes, allowing your team to respond quickly and mitigate potential threats.

4. Conducting Regular Security Audits and Risk Assessments

Regularly performing security audits and risk assessments can help you identify vulnerabilities and weaknesses in your software and its dependencies. By proactively identifying and addressing these issues, you can minimize the risk of supply chain attacks. Schedule periodic audits and assessments to ensure that your security posture remains strong over time.

5. Vet Third-Party Suppliers and Dependencies

Before incorporating third-party libraries or dependencies into your software, carefully evaluate their security practices and reputation. Research the vendor’s track record, look for known vulnerabilities or security incidents, and assess their responsiveness to security issues. It is also important to verify the authenticity of the software package by checking its digital signature or using trusted package managers.

6. Utilize Software Composition Analysis (SCA) Tools

Software Composition Analysis (SCA) tools can help you manage and analyze your software’s open-source components and dependencies. These tools can automatically identify known vulnerabilities in third-party libraries and alert you when updates or patches are available. By using SCA tools, you can gain visibility into your software’s supply chain and take appropriate action to address potential risks.

7. Establish Incident Response and Recovery Plans

In the event of a supply chain attack, having a well-defined incident response and recovery plan can help minimize the damage and ensure a faster return to normal operations. Develop a plan that outlines the roles and responsibilities of your team members, procedures for identifying and containing the attack, and steps for restoring systems and data. Regularly update and test your plan to ensure its effectiveness.

8. Encourage Security Awareness and Training

Promote a culture of security awareness within your organization by providing regular training for your team members. Teach them about the risks associated with supply chain attacks and the best practices for maintaining a secure environment. Encourage developers to stay informed about the latest security threats and trends, and to follow secure coding practices. By fostering a security-conscious culture, you can reduce the likelihood of introducing vulnerabilities and improve your overall security posture.


Supply chain attacks are present in almost all of development where we rely on external dependencies to build faster.

For Javascript, I’ll add that Deno, which was created by the creator of Node.js, Ryan Dahl himself, provides a secure way of importing modules, and you need to explicitly specify the permissions to be granted to the package.

More at: https://deno.land/

Right now, the community of Deno is not that big, but will soon be and we will be able to create javascript applications worrying less about supply chain attacks.