Email domain for NPM lib with 6m downloads a week grabbed by expert to make a point

Campaign to coax GitHub-owned outfit to improve security starts showing results

Special report Security consultant Lance Vick recently acquired the expired domain used by the maintainer of a widely used NPM package to remind the JavaScript community that the NPM Registry still hasn't implemented adequate security.

"I just noticed 'foreach' on NPM is controlled by a single maintainer," wrote Vick in a Twitter post on Monday. "I also noticed they let their domain expire, so I bought it before someone else did. I now control 'foreach' on npm, and the 36,826 projects that depend on it."

That's not quite the full story – he probably could have taken control but didn't. Vick acquired the lapsed domain that had been used by the maintainer to create an NPM account and is associated with the "foreach" package on NPM. But he said he didn't follow through with resetting the password on the email account tied to the "foreach" package, which is fetched nearly six million times a week.

Anyone poking around is going to find accounts easy to take over in this way. I was not lucky or special

In an email to The Register, Vick explained, "As an NPM team member pointed out, the emails associated with NPM accounts and the emails used on the package themselves can sometimes be different, but even if this is the case controlling an owner account would make an easy social engineering case to customer support. I did not log into the account, as again, that crosses a line. I just sent a password reset email and bailed.

"Regardless of how much control I have over this particular package, which is unclear, NPM admits this particular expired domain problem is a known issue, citing this 2021 [research paper] which says, 'We also found 2,818 maintainer email addresses associated with expired domains, allowing an attacker to hijack 8,494 packages by taking over the NPM accounts.'

"In other words, anyone poking around is going to find accounts easy to take over in this way. I was not lucky or special."

His point, which he has been trying for several years to communicate to those overseeing NPM – a part of GitHub since March 2020 – is that taking over the NPM account of a popular project to conduct a software supply chain attack continues to be too easy.

Part of the problem is that JavaScript developers often use packages that implement simple functions that are either already built into the language, like forEach, or ought to be crafted manually to avoid yet another dependency, like left-pad (now built-in as padStart). These trivial packages get incorporated into other packages, which may in turn become dependencies in different packages, thereby making the compromise of something like "foreach" a potentially far-reaching security incident.

But let's set aside the sad reality of modern JavaScript development practices for a moment to focus on the security of the NPM accounts for package maintainers. Vick on January 11, 2020, pushed a commit to the README file of the NPM command line interface (CLI) under the name "Adam Baldwin," who was at the time the VP of security at NPM. He did so to demonstrate a bug in GitHub's interface that would forge a signature when merging code and to call attention to longstanding security holes in npm.

"Git at least has code signing built in, and the NPM team was not even using that... which means anyone could even spoof code commits as any of their own internal developers," Vick explained in an email to The Register.

"I was frustrated enough by 2020 that I made the potentially ill-advised choice to send my message about the state of affairs and calls to action to the NPM team in the form of a commit to their own repo. To drive the point home I demonstrated I could impersonate one of their security leads (Sorry, Adam)."

He said he also pointed out that it's trivial to take over top NPM accounts because most didn't have any phishing-resistant 2FA enabled.

Vick explained his rationale in a comment on his commit written several days later. "Major e-commerce platforms, major financial firms like PayPal, several major banks, as well as most major crypto-asset exchanges rely on NPM packages for critical infrastructure where billions of dollars are on the line," he wrote.

"I work with many of these companies in a security capacity and the level of life-ruining theft I see at close range on a regular basis due to vulnerable/hijacked packages or lack of 2FA on critical accounts is gut wrenching."

Naming and shaming

Vick went so far as to set up, with the help of John Naulty Jr, "a spreadsheet of NPM package maintainers with terrible security practices." The spreadsheet was featured in a blog post about NPM security by Vick and Naulty that went up the same day as the rogue commit.

Naulty, a software security engineer, told The Register in a phone interview that Vick and he were motivated to do something as a result of the event-stream incident. He said those named on the spreadsheet were largely responsive to being called out and many have adopted better security practices.

And he credits Vick's orphaned commit with getting someone's attention in the Microsoft, GitHub, and NPM ecosystem. "Eventually, they released a feature that now says this commit is not attached to any branch in this organization," he said.

We are all just trusting strangers on the internet to give us good candy from their truck

Naulty said the SolarWinds attack that emerged in late 2020 really brought attention to supply-chain security and has led to a number of startups focused on the space. And he credited projects like OpenSSF with pushing to improve supply chain security.

Naulty said other packaging ecosystems like PyPI have had similar problems and credited the open source community with at least making an effort. He said NPM security is improving but there are still many types of attacks that can be conducted.

"We are all just trusting strangers on the internet to give us good candy from their truck," he said.

That's still a risk. On Tuesday, JFrog reported an NPM supply chain attack targeting German industrial companies Bertelsmann, Bosch, Stihl, and DB Schenker via malware in NPM packages – though the attack appeared to be a penetration test that attracted the notice of security firms.

And it's been a risk for years. Vick's post describes an effort dating back almost a decade to implement package verification in NPM that was abandoned for being too hard.

"We as a community have created a dumpster fire together and I think we need some major changes to correct it now," wrote Vick.

2FA all the way

GitHub has been responding to the agitation, announcing a plan in December, 2021, to enroll all NPM maintainers in login verification and rolling out the initial phase of that program in February, mandatory 2FA for the top 100 package maintainers.

On Tuesday, GitHub launched a beta test of its improved 2FA implementation for all NPM accounts. According to Myles Borins, open-source product manager, NPM accounts now support: multiple second factors, including security keys, biometric devices, and authentication apps; a new 2FA configuration mention for managing keys and recovery codes; full CLI support; and the ability to review and regenerate recovery codes.

Borins also said that at the end of the month, on May 31, GitHub will enroll the next mandatory 2FA cohort, the maintainers of the top 500 npm packages. Then, later this year, a final group of maintainers – those with packages having more than one million weekly downloads or more than 500 dependents – will be required to adopt 2FA.

GitHub declined to comment on this issue beyond what's said in the blog post.

Vick says he's thrilled by the announcement, which came as a surprise.

"The timing is a bit fun though, because just this morning Github/NPM announced they are finally adding hardware MFA support to NPM, which is a huge win," he said. "I am really happy to see this because that is the best way to protect accounts. We in the security community have been demanding this for years.

"That said, it still does not protect the code should a developer fail to set up 2FA properly, or have an email with weak 2FA, as most still do today. A malicious or compromised NPM employee could also alter any code they wish right now, and with some of that code being responsible for the movement of billions of dollars by major fintech companies, I don't envy them walking around with targets that big on their backs."

Vick argues that user code-signing can solve all of these problems. "I really hope NPM takes this step soon," he said. "I am talking with a member of their team tomorrow and we will see where this goes." ®

Broader topics

Other stories you might like

  • Lonestar plans to put datacenters in the Moon's lava tubes
    How? Founder tells The Register 'Robots… lots of robots'

    Imagine a future where racks of computer servers hum quietly in darkness below the surface of the Moon.

    Here is where some of the most important data is stored, to be left untouched for as long as can be. The idea sounds like something from science-fiction, but one startup that recently emerged from stealth is trying to turn it into a reality. Lonestar Data Holdings has a unique mission unlike any other cloud provider: to build datacenters on the Moon backing up the world's data.

    "It's inconceivable to me that we are keeping our most precious assets, our knowledge and our data, on Earth, where we're setting off bombs and burning things," Christopher Stott, founder and CEO of Lonestar, told The Register. "We need to put our assets in place off our planet, where we can keep it safe."

    Continue reading
  • Conti: Russian-backed rulers of Costa Rican hacktocracy?
    Also, Chinese IT admin jailed for deleting database, and the NSA promises no more backdoors

    In brief The notorious Russian-aligned Conti ransomware gang has upped the ante in its attack against Costa Rica, threatening to overthrow the government if it doesn't pay a $20 million ransom. 

    Costa Rican president Rodrigo Chaves said that the country is effectively at war with the gang, who in April infiltrated the government's computer systems, gaining a foothold in 27 agencies at various government levels. The US State Department has offered a $15 million reward leading to the capture of Conti's leaders, who it said have made more than $150 million from 1,000+ victims.

    Conti claimed this week that it has insiders in the Costa Rican government, the AP reported, warning that "We are determined to overthrow the government by means of a cyber attack, we have already shown you all the strength and power, you have introduced an emergency." 

    Continue reading
  • China-linked Twisted Panda caught spying on Russian defense R&D
    Because Beijing isn't above covert ops to accomplish its five-year goals

    Chinese cyberspies targeted two Russian defense institutes and possibly another research facility in Belarus, according to Check Point Research.

    The new campaign, dubbed Twisted Panda, is part of a larger, state-sponsored espionage operation that has been ongoing for several months, if not nearly a year, according to the security shop.

    In a technical analysis, the researchers detail the various malicious stages and payloads of the campaign that used sanctions-related phishing emails to attack Russian entities, which are part of the state-owned defense conglomerate Rostec Corporation.

    Continue reading
  • FTC signals crackdown on ed-tech harvesting kid's data
    Trade watchdog, and President, reminds that COPPA can ban ya

    The US Federal Trade Commission on Thursday said it intends to take action against educational technology companies that unlawfully collect data from children using online educational services.

    In a policy statement, the agency said, "Children should not have to needlessly hand over their data and forfeit their privacy in order to do their schoolwork or participate in remote learning, especially given the wide and increasing adoption of ed tech tools."

    The agency says it will scrutinize educational service providers to ensure that they are meeting their legal obligations under COPPA, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.

    Continue reading
  • Mysterious firm seeks to buy majority stake in Arm China
    Chinese joint venture's ousted CEO tries to hang on - who will get control?

    The saga surrounding Arm's joint venture in China just took another intriguing turn: a mysterious firm named Lotcap Group claims it has signed a letter of intent to buy a 51 percent stake in Arm China from existing investors in the country.

    In a Chinese-language press release posted Wednesday, Lotcap said it has formed a subsidiary, Lotcap Fund, to buy a majority stake in the joint venture. However, reporting by one newspaper suggested that the investment firm still needs the approval of one significant investor to gain 51 percent control of Arm China.

    The development comes a couple of weeks after Arm China said that its former CEO, Allen Wu, was refusing once again to step down from his position, despite the company's board voting in late April to replace Wu with two co-chief executives. SoftBank Group, which owns 49 percent of the Chinese venture, has been trying to unentangle Arm China from Wu as the Japanese tech investment giant plans for an initial public offering of the British parent company.

    Continue reading
  • SmartNICs power the cloud, are enterprise datacenters next?
    High pricing, lack of software make smartNICs a tough sell, despite offload potential

    SmartNICs have the potential to accelerate enterprise workloads, but don't expect to see them bring hyperscale-class efficiency to most datacenters anytime soon, ZK Research's Zeus Kerravala told The Register.

    SmartNICs are widely deployed in cloud and hyperscale datacenters as a means to offload input/output (I/O) intensive network, security, and storage operations from the CPU, freeing it up to run revenue generating tenant workloads. Some more advanced chips even offload the hypervisor to further separate the infrastructure management layer from the rest of the server.

    Despite relative success in the cloud and a flurry of innovation from the still-limited vendor SmartNIC ecosystem, including Mellanox (Nvidia), Intel, Marvell, and Xilinx (AMD), Kerravala argues that the use cases for enterprise datacenters are unlikely to resemble those of the major hyperscalers, at least in the near term.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022