A full-fledged enterprise-level application, for instance, might rely on hundreds if not thousands of packages. The usual dependencies include direct dependencies, development dependencies, bundled dependencies, production dependencies, and optional dependencies. That’s great because everyone’s getting the best out of the open-source ecosystem.
However, one of the factors that get overlooked is the amount of risk involved. Although these third-party modules are particularly useful in their domain, they also introduce some security risks into your application.
Are Open-Source Libraries Vulnerable?
OSS dependencies are indeed vulnerable to exploits and compromises. Let’s have a look at a few examples:
But that’s not all. A lot of new exploits get unearthed every week. Some of them get disclosed to the public, but others make headlines only after a serious breach.
So how do we mitigate these risks? In this article, I’ll explain some of the industry-standard best practices that you can use to secure your open-source dependencies.
1. Keep Track of Your Application’s Dependencies
Logically speaking, as the number of dependencies increase, the risk of ending up with a vulnerable package can also increase. This holds true equally for direct and indirect dependencies. Although there’s no reason that you should stop using open-source packages, it’s always a good idea to keep track of them.
These dependencies are easily discoverable and can be as simple as running
npm ls in the root directory of your application. You can use the
–prod argument which displays all production dependencies and the
–long argument for a summary of each package description.
Furthermore, you can use a service to automate the dependency management process that offers real-time monitoring and automatic update testing for your dependencies. Some of the familiar tools include GreenKeeper, Libraries.io, etc. These tools collate a list of the dependencies that you are currently using and track relevant information regarding them.
2. Get Rid of Packages That You Do Not Need
With the passage of time and changes in your code, it is likely that you’ll stop using some packages altogether and instead add in new ones. However, developers tend not to remove old packages as they go along.
Over time, your project might accumulate a lot of unused dependencies. Although this is not a direct security risk, these dependencies almost certainly add to your project’s attack surface and lead to unnecessary clutter in the code. An attacker may be able to find a loophole by loading an old but installed package that has a higher vulnerability quotient, thereby increasing the potential damage it can cause.
How do you check for such unused dependencies? You can do this with the help of the depcheck tool. Depcheck scans your entire code for
import commands. It then correlates these commands with either installed packages or those mentioned in your package.json and provides you with a report. The command can also be modified using different command flags, thereby making it simpler to automate the checking of unused dependencies.
Install depcheck with:
npm install -g depcheck
3. Find and Fix Crucial Security Vulnerabilities
Almost all of the points discussed above are primarily concerned with the potential problems that you might encounter. But what about the dependencies that you’re using right now?
Based on a recent study, almost 15% of current packages include a known vulnerability, either in the components or dependencies. However, the good news is that there are many tools that you can use to analyze your code and find open-source security risks within your project.
The most convenient tool is npm’s
npm audit. Audit is a script that was released with npm’s version 6. Node Security Platform initially developed npm audit, and npm registry later acquired it. If you’re curious to know what npm audit is all about, here’s a quote from the official blog:
A security audit is an assessment of package dependencies for security vulnerabilities. Security audits help you protect your package’s users by enabling you to find and fix known vulnerabilities in dependencies. The npm audit command submits a description of the dependencies configured in your package to your default registry and asks for a report of known vulnerabilities.
The report generated usually comprises of the following details: the affected package name, vulnerability severity and description, path, and other information, and, if available, commands to apply patches to resolve vulnerabilities. You can even get the audit report in JSON by running
npm audit --json.
Apart from that, npm also offers assistance on how to act based on the report. You can use
npm audit fix to fix issues that have already been found. These fixes are commonly accomplished using guided upgrades or via open-source patches.
Feel free to refer npm’s documentation for more information.
4. Replace Expired Libraries With In-House Alternatives
The concept of open-source security is heavily reliant on the number of eyes that are watching over that particular library. Packages that are actively used are more closely watched. Therefore, there is a higher chance that the developer might have addressed all the known security issues in that particular package.
Let’s take an example. On GitHub, there are many JSON web token implementations that you can use with your Node.js library. However, the ones that are not in active development could have critical vulnerabilities. One such vulnerability, which was reported by Auth0, lets anyone create their own “signed” tokens with whatever payload they want.
If a reasonably popular or well-used package had this flaw, the odds of a developer finding and patching the fault would be higher. But what about an inactive/abandoned project? We’ll talk about that in the next point.
5. Always Choose a Library That’s in Active Development
Perhaps the quickest and most efficient way to determine the activity of a specific package is to check its download rate on npm. You can find this in the Stats section of npm’s package page. It is also possible to extract these figures automatically using the npm stats API or by browsing historic stats on npm-stat.com. For packages with GitHub repositories, you should check out the commit history, the issue tracker, and any relevant pull requests for the library.
6. Update the Dependencies Frequently
There are many bugs, including a large number of security bugs that are continually unearthed and, in most cases, immediately patched. It is not uncommon to see recently reported vulnerabilities being fixed solely on the most recent branch/version of a given project.
For example, let’s take the Regular Expression Denial of Service (ReDoS) vulnerability reported on the HMAC package ‘hawk’ in early 2016. This bug in hawk was quickly resolved, but only in the latest major version, 4.x. Older versions like 3.x were patched a lot later even though they were equally at risk.
Therefore, as a general rule, your dependencies are less likely to have any security bugs if they use the latest available version.
The easiest way to confirm if you’re using the latest version is by using the
npm outdated command. This command supports the
-prod flag to ignore any dev dependencies and
--json to make automation simpler.
Regularly inspect the packages you use to verify their modification date. You can do this in two ways: via the npm UI, or by running
npm view <package> time.modified.
- Use open-source dependencies that are in active development.
- Update and monitor your components.
- Review your code and write tests.
- Remove unwanted dependencies or use alternatives.
- Use security tools like
npm auditto analyze your dependencies.