When code with millions of downloads nukes user files, bad things can happen.
A developer has been caught adding malicious code to a popular open-source package that wiped files on computers located in Russia and Belarus as part of a protest that has enraged many users and raised concerns about the safety of free and open source software.
The application, node-ipc, adds remote interprocess communication and neural networking capabilities to other open source code libraries. As a dependency, node-ipc is automatically downloaded and incorporated into other libraries, including ones like Vue.js CLI, which has more than 1 million weekly downloads.
A deliberate and dangerous act
Two weeks ago, the node-ipc author pushed a new version of the library that sabotaged computers in Russia and Belarus, the countries invading Ukraine and providing support for the invasion, respectively. The new release added a function that checked the IP address of developers who used the node-ipc in their own projects. When an IP address geolocated to either Russia or Belarus, the new version wiped files from the machine and replaced them with a heart emoji.
To conceal the malice, node-ipc author Brandon Nozaki Miller base-64-encoded the changes to make things harder for users who wanted to visually inspect them to check for problems.
This is what those developers saw:
These lines were then passed to the timer function, such as:
The values for the Base64 strings were:
When passed to the timer function, the lines were then used as inputs to wipe files and replace them with the heart emoji.
“At this point, a very clear abuse and a critical supply chain security incident will occur for any system on which this npm package will be called upon, if that matches a geolocation of either Russia or Belarus,” wrote Liran Tal, a researcher at Snyk, a security company that tracked the changes and published its findings on Wednesday.
Tal found that the node-ipc author maintains 40 other libraries, with some or all of them also being dependencies for other open source packages. Referring to the node-ipc author’s handle, Tal questioned the wisdom of the protest and its likely fallout for the open source ecosystem as a whole.
“Even if the deliberate and dangerous act of maintainer RIAEvangelist will be perceived by some as a legitimate act of protest, how does that reflect on the maintainer’s future reputation and stake in the developer community?” Tal wrote. “Would this maintainer ever be trusted again to not follow up on future acts in such or even more aggressive actions for any projects they participate in?”
RIAEvangelist also came under fire on Twitter and in open source forums.
“This is like Tesla intentionally putting in code to detect certain drivers and if they vaguely match the description then to auto drive them into the nearest phone pole and hoping it only punishes particular drivers,” one person wrote. A different person added: “What if the deleted files are actually mission critical that can kill others?
Protestware comes of age
The node-ipc update is just one example of what some researchers are calling protestware. Experts have begun tracking other open source projects that are also releasing updates calling out the brutality of Russia’s war. This spreadsheet lists 21 separate packages that are affected.
One such package is es5-ext, which provides code for the ECMAScript 6 scripting language specification. A new dependency named postinstall.js, which the developer added on March 7, checks to see if the user’s computer has a Russian IP address, in which case the code broadcasts a “call for peace.”
“The people of Ukraine are fully mobilized and ready to defend their country from the enemy invasion,” the message translated into English read in part. “91% of Ukrainians fully support their President Volodymyr Zelensky and his response to the Russian attack.” Here’s a snippet of the code:
The protestware event exposes some of the risks posed when armies of volunteer developers produce the code that’s crucial for hundreds or thousands of other applications to run. Some open source software automatically downloads and incorporates new dependency versions, and even for those that don’t, the vast amount of code often makes manual reviews infeasible. That means an update from a single individual has the potential to throw a wrench in an untold number of downstream applications.
The disk-wiping function was added to node-ipc versions 10.1.1 and 10.1.2. Following the outcry over the wiper, the developer released updates that removed the malicious function. Snyk recommends that developers stop using the package altogether. If that’s not possible, the company advises the use of an npm package manager to override the sabotaged versions and pin a known good version.
“Snyk stands with Ukraine, and we’ve proactively acted to support the Ukrainian people during the ongoing crisis with donations and free service to developers worldwide, as well as taking action to cease business in Russia and Belarus,” Tal wrote. “That said, intentional abuse such as this undermines the global open source community and requires us to flag impacted versions of node-ipc as security vulnerabilities.”
Post updated to remove comments making unverified claims and to correct a statement about default open source behavior towards dependency updates.
jg67379 Wise, Aged Ars Veteran et Subscriptor
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I disagree with the article that the issue is about FOSS. The issue is with developers not testing / auditing the code they import – which they can do better if it’s FOSS.
We’ve seen backdoors and malware in closed-source software many times. Some countries prevent critical infrastructure from network equipment with Chinese-made operating systems for example.
Its not really feasible to manually audit all of the code you import. Your dependencies probably have 10s or 100s of time more code than your actual project you are writing. Especially when considering the dependencies of your dependencies…
You should obviously do some due diligence before adding/installing a new dependency though.
That said I feel like node and NPM are especially bad in the number of dependencies a typical project has compared to other languages like Python or Go.