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After a fiendishly clever sequence of events, the open-source community narrowly avoided a devastating supply chain attack that could have allowed threat actors to gain near-total control over a huge swath of Linux systems and servers worldwide.

The target was XZ Utils, a ubiquitous data compression utility in almost every major Linux distribution. By slipping a stealthy backdoor into new versions of this core software component, the attacker(s) were weeks away from seeing their malicious code propagated into operating systems like Debian, Red Hat, Ubuntu, and more.

How did this happen?

It appears to have been a multi-year effort by one or (most likely) more highly skilled adversaries patiently infiltrating and subverting the XZ Utils project using fake identities and incremental changes to avoid detection.

As early as 2021, suspicious commits from the account “JiaT75” began appearing in xz Utils and other open-source projects like libarchive. In 2022, new sockpuppet identities pressured the veteran xz Utils maintainer to add fresh developers to the project – setting the stage for the attackers to gain trusted access.

By early 2023, a user going by “Jia Tan” had become deeply embedded, even replacing the maintainer’s contact details in services that scan for vulnerabilities. Then, in February, Tan released xz Utils versions 5.6.0 and 5.6.1, containing a sophisticated, multi-stage backdoor payload.

The attack hinged on getting these backdoored releases accepted into major Linux distributions’ official package repositories – a sinister supply chain compromise goal that nearly succeeded.

Posing as legitimate contributors, the attackers lobbied Debian, Red Hat, and other distros to merge the new XZ Utils versions. Some did just that, possibly exposing millions of systems to the backdoor for several weeks in late March before it was discovered.

So what did this backdoor actually do?

The attack utilized advanced techniques like hiding its code in test files, hijacking build processes, runtime function hooking and only triggering on very specific system configurations. This multi-layered approach allowed it to stay undetected until an engineer happened to spot anomalies while troubleshooting unrelated issues on March 31st.

Upon realizing legitimate XZ Utils releases had been backdoored, the open source world quickly took action, with affected Linux distributions issuing urgent security advisories and rebuilding tainted packages. An incredible disaster was averted – but only just.

The entire XZ Utils incident represents an open source “nightmare supply chain attack scenario” as described by security researchers. A small number of persistent bad actors nearly infiltrated a critical dependency across the Linux ecosystem.

While the specifics of who was behind this remain unknown, the ramifications are chilling. If successful, this campaign could have enabled mass surveillance, data theft, ransomware deployment, and more on a historic scale.

In short, it allowed the attackers full remote control as root over any compromised systems, with the capability to deliver additional malicious payloads.  (For a full tear down of the attack, check out this article on Ars Technica.)

Qwiet AI can help!

As software supply chains grow increasingly complex, this event underscores the importance of secure coding practices, careful package review processes, and maintaining the integrity of open-source projects we rely on daily.  Qwiet AI’s application security platform provides SAST, SCA, Container Scanning, Secrets Detection, and SBOM creation in one quick scan of your code.  With Qwiet AI, you can integrate security testing into your current CI/CD pipelines, ticketing systems, and development tools. By building security directly into your current processes, our platform enables you to incorporate container security into your secure software development life cycle (SSDLC) processes while still ensuring that you get the speed you need to deliver software on time.

The Qwiet AI platform gives you visibility into the context around vulnerabilities so that you can effectively prioritize remediation actions based on whether attackers can exploit a weakness in your application and account for whether attackers are currently exploiting that vulnerability in the wild.

Take our preZero platform for a free spin or contact us today to see how Qwiet AI can help you

About ShiftLeft

ShiftLeft empowers developers and AppSec teams to dramatically reduce risk by quickly finding and fixing the vulnerabilities most likely to reach their applications and ignoring reported vulnerabilities that pose little risk. Industry-leading accuracy allows developers to focus on security fixes that matter and improve code velocity while enabling AppSec engineers to shift security left.

A unified code security platform, ShiftLeft CORE scans for attack context across custom code, APIs, OSS, containers, internal microservices, and first-party business logic by combining results of the company’s and Intelligent Software Composition Analysis (SCA). Using its unique graph database that combines code attributes and analyzes actual attack paths based on real application architecture, ShiftLeft then provides detailed guidance on risk remediation within existing development workflows and tooling. Teams that use ShiftLeft ship more secure code, faster. Backed by SYN Ventures, Bain Capital Ventures, Blackstone, Mayfield, Thomvest Ventures, and SineWave Ventures, ShiftLeft is based in Santa Clara, California. For information, visit:


See for yourself – run a scan on your code right now