The Hitchhiker's Guide to Malicious Third-Party Dependencies

by Piergiorgio Ladisa
DiverSE Coffee
Rennes, France


The increasing popularity of certain programming languages has spurred the creation of ecosystem-specific package repositories and package managers. Such repositories (e.g., npm, PyPI) serve as public databases that users can query to retrieve packages for various functionalities, whereas package managers automatically handle dependency resolution and package installation on the client side.

These mechanisms enhance software modularization and accelerate implementation. However, they have become a target for malicious actors seeking to propagate malware on a large scale.

In this work, we show how attackers can leverage capabilities of popular package managers and languages to achieve arbitrary code execution on victim machines, thereby realizing open-source software supply chain attacks. Based on the analysis of 7 ecosystems, we identify 3 install-time and 4 runtime techniques, and we provide recommendations describing how to reduce the risk when consuming third-party dependencies. We provide example implementations that demonstrate the identified techniques. Furthermore, we describe evasion strategies employed by attackers to circumvent detection mechanisms.