As the economy struggles to recover after the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have all learned a thing or two about supply chains—and what happens when they break down. But many people do not realize that modern websites also have digital supply chains, third-party ones that can be compromised in myriad ways. And just like the disruption of the physical supply chain affects things like pricing, availability and inventory, digital supply chains found on today’s websites play a big role in critical areas like site performance, customer experience and overall analytics. As a result, businesses today need to be aware of how the digital supply chain can introduce significant risk, especially when third parties do not adhere to their own set of stringent standards around security and compliance.
According to a recent study by Source Defense, organizations that collect and use sensitive data—such as health care, finance, travel and online retailers—need to strengthen their focus on third-party risk management. As a result of mandates like GDPR and PCS DSS, these companies are now bound by compliance requirements to ensure their client-side threats are avoided and/or mitigated. This effort means recognizing more than just how to protect private data—it means understanding the properties of malicious code known as “shadow code” on modern websites and how it generates risk from dynamic and unpredictable scripts. Companies dealing in data today need to be aware of the different ways shadow code can affect their security, as well as the productivity and integrity of their DevOps teams.
Third-Party Scripts and Shadow Code
Shadow code refers to code that is baked into an application without proper vetting by the website’s IT department. This malicious code thrives in the cloud landscape, primarily because it allows for ease of deployment through CI/CD automation.
When a web page calls in a third-party script, it loads directly into the browser from a remote server, which means general security controls such as firewalls and network monitoring tools are bypassed. And if one of these scripts has been compromised by a bad actor, shadow code can be embedded within. Sometimes these scripts include open source software that hasn’t been tested well—or at all. Other times, the code may be pulled from another layer of the organization where malicious code is hiding.
Shadow code presents an array of threat opportunities, including the ability to mount an attack through digital supply chain partners. When these compromised scripts are used to steal data, redirect web traffic,or any other malicious activity, a clear path is essentially created into thousands of different websites, in almost every industry that collects data or deals in digital transactions. When a third-party script with shadow code enters a system, it gains the ability to:
- Record keystrokes
- Redirect visitors to malicious websites
- Monitor clicks and track website activity
- Change content on websites, including images and text
- Steal credentials, such as personal logins and social security numbers
As we know, these digital activities can lead to big consequences, like data breaches, fraud, theft, compliance violations, loss of reputation and hefty fines. Although code reviews can provide some software quality assurance, the process is not effective against shadow code, mostly because these scripts are constantly altered by third-parties. And when the threat is underestimated and unattended, these malicious scripts have the potential to permeate every area of a company’s web property.
Because the benefits of using these types of third-party scripts are considerable, it can be hard to find a modern enterprise or agency that does not rely on at least a few to run web applications. In fact, many enterprises and government agencies today are running third-party scripts on every page of their sites. Even though these organizations are technically not responsible for this harmful code, regulators can (and do) hold web property owners accountable for any digital maleficence on their sites.
DevOps Teams and Shadow Code
But the reality is, code libraries accessed by DevOps teams are not always secure or trustworthy. Considering these packages often contain code from fourth and fifth parties, DevOps folks face the unavoidable possibility of tainted code—hard to identify and dangerous to use. In fact, the Source Defense report revealed that one in four scripts represented fourth- or fifth-party code, on average. Because developers tend to focus on keeping their code updated and as capable as possible, they often pull from the dynamic library from their repository. If there is a CI/CD process happening, DevOps teams will pull their library from that point. This is where shadow code introduces new vulnerabilities for developers.
Shadow code also jeopardizes the integrity of DevOps work. Most developers take pride in what they do and are not interested in creating unsecure or low-quality code—not purposefully, anyway. And given that speed, productivity and constant innovation are all business goals for DevOps teams, it’s important to recognize how problematic shadow code can be for those in the business of building secure and high-quality software.