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Supply Chain Security: Has the Next SolarWinds Already Happened?

More than two years after the now-infamous hack of the firm SolarWinds, the incident is very much in the foreground of conversations about cybersecurity defense, threat detection and incident response. As evidence of that: The SolarWinds incident was the subject of five separate talks and panels at the recent RSA conference in San Francisco. Dozens more talks addressed issues related to supply chain security that–directly or indirectly–invoked the SolarWinds incident. 

That’s because the SolarWinds attack raises important—if not existential—questions for both software development and DevOps teams and the companies running the software. First: If sophisticated cybercriminals can insert malicious backdoors directly into application code from reputable developers, what organization can afford to blindly trust software? Second: If it is now the responsibility of software teams  to spot sophisticated, methodical compromises of their development pipelines, what is the best and most reliable means of doing that? Finally, if it is also now the job of software consumers to monitor for—and detect—compromised binaries from otherwise reputable vendors (like SolarWinds), how should they go about doing that given ongoing staffing and technology constraints? 

AppSec/API Security 2022

The answers to these questions are matters of debate within DevOps, software development and information security communities. What is beyond debate is that the SolarWinds incident was not a fluke. In the months since that attack, attackers—both criminal and nation-state-backed—have leveraged software supply chain security blindspots to target development organizations as means of gaining access to sensitive IT environments. While we haven’t yet heard of another incident of the scale or importance of SolarWinds, it is entirely reasonable to assume that the next SolarWinds-caliber compromise could already be unfolding, but has yet to be discovered and/or publicly acknowledged. 

Software Supply Chain Security Weaknesses

SunBurst, the malicious implant in SolarWinds software, endures as a topic of interest and conversation for information security professionals and for DevOps and development organizations precisely because of the ways it exposed glaring weaknesses in the security of development organizations and software supply chains. As noted in my analysis of the hack in December 2020 and FireEye’s analysis of the same compromise, the SolarWinds hackers gained access to the company’s development environment months before they actually launched their attack. During that time, they closely studied the underlying source code and mimicked SolarWinds style and nomenclature as they added malicious code and integrated it into the SolarWinds Orion application via a compromise of the company’s build system.  

Though carefully planned and conducted, the SolarWinds attack wasn’t foolproof. The attackers left clues, such as their additions of native Windows functions, use of cryptography, compression and more. The attackers obfuscated these using compression and Base64 encoding designed to fool simple threat hunting rules that looked for their plaintext variants and other suspicious strings. Still, the obfuscation repeated throughout the implanted code was enough to send up a red flag to anyone who bothered to look closely. That left the attack open to discovery. 

The problem is this: Very few software publishers have the staff, expertise or tooling to comb through massive codebases to spot a handful of sketchy obfuscated strings or analyze large binaries for deviant behaviors before deploying them. As evidence of this, ReversingLabs sponsored a survey of more than 300 IT professionals at software-driven enterprises. It found that 87% were aware that software tampering, like what occurred in the SolarWinds attack, could lead to enterprise security breaches. About 40% of those surveyed said CI/CD toolchain exposures posed a risk to their organization. Still, barely a third of respondents (37%) said they had the means to detect such software-tampering attacks. 

Threats to Software Development Organizations Grow

Attackers are aware of this weakness within the software development pipeline, which is why threats to development organizations are metastasizing. Just in the last year alone, we have seen a series of attacks on development infrastructure and software supply chains. In one April 2021 incident, attackers were successful in pushing malicious, unreviewed code directly to the PHP main branch, ultimately resulting in a compromised, formal version of PHP being pushed to all PHP websites. That same month, there was a breach at the firm CodeCov, which involved unauthorized access to and modifications of the company’s Bash Uploader script. An investigation of that incident ultimately concluded that the alteration of a single line of code in that script by an unauthorized third party enabled the attackers to (potentially) export information stored in the users’ continuous integration (CI) environments. 

More recently, ReversingLabs observed proof-of-concept and “white hat” activities testing so-called “dependency confusion” attacks, in which attackers set up malicious packages in public repositories like GitHub that squat on the names of private, non-public repositories and sport high version numbers. Misconfigurations in package management systems can result in these malicious components being imported in lieu of the legitimate, privately managed namesakes. As ReversingLabs found, a number of malicious modules discovered on the npm platform were used to target German technology, manufacturing and entertainment firms. It was later revealed to be the work of a white hat firm conducting red team exercises on behalf of those firms. Red team exercises aside, RversingLabs research also detected other, malicious packages in npm, as well as similar attacks targeting Ruby Gems and Python Package Index (PyPi). 

And that doesn’t even count issues like the Travis CI flaw that exposed (potentially) millions of credentials to developers’ accounts on GitHub, Amazon Web Services and Docker Hub. Lapses like that can fuel supply chain attacks, giving malign actors the ability to insert malicious code into otherwise legitimate open source or proprietary code repositories. After reading such headlines, and without the means to check code intent, how can developers trust their software to update? And how can they do so while at the same time being forced to frequently update their dependencies to reduce or eliminate critical software vulnerabilities?

Dev Teams Need New Tools

For software development organizations struggling to meet delivery deadlines and satisfy customer expectations, reorienting to address amorphous software supply chain threats and attacks is a bridge too far. The same is true for enterprises struggling to staff security teams and simply keep on top of targeted phishing attacks or threats to public-facing IT assets. Too often, these entities only find religion about software supply chain attacks after they have occurred. 

What software development organizations need is a way to secure the CI/CD pipelines and release packages, ensuring that their software builds are free of code tampering and other supply chain risks introduced through build systems. That should include the ability to detect compromises by monitoring for malicious software changes and enforcing security controls and failure conditions on software build processes to ensure that you can release your code with confidence.

On the customer end, organizations need a way to detect malicious behaviors and unauthorized software changes in compiled binaries before they are released into production, while also monitoring for risks like exposed secrets or exploitable software vulnerabilities that might lurk in compiled code. 

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