Software Activism & NPM

Recently there’s been an outpouring of software activists or, as some call them, hacktivists, protesting the war between Russia and Ukraine. One of these people, a man by the name of Brandon Nozaki Miller, decided to introduce malware into a popular Node.js library known as node-ipc.

In brief, node-ipc is a project to perform local and remote inter-process communication between Node.js software. This allows applications to communicate between each other using low level transport protocols. The project has about 5 million monthly downloads.

The Register has an article on this, as does snyk who have done an awesome job summarising the events and the code in question.

For a short summary of what the code does:

  1. It creates a file on users desktops without permission.
  2. If the user’s IP is identified as being in Russia or Belarus it recursively replaces all files on their machine with heart emojis.

The original commit that introduced this code has since been removed from active use but has been de-obfuscated here for easier understanding.

The fact that this code went live and was automatically installed on machines is worrying. As mentioned in snyk’s article, the new functionality is not documented in the README, and was sneaked into the source code and published without any announcements. That alone is cause for concern.

Software, especially Open-Source Software, is built upon the idea of trust. When consuming any kind of software you are entering into an agreement with the developers of that software. That agreement is that you will abide by the software’s licence, often in the case of open source it is some kind of GPL licence. And in turn, the software will provide the features it advertises.

Let’s approach this with an analogy grounded in the physical world:

I run a small business selling cutlery, specifically metal spoons. My spoons are relatively popular and used in many different places. I improve upon their design periodically and release newer ones that customers eagerly upgrade to, often before their existing ones degrade.

One day, after watching a passionate documentary, I decide that dairy is the devil. So, without announcing it, I re-engineer my spoons to dye the milk they touch red. Additionally, I decide that if they’re used in the countryside, where the dairy farms are, they should also cause the bowls they are in to break.

People buy these new spoons and begin using them. My customers become enraged as their bowls of cereal are ruined, especially those who happen to live in the countryside. Were my actions justifiable? Were they sensible? Have I committed a crime?

Some animal rights protesters might laud my actions, while others condemn them. People who enjoyed using my cutlery for their breakfast may be annoyed and choose to use other spoons, or put up with their blood coloured milk. Now suppose that, after seeing this annoyance, I quickly recall all existing spoons and release a version without these features. Does this effect the answers to the above questions?

Like with my spoon analogy, Mr Miller quickly reverted his changes, but not before many people suffered. One user commented that their NGO monitoring war crimes in Russia/Belarus suffered irreparable harm. To which, Miller’s reply is an attempt to absolve himself of guilt.

To be categorically clear, what Brandon Miller did, in my opinion, constitutes a crime, at least under the UK’s Computer Misuse Act which is worded similarly to other cyber crime acts around the globe. He knowingly, and recklessly, introduced malicious code into a project in order to impair or destroy data on computers he had no authorization to do such to. His intentions, however noble from his point of view, are irrelevant. Further, he has eroded the trust in Open Source Software with both his cavalier actions and refusal to own up to the seriousness of what he has done.

I am far from a fan of what Russia is doing to Ukraine right now, having spent time there with friends still living in Kyiv. But this is another example of politics rearing its head into matters where it does not belong. Software should be completely agnostic to the current political climate, otherwise it becomes yet another tool in the arena of petty arguments that is politics. Miller’s malware could have caused damage to innocents, both those living in those countries who oppose the current war, as well as those mistakenly identified as such, either from using a VPN or through poor GeoIP location data; meaning it could well have effected people in the border regions of Ukraine, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Finland.

It is also another example of the glaring issues in the JavaScript environment, already exposed by the leftpad fiasco in 2016. The JavaScript ecosystem seems to be more prone to these issues than other programming languages, a troubling situation when you consider what modern websites run on.

In short, keep politics out of your software projects, fix the damn JavaScript package management environment, and regardless of your opinion on the current conflict in Ukraine, take part in less destructive and more legal forms of activism.

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