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NPMs Sabotaged as OSS Sustainability Crisis Continues

A long-simmering debate over the sustainability of smaller open source projects moved beyond the theoretical when two widely used open source node packaged modules (npm) were deliberately sabotaged this week, allegedly by a primary contributor.

Colors.js is an npm that has been downloaded more than 3.3 billion times, with more than 19,000 projects depending on it. Faker, meanwhile, has been retrieved 272 million times, with over 2,500 projects depending on it. Colors.js enables organizations to print colorful text messages on the console, while faker is used to generate fake data for testing applications. Developers that pulled a recently published Colors.js version found their applications caught in an infinite loop, printing ‘LIBERTY’ ‘LIBERTY’ ‘LIBERTY’ followed by a sequence of gibberish non-ASCII characters. Functional code, meanwhile, was also removed from Faker.

Ax Sharma, senior security researcher for Sonatype, a provider of an open source software security platform, noted these actions occurred in the wake of the series of zero-day vulnerabilities that impacted the widely used Log4j logging tool for Java applications. Sharma first reported the update issues with Color.js and Faker.

The small team of contributors that work on the Log4j project found themselves creating multiple updates to the package to address vulnerabilities of varying severity on the common vulnerabilities and exposures (CVE) list. There is some debate, however, over how many of those vulnerabilities warranted a CVE listing given their severity, said Sharma.

That issue has now emerged as a flashpoint for contributors to smaller open source projects. These contributors contend that larger organizations are taking advantage of their efforts without making any substantial contributions to a project in return, much less compensating any of the contributors for their time and effort. The recent updates made to the npms are, essentially, a protest statement, explained Sharma.

It’s not clear whether other contributors to small open source projects might follow suit, but the debate over the sustainability of these projects has become heated. Many contributors to open source software assume that the organizations who use the free software they created should assume responsibility for securing it. That “user beware” approach to security is understandable for contributors that are not compensated for their efforts. However, when asked to patch open source projects used by billion-dollar organizations—and do so on an urgent, emergency basis—the resentment among those volunteer contributors rises sharply.

Fortunately, some effort is being made to address these issues. The Open Source Security Foundation (OpenSSF), an arm of the Linux Foundation, raised $10 million to help maintainers embrace best practices and better protect open source projects from malicious code. Google has pledged $1 million to help open source developers adhere to National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) guidelines in response to the Biden administration’s recent executive order on cybersecurity. Administered as a pilot program by the Linux Foundation, that effort is part of a larger $10 billion commitment that Google previously made to open source security.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan also recently sent a letter to major software companies and developers inviting them to discuss initiatives to improve open-source software security. The first step is a one-day discussion this month hosted by Anne Neuberger, the deputy national security advisor for cyber and emerging technology. In the letter, Sullivan specifically noted that while open source software has accelerated the pace of innovation, much of it is maintained by volunteers. This is now a key national security concern, he noted.

It’s not clear how this emerging open source sustainability crisis will play out. However, DevOps teams might want to consider how dependent they are on open source projects whose contributors might have issues with how their work is being exploited.

Mike Vizard

Mike Vizard is a seasoned IT journalist with over 25 years of experience. He also contributed to IT Business Edge, Channel Insider, Baseline and a variety of other IT titles. Previously, Vizard was the editorial director for Ziff-Davis Enterprise as well as Editor-in-Chief for CRN and InfoWorld.

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