The cybersecurity authorities of the United Kingdom (NCSC-UK), Australia (ACSC), Canada (CCCS), New Zealand (NCSC-NZ), and the United States (CISA), (NSA), (FBI) are aware of recent reports that observe an increase in malicious cyber activity targeting managed service providers (MSPs) and expect this trend to continue. This joint Cybersecurity Advisory (CSA) provides actions MSPs and their customers can take to reduce their risk of falling victim to a cyber intrusion. This advisory describes cybersecurity best practices for information and communications technology (ICT) services and functions, focusing on guidance that enables transparent discussions between MSPs and their customers on securing sensitive data. Organizations should implement these guidelines as appropriate to their unique environments, in accordance with their specific security needs, and in compliance with applicable regulations. MSP customers should verify that the contractual arrangements with their provider include cybersecurity measures in line with their particular security requirements.
The guidance provided in this advisory is specifically tailored for both MSPs and their customers and is the result of a collaborative effort from the United Kingdom National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC-UK), the Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC), the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security (CCCS), the New Zealand National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC-NZ), the United States’ Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), National Security Agency (NSA), and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) with contributions from industry members of the Joint Cyber Defense Collaborative (JCDC). Organizations should read this advisory in conjunction with NCSC-UK guidance on actions to take when the cyber threat is heightened, CCCS guidance on Cyber Security Considerations for Consumers of Managed Services, and CISA guidance provided on the Shields Up and Shields Up Technical Guidance webpages.
Managed Service Providers
This advisory defines MSPs as entities that deliver, operate, or manage ICT services and functions for their customers via a contractual arrangement, such as a service level agreement. In addition to offering their own services, an MSP may offer services in conjunction with those of other providers. Offerings may include platform, software, and IT infrastructure services; business process and support functions; and cybersecurity services. MSPs typically manage these services and functions in their customer’s network environment—either on the customer’s premises or hosted in the MSP’s data center. Note: this advisory does not address guidance on cloud service providers (CSPs)—providers who handle the ICT needs of their customers via cloud services such as Software-as-a-Service, Platform-as-a-Service, and Infrastructure-as-a-Service; however, MSPs may offer these services as well. (See Appendix for additional definitions.)
MSPs provide services that usually require both trusted network connectivity and privileged access to and from customer systems. Many organizations—ranging from large critical infrastructure organizations to small- and mid-sized businesses—use MSPs to manage ICT systems, store data, or support sensitive processes. Many organizations make use of MSPs to scale and support network environments and processes without expanding their internal staff or having to develop the capabilities internally.
Threat Actors Targeting MSP Access to Customer Networks
Whether the customer’s network environment is on premises or externally hosted, threat actors can use a vulnerable MSP as an initial access vector to multiple victim networks, with globally cascading effects. The UK, Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, and U.S. cybersecurity authorities expect malicious cyber actors—including state-sponsored advanced persistent threat (APT) groups—to step up their targeting of MSPs in their efforts to exploit provider-customer network trust relationships. For example, threat actors successfully compromising an MSP could enable follow-on activity—such as ransomware and cyber espionage—against the MSP as well as across the MSP’s customer base.
The UK, Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, and U.S. cybersecurity authorities have previously issued general guidance for MSPs and their customers. This advisory provides specific guidance to enable transparent, well-informed discussions between MSPs and their customers that center on securing sensitive information and data. These discussions should result in a re-evaluation of security processes and contractual commitments to accommodate customer risk tolerance. A shared commitment to security will reduce risk for both MSPs and their customers, as well as the global ICT community.