It’s hard enough shoring up cybersecurity within the walls of your own business. But doing the same for the army of partners that makes up a global supply chain? That can be next to impossible.
Hardly a week goes by without news of another cyberattack against a major company’s supply chain. And more often than not, the conduit for the incursion is a third party with weak controls.
In modern-day supply chains, a third party can be any entity that sells parts, products, services, support, software — the list goes on. “For me, it comprises anyone other than ourselves who at any point in the stages of the value chain are actually involved in our solutions,” says Edna Conway, chief security officer of global value chain with Cisco Systems, Inc.
Cisco favors the term “value chain” — which any number of companies and consultants have attempted without success to supplant “supply chain” as the general descriptor for the end-to-end journey of product to market — because it suggests a larger universe of independent entities engaged in that effort. But whether or not one embraces corporate buzzspeak, there’s no doubt that the proliferation of partners raises serious issues of cybersecurity. Without adequate systems and procedures in place, any one of them could fall prey to the efforts of bad actors, including rival companies, governments, extortionists and even basement hackers.
Conway offers the following five-step approach to setting up an effective cybersecurity plan for third-party relationships.
1. Know the “who, what and where” of your supply chain. Self-evident though it might seem, many companies don’t have a handle on all of the parties that contribute in some way to the business. That’s especially the case in multi-tier supply chains — and it’s hard to think of a manufactured product today that doesn’t rely on such a structure.
2. Work on ways to communicate effectively with all of those parties. Conway isn’t referring to all of the interactions that cover geopolitical issues or continuity of supply, just those that specifically address issues of security. As such, she describes three main types of threats: manipulation (when information is altered), espionage (both nation-state and industrial), and disruption (involving attempts to shut down the business). She says it can be hard to impress upon a software license developer or third-party cloud-service provider the importance of guarding against all three threats. The same goes for individuals on the factory floor, whose attention might be focused on keeping the line going. “It takes training to make security a part of the everyday thinking of anybody in any role,” Conway says.
3. Develop “flexible and elastic” architecture. Cisco’s approach to supply-chain security encompasses 11 discrete domains that reflect the complexity of its processes. Design, development, delivery and service: each discipline owns relationships with third parties, creating the possibility of countless weak points both within and outside the organization. The strategy accounts for the fact that various areas of production require guidelines that are unique to their operations. “We wrote requirements in a way that you can map them, so that only those that are based on the nature of what you deliver to us apply,” says Conway. “Everybody gets a customized version.”
4. Embed security into everything you do with all third parties. Conway urges companies to ask the question: “Why are we using them, and how are they performing according to our service metrics?” Ironically, back when “Quality” was trumpeted in banners and corporate pep rallies, the concept wasn’t “imbued persuasively” within the organization. When it comes to cybersecurity now, quality isn’t a slogan or discrete function, says Conway — it’s instilled in every process within the supply chain. Cisco assigns points to third parties in line with their demonstrated adherence to quality, and security is a key part of that measure. “We make it mathematically meaningful, so if you’re fantastic as a supplier but horrid at security, you may not remain a preferred supplier,” she says.
5. Everyone must measure. Conway has been pushing hard to measure performance across the organization. “We establish tolerance levels against our own specifications and processes,” she says. “At the end of the day, we’re making security speak the language of business.”
Cisco’s security initiative wasn’t implemented all at once. Conway, who previously served as an outside attorney for the company specializing in intellectual property issues, became its CSO in the early 2000s. Rather than immediately impose a “monolithic architecture” from the start, she took it in stages, beginning with Cisco’s electronic manufacturing systems (EMS) partners, then moving to printed-circuit producers, engineering and the host of channel partners that make up the company’s “value chain.”
In preaching the gospel of cybersecurity, Conway considers it essential to communicate with the executive suite, whose world view is rooted in profit and loss. “I would like to translate my tolerance levels into dollar risk,” she says. “We all need to speak the language of business.”
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