JavaScript Project

Security researchers have uncovered a "credible" takeover attempt targeting the OpenJS Foundation in a manner that evokes similarities to the recently uncovered incident aimed at the open-source XZ Utils project.

"The OpenJS Foundation Cross Project Council received a suspicious series of emails with similar messages, bearing different names and overlapping GitHub-associated emails," OpenJS Foundation and Open Source Security Foundation (OpenSSF) said in a joint alert.

According to Robin Bender Ginn, executive director of OpenJS Foundation, and Omkhar Arasaratnam, general manager at OpenSSF, the email messages urged OpenJS to take action to update one of its popular JavaScript projects to remediate critical vulnerabilities without providing any specifics.


The email author(s) also called on OpenJS to designate them as a new maintainer of the project despite having little prior involvement. Two other popular JavaScript projects not hosted by OpenJS are also said to have been at the receiving end of similar activity.

That said, none of the people who contacted OpenJS were granted privileged access to the OpenJS-hosted project.

The incident brings into sharp focus the method by which the lone maintainer of XZ Utils was targeted by fictitious personas that were expressly created for what's believed to be a social engineering-cum-pressure campaign designed to make Jia Tan (aka JiaT75) a co-maintainer of the project.

This has raised the possibility that the attempt to sabotage XZ Utils may not be an isolated incident and that it's part of a broader campaign to undermine the security of various projects, the two open-source groups said. The names of the JavaScript projects were not disclosed.

Jia Tan, as it stands, has no other digital footprints outside of their contributions, indicating that the account was invented for the sole purpose of gaining the credibility of the open-source development community over years and ultimately push a stealthy backdoor into XZ Utils.

It also serves to pinpoint the sophistication and patience that has gone behind planning and executing the campaign by targeting an open-source, volunteer-run project that's used in many Linux distributions, putting organizations and users at risk of supply chain attacks.

The XZ Utils backdoor incident also highlights the "fragility" of the open-source ecosystem and the risks created by maintainer burnout, the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) said last week.

"The burden of security shouldn't fall on an individual open-source maintainer — as it did in this case to near-disastrous effect," CISA officials Jack Cable and Aeva Black said.

"Every technology manufacturer that profits from open-source software must do their part by being responsible consumers of and sustainable contributors to the open-source packages they depend on."

The agency is recommending that technology manufacturers and system operators that incorporate open-source components should either directly or support the maintainers in periodically auditing the source code, eliminating entire classes of vulnerabilities, and implementing other secure by design principles.

"These social engineering attacks are exploiting the sense of duty that maintainers have with their project and community in order to manipulate them," Bender Ginn and Arasaratnam said.

"Pay attention to how interactions make you feel. Interactions that create self-doubt, feelings of inadequacy, of not doing enough for the project, etc. might be part of a social engineering attack."

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