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'Next-Gen' Supply Chain Attacks Surge 430%

Attackers are increasingly seeding open source projects with compromised components.

As commercial and enterprise software developers become more disciplined about keeping their open source software components updated to reduce the risk of software supply chain attacks, the bad guys are getting craftier: Researchers warn that they're over-running open source projects to turn them into malware distribution channels.

It used to be that attackers simply preyed on existing vulnerabilities within well-used open source components, with the understanding they could victimize the many organizations relying on outdated dependencies. Attackers are now more frequently getting proactive by infiltrating open source projects to seed them with compromised components that they can pounce on once they're downloaded and used by unsuspecting organizations.

According to the latest "2020 State of the Software Supply Chain" report just released by Sonatype, these so-called "next-generation" supply chain attacks are surging markedly, up 430% in the past year.

"Adversaries are shifting their activities 'upstream,' where they can infect a single open source component that has the potential to be distributed 'downstream,' where it can be strategically and covertly exploited," explains Wayne Jackson, CEO of Sonatype.

As the report explains, attackers are leveraging the very nature of open source software development against itself with these next-gen supply chain attacks. Open source projects rely on contributions from volunteers, and these projects themselves frequently incorporate hundreds or even thousands of dependencies from other projects. The ethos of open source projects is one that relies on shared trust, all of "which creates a fertile environment whereby bad actors can prey upon good people with surprising ease," the report explains. 

In fact, the attackers are now starting to seek out ways to scale up their efforts to plant bad components through automated malware that goes directly after development pipelines. The most recent sophisticated example of a next-gen software supply chain attack was discovered lurking on GitHub in May. Researchers found a piece of malware called Octopus Scanner that targeted GitHub users involved in developing NetBeans projects. The software was designed to serve up backdoored code into NetBeans components on GitHub repositories without the legitimate repository owners even realizing it. This means that every time developers of these components release code to the public, it has already been owned by the attacker.

"In an OSS context, it gives the malware an effective means of transmission since the affected projects will presumably get cloned, forked, and used on potentially many different systems," explained GitHub security researcher Alvaro Muñoz, in a blog about Octopus Scanner. "The actual artifacts of these builds may spread even further in a way that is disconnected from the original build process and harder to track down after the fact."

As the Sonatype report shows, though Octopus Scanner may be one of the more sophisticated next-gen supply chain attacks, it is far from an isolated incident. It followed closely on the heels of an attack found this spring by researchers with ReversingLabs that used a typosquatting approach to carry out their malicious deeds. They seeded the package repository for Ruby Gems with 760 malicious packages that used slight name variations from legitimate packages.

Meantime, at Black Hat USA earlier this month, researchers showed how a next-gen approach could be used to attack Node.js applications by manipulating the hidden properties used to track internal program states.

The rise in these next-generation software supply chain attacks follows a well-worn story in the security world. Anyone who has been in the business long enough recognizes that no good deed goes unpunished; when many security teams start doing a good job stemming off one kind of attack, the bad guys shift to another. As Sonatype points out, this latest trend is partially a reaction to the fact that many enterprises have done a great job in reducing their open source component risk exposure. Organizations utilizing DevSecOps practices are able to update dependencies 530 times faster than the average organization. According to the report's research, 49% of organizations are now able to remediate open source vulnerabilities within a week of detection. 

It's an improving situation, but experts warn that even as the number of next-gen attacks rise, organizations still need to keep improving their stance against legacy attacks. The report's research shows new open source vulnerabilities are exploited in the wild within three days of public exposure, and some 86% of organizations are still open to these exploits within that window. 


Ericka Chickowski specializes in coverage of information technology and business innovation. She has focused on information security for the better part of a decade and regularly writes about the security industry as a contributor to Dark Reading.  View Full Bio

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