A Romanian threat researcher detailed in a published report Wednesday how he broke into IT systems belonging to some of the largest corporations in the world. His assaults successfully targeted Apple, Microsoft, Tesla, PayPal, Netflix and more than 30 other corporations.
Alex Birsan advised the companies in advance that he would be testing the security of their systems, but did not provide them with details beforehand.
His exploit, Birsan told BleepingComputer, exposed "vulnerabilities or design flaws in automated build or installation tools [that] may cause public dependencies to be mistaken for internal dependencies with the exact same name."
Birsan took advantage of this vulnerability by injecting code into packages stored in public repositories such as GitHub. He termed the intentional duplication of names and subsequent swapping of files 'dependency confusion.'
He first had to determine the names companies used for the code files so he could create counterfeit files with the same names, but he found that task to be relatively easy. Shopify, for instance, automatically installed a forged file from Birsan that he correctly guessed was "Shopify-cloud."
"The success rate was simply astonishing," Birsan said an online assessment of his exploits Wednesday.
Such planted by a malicious actor could wreak havoc throughout a company's network, disrupt operations, steal data or attempt to extort money.
Birsan's code was not malicious; he retrieved only basic information about each computer his code impacted including username, hostname and current path of each unique installation. The program notified Birsan when his code was activated by target companies.
"Along with the external IPs, this was just enough data to help security teams identify possibly vulnerable systems based on my reports," Birsan said, "while avoiding having my testing be mistaken for an actual attack."
In return Birsan collected 'bug bounty' cash that companies pay out to researchers who uncover vulnerabilities. The total from several companies that paid him topped $130,000.
Most of the affected companies were able to quickly patch their systems following notification of the breach.
But Birsan says he believes that dependency confusion on open-source platforms remains a problem.
"Specifically, I believe that finding new and clever ways to leak internal package names will expose even more vulnerable systems, and looking into alternate programming languages and repositories to target will reveal some additional attack surface for dependency confusion bugs," he said.
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