There has been a lot of press about supply chain attacks recently, these type of attacks are nothing new and understanding them is really important for developers using services such as GitHub Actions, given Continuos integration (CI) tools are a critical part of supply chain used in software projects.

A supply chain attack targets less secure parts of the development process, this could be the tools and services you depend on, or the docker containers you host your software in. These attacks come in different forms but some examples are:

In this post I am going to dive into an example of an attack that affected a lot of projects using GitHub Actions recently, but this could be applied more broadly to any CI tool or service relying on third party services or code.

Why is the Codecov security incident interesting?

The Codecov security incident illustrates a novel attack on a popular developer tool, which in turn exposed a number of CI integrations including the widely used GitHub Actions.

The initial attack happened in January when the Codecov Bash uploader script was modified in a cloud storage service.

This script provides a language-agnostic alternative for sending your coverage reports to Codecov and is used at least 5 of the Codecov continuos integration (CI) integrations.

The GitHub Action Codecov was one of them, it downloads and executes the script each time it is run and critically didn’t verify the checksum of this file against the release so it continued working.

The modified script extracted all environment variables in that workflow and uploaded them to a website operated by the attacker.

These variables are often used to pass credentials into the workflow for services such as Docker Hub, NPM, cloud storage buckets and other software distribution services.

The extraction of these credentials while this exploit was active could lead to the modifications of builds and other artifacts resulting in further exploits and extending the footprint of this attack.

Most concerning is this exploit was effectively sitting in the supply chain of 1000s of open source and proprietary workflows extracting data undetected for approximately 4 months.

Note: It is worth reading the security update posted by Codecov as it highlights some of the steps you need to take if you are effected by this sort of attack.

What can you do to mitigate these sorts of attacks?

To ensure your GitHub actions secure I recommend:

For actions which have access to important secrets, like those used to upload your software libraries and releases, or deploying your services, you may want to fork them and add security scanning. This is more important if there are no vendor supported alternatives, or it is a less widely supported technology.

Reviewing your actions

Given we all still want the benefits of services such as GitHub Actions while also managing the risks we need to maintain a balance between getting the most out of the service and limiting possible exploits.

The first step is to review the GitHub actions your using in your workflows, just like you would for open source libraries:

  • How active are these projects? Are PRs merged / reviewed in a timely manner?
  • Is the author known for building good quality software and build automation?
  • Are these actions supported by a company or service?
  • Does the project have a security policy?

When it comes to open source GitHub Actions you need to be aware that most open source licenses limit liability for the author, this means you as a consumer need to actively manage some of the risks running this software. Performing maintenance, bug fixes and contributing to the upkeep of the software is key to ensuring the risk of exploits is minimized.

Lastly run some internal training or workshops around supply chain attacks in your company, this could involve running a scenario like the Codecov incident as a table top exercise.


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