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Keep an open line of communication with third parties, both for regular check-ins and to ensure a quick response during a supply chain–related incident. — Getty Images/Maskot

Small business supply chains are growing in complexity, presenting new risks for attacks. They are especially vulnerable due to the access that third-party vendors often have to sensitive data.

Fortunately, there are steps that small businesses can take to manage these risks, including improving supply chain security. Supply chain security refers to systems and protocols that increase security for businesses as they work with vendors, suppliers, and partners. Here’s how to ensure your partners are secure and not exposing your company to the potential loss of productivity, consumer trust, and revenue that often follows a supply chain breach.

Know your data

The first step towards securing your business’s data is knowing what kind of data your business is storing, and where. This can include customer names, Social Security numbers, and credit card information. The Federal Trade Commission recommends evaluating all computers, mobile devices, flash drives, and digital copiers to find where your company stores this information.

To track sensitive data in your business, start by speaking with your IT staff. You should also meet with your sales department, human resources, accounting personnel, and outside service providers to fully understand how data is handled within your business.

[Read more: 4 Simple and Easy-to-Deploy Ways to Protect Your Company Data]

Conduct a supply chain security risk assessment

Once you have an understanding of the sensitive data your business is storing, you can conduct a supply chain security risk assessment to determine what risks your business may be facing. This includes:

  • Evaluating whether you need to keep sensitive data.
  • Determining how data is currently stored.
  • Looking at third-party access rights to data.
  • Appraising partners for cybersecurity weaknesses.
  • Assessing hardware and software for vulnerabilities.

Create a detailed security program

A security program is a document that outlines the policies, procedures, and tools your business will use to manage your supply chain risks. According to the FTC, an effective data security plan encompasses four elements: physical security, electronic security, employee training, and the security practices of third-party partners.

Your security program should include making regular backups of your data and should describe individual responsibilities to ensure accountability. Be sure to communicate your security program with your partners so they understand what protocols are in place for their continued access to your company’s data.

[Read more: Security Guide: Keeping Your Business Safe Online and Off]

A response plan should identify procedures to follow and individual responsibilities for different situations.

Evaluate third-party partners for risk

As your partnerships grow, it’s important to continually reassess the levels of cybersecurity and risk among your third parties. You can group vendors based on different risk profiles and then sort them based on their vulnerabilities, such as the level of access they have to your data and the potential impact on your business if that vendor experiences a security breach.

Once you’ve identified the weakest spots in your supply chain, consider finding additional vendors to work with or partnering with your current vendors to improve their security.

Limit your suppliers’ access to critical information and assets

It is important to evaluate your third-party partners to determine who has access to your sensitive data. What data are they accessing, and why?

From there, you can limit your suppliers’ access to data based on what is needed to perform their job, which is also known as the principle of least privilege. You can also consider adopting zero-trust security, which would require verifying users’ identities as well as the devices they’re using to access your data.

Communicate with your partners on a regular basis

With open communication, you can work together with your third parties to identify and monitor security risks. Maintain regular communication with meetings or visits focused on improving supply chain strength.

You can also adopt service-level agreements (SLA) with your third-party partners. These agreements clarify your expectations and standardize supply chain security requirements across your partnerships. These documents should specify each party’s duties and how compliance will be measured.

Develop an incident response plan

Even the most robust supply chains can experience attacks, so it is crucial to develop an incident response plan before you need one. Ideally, your plan will consider different kinds of breaches, including system shutdowns and data leaks.

A response plan should identify procedures to follow and individual responsibilities for different situations. With a balance of prevention and preparation, small businesses can identify potential threats to their supply chains and take steps to mitigate those risks to avoid the consequences of a security breach.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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