Subversion of bootstrap-sass

David A. Wheeler

2019-04-11 (original 2019-04-10)

A malicious backdoor has been found in the popular open source software library bootstrap-sass. This was done by someone who created an unauthorized updated version of the software on the RubyGems software hosting site. The good news is that it was quickly detected (within the day) and updated, and that limited the impact of this subversion. The backdoored version (3.2.0.3) was only downloaded 1,477 times. For comparison, as of April 2019 the previous version in that branch (3.2.0.2) was downloaded 1.2 million times, and the following version 3.2.0.4 (which duplicated 3.2.0.2) was downloaded 1,700 times (that’s more than the subverted version!). So it is likely that almost all subverted systems have already been fixed.

That said, there's clearly room to improve. I believe that every time a bad thing happens we should try to find out how it happened, and then see if there are reasonable steps that can be taken to reduce the risk. This paper is part of my essay suite Learning from Disaster, which applies this approach to various past problems.

With that in mind, here are a few thoughts on how to reduce the risk of a similar problem in the future:

  1. It appears that an attacker got the RubyGems credentials of a maintainer. Encouraging use of 2FA for updating packages would greatly reduce this risk in general and might have completely countered this attack. I’ll note that the CII best practices badge project (which I lead) requires 2FA at the gold level, see: require_2FA.
  2. Don't update your dependencies in the same day they're released unless the update fixes a vulnerability or something else vitally important to your project. That gives other people time to notice and respond to unexpected changes. Unfortunately some package managers do not make this easy for indirect (transitive) dependencies, but you can at least do this easily for direct dependencies. In the longer term, it'd be great if package managers could do this automatically (including distinguishing between security updates and normal updates).
  3. The attackers subverted the distributed package on RubyGems without first posting the corresponding source code in its official source code repository on GitHub. That’s a big red flag. I believe package repositories should verify that code distributed can be reproducibly regenerated from its putative source. Such an approach would have prevented this attack, and also made the previous “event-stream” incident far more visible than it was. They don't need to change their inputs; accept a build, and check that the regenerating the build will produce the same thing. Package distribution systems could make it possible to enable this on a per-package basis, so this can be done incrementally. It will take a while to make this happen, but the first step is to agree to work towards it. For more about reproducibility, see the reproducible-builds.org website.

No doubt there are many more ways to reduce risks like this. This is, fundamentally, a software supply chain attack. But since most software is reused, not custom-written, software supply chain attacks are a real risk and they need to be addressed.


If you enjoyed this paper, you might also enjoy the entire suite of related papers in my essay suite Learning from Disaster. Feel free to see my home page at https://dwheeler.com. You may also want to look at my paper Why OSS/FS? Look at the Numbers! and my book on how to develop secure programs.

(C) Copyright 2019 David A. Wheeler. Released under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike version 3.0 or later (CC-BY-SA-3.0+).