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that eslint-scope (an npm package with
59 million downloads) had been compromised.
A new version of the package was published which contained a malicious
script that was attempting to spread itself to other npm authors.
This type of script is known as a "worm" and while npm did a good job
shutting it down, they lucked out because the script contained a bug
which prevented it from spreading and caused it to get reported
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I don't think anyone has tried to name this worm yet, so I'm going to
come up with a name for the purposes of this post.
I'm going to call it "The Fluke Worm", since a "Fluke" is a type of
parasitic worm, and while this worm could have been really bad, we lucked
out cause the author fucked up the code.
This was the script (I've cleaned it up for readability):
While the author of Fluke tried really hard to prevent any errors from
being thrown (going as far as wrapping an asynchronous https.get
call with a synchronous try-catch), it still managed to
If you're wondering what the bug was, they opened a response
stream and listened for data but didn't wait until the
response closed before eval()-uating the response. Let me
fix that for you:
But while the script may have its issues, it's important to know what it
was attempting to do.
It uses Node's built-in https module in order to (attempt to)
make a request to a pastebin url (which has been deleted) and evaluating
By using a Pastebin, the author of Fluke could have tried to make
updates to the worm simply by editing the contents.
Luckily Fluke (as far as we now know) only seems to have infected one
In response, npm has taken the published version of the package down and
has invalidated every npm token so that developers will have to login
again. They are also advising that you use 2-Factor Authentication.
Let's take a step back and understand what a worm is.
A "worm" is a piece of malicious code which attempts to spread itself to
as many machines as possible.
Worms need something that connect all the computers between it. Most of
the time this is the network (either the public internet or private
intranets). Although, if you go back far enough you can find worms that
spread through floppy disks and such.
In this case, the thing that is connecting us is npm.
npm currently claims to have about 10 million users. Those users include
everyone from new programmers in a coding bootcamp to multi-billion dollar
npm also reports that they have about 5 Billion
individual package downloads per week. That's 500 package downloads a
week per user.
And that's important because a worm like this can take advantage of how
often people are downloading code from the internet in order to spread
itself as fast as possible. And it needs to spread as fast as possible in
order to infect everyone before being detected.
If this worm hadn't been broken, it could have infected hundreds (maybe
even thousands) of packages before being detected.
If it had been more sophisticated, it could have been much harder to kill
Let's quickly talk about how Fluke could have gone down.
In order to grow as fast as possible, Fluke needs to insert itself into
something that gets installed by many people. In this case it targeted
one of ESLint's internal packages.
ESLint has been downloaded over 130 million times, and its contributors
included people who also worked on:
Yarn - an npm alternative client responsible for 48% of npm downloads
Babel - 150 million downloads
jQuery - 65 million downloads
CoffeeScript - 50 million downloads
(and many many more)
If you keep traversing the graph of packages that depend on one another,
as well as the graph of authors who have access to other packages, it
doesn't take long to infect the entire registry.
So like... it's a pretty good target.
But how does it get introduced?
Well I'm not sure exactly how it happened in this case, but
here's one scenario that I've had to think about in the past.
Pretty much every major open source project out there (at least in the
This CI is just there to run your tests, and it provides a nice feedback
loop to contributors, but since it runs automatically the second a pull
request is opened, you need to be careful what that CI process has access
Many users of npm (including lots of major open source projects) chose to
use Continuous Deployment systems to automatically publish new versions
of their npm packages as things get merged into their master
branch. Most of the time, this is done in the same CI system as tests.
In order to publish to npm, you need to have a "token" (something to tell
npm that you are authenticated). And in order to publish to npm
automatically in CI, you need to put this token into your environment
Most of the time, people configure these environment variables in such a
way that both your "master" build and your "pull request/branch" build
get the same environment variables.
This means that simply by opening a pull request into the right repo, you
can gain authorization to publish packages.
But then it gets even easier. Now that the worm has infected a major
package, anyone who then downloads the package will then also be infected.
If they happen to be logged into the npm registry (which likely the
majority of npm users with accounts are) then this worm can easily add
itself to any other packages that they have publish access to.
As the worm spreads itself to more and more packages, at some point it is
inevitably going to be detected. It may take a couple of hours or in very
bad cases a couple of days.
But how could it avoid detection for as long as possible?
Well first we need to know how people would discover it. There's a couple
Errors – Bugs, network failures, etc.
Network activity – i.e. Locked down CI networks which report unexpected external requests
Code – Just happen to find the code one way or another
A "well-designed" worm would know about these sort of things and would
take precautions to avoid getting caught.
Avoid errors from being seen by users (try-catch, etc.)
Avoid running consistently so errors aren't reproducable and users ignore them
Avoid making requests or doing anything that might be suspicious when you appear to be in an especially secure system
Avoid exposing code, hide it somewhere else on users systems that they are unlikely to notice
The better the worm hides, the more time it will have to infect.
Security-minded people can do a much better job than the above list.
Any worm presumably has a purpose more than just to infect itself
(although maybe someone just wants the bragging rights).
They might want to steal data, they might want to do damage to the
machine, these days there's a good chance they want to mine bitcoins on
everyone's computer. (Crypto-currencies are stupid and bad, don't @ me)
Because Node runs with full access to the file system and network by
default, you can do a whole lot with people's machines. Not to mention
the fact that many users run npm with sudo.
Oh, and just in case the worm wants to make sure it doesn't get stopped
early on, it might even go as far as continuing to fight even after it's
been noticed. There are plenty of ways to do that.
You can see that Fluke was trying to do that by using an editable
Pastebin so that it could keep updating the code to do new things.
That's right, worms can be built to auto-update. Finding new creative
ways to be a pain in the ass for the people trying to stop them.
Maybe it'll even set up a daemon to keep injecting itself into packages
even after it has been removed from them.
You may be wondering...
What the fuck Jamie? Why are you teaching everyone how to create a
worm like this? Do you have to expose it to the entire world?!
For starters, I'm not exposing it to the entire world... That already
npm allows packages to take actions that could result in a malicious
npm package author to create a worm that spreads across the majority of
the npm ecosystem.
Thousands of people already know about this vulnerability, and
the vast majority of them are completely capable of exploiting it. The
only reason people haven't exploited it so far is:
Because they are decent people.
Because they have something to lose if other people start exploiting it.
You see, the truth is that this massive community we've built is built on
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trusts that its users won't do anything malicious, and if
they do, npm trusts that they'll be able to catch it before it
does anything too harmful.
Trust is a big deal in the security industry. If you want users to give
you control over their data, they need to trust you.
When you lose people's trust, your business is in danger. Just ask
Facebook who lost billions of dollars by handing user data over to
Cambridge Analytica (and so many others).
If you want to gain and keep users' trust, you need to do everything
you can to protect them.
npm knows its security flaws. It's been alerted about them many times. I
was joking about them with the COO just the other day.
But look at the response from npm when the ability to build a worm was
disclosed over 2 years ago:
Jan 7 2016 – Response from npm
Jan 8 2016 – Confirmation of works as intended no intention to fix at the moment from npm.
There was room to do something more there. And in the two years since
then, despite it coming up regularly, the registry hasn't done much to
prevent what almost happened today.
They've introduced 2-Factor Authentication, they've introduced lockfiles,
they've acquired a Node security startup, and started building auditing
tools. And while they all help quite a bit, they don't solve the core
problem of publishing with a long-living token.
A worm can still be installed on a logged in machine that has a
valid token and publish new versions of packages. A worm can
still take advantage of postinstall scripts to spread
itself because npm doesn't lock them down at all.
The reason they have stated for not addressing these problems head on is
because any security solution would get in the way of users. It'd be
harder to publish npm packages, and even harder to automate.
And you see, harder npm publishing means harder npm adoption. My fear is
that they are refusing to do something here because they are a startup
focused on growth. Their VCs are undoubtably demanding that growth.
Capitalism strikes again I guess.
It's on npm to fix this problem, and until they do we're gonna keep being
at risk. And I hate that, I hate being put in this position where I'm the
bad guy for trying to raise awareness to something so important.
I got into open source because it was fun. I stayed because I saw how
much we can improve the world around us. I take it seriously because I
know how much we have to lose.
It bothers me greatly that npm is a private company. It bothers me that
npm is closed-source (the registry and server). It bothers me because I
can't contribute. I can only inform the community of the problems.
I get it #HugOps. I don't want to ruin anyone at npm's day.
But if npm was open source (not just the client), we wouldn't have to hug
ops. We could contribute back. I know there's security engineers at every
major company these days that would kill for the opportunity to improve
The question comes: Why do we give a private company a monopoly over the
Node ecosystem if they refuse to open source their software?
But the reason I really wanted to write this article is that I want
things to get better. I don't want worms to be successful
because the community was uneducated on how they work and what to do
Security through obscurity is thankfully pretty effective, but it's
dangerous to build something important on. The npm ecosystem and
community play a vital role in how many people in the world write code.
They shouldn't depend on security through obscurity.
So npm has lost some trust today, and now we find ourselves in the
position where we need to protect ourselves from npm.
npm has already revoked all your tokens, but please:
Setup 2-Factor Authentication (it makes it much harder to introduce worms)
Use lockfiles (they help prevent worms from spreading as fast)
Make sure you aren't automating npm publishing in a way that exposes
Be more careful about the dependencies being
introduced to your codebase.
But honestly, the amount of work we'd all need to put in to truly prevent
this from happening again... it's just never going to happen.
You can ask each individual user to go out of their way to voluntarily
secure themselves, but the reality is that most won't. Most won't even
hear the message that they need to.