Crowdstrike is reporting on a sophisticated piece of malware that was able to inject malware into the SolarWinds build process:

Key Points

  • SUNSPOT is StellarParticle’s malware used to insert the SUNBURST backdoor into software builds of the SolarWinds Orion IT management product.
  • SUNSPOT monitors running processes for those involved in compilation of the Orion product and replaces one of the source files to include the SUNBURST backdoor code.
  • Several safeguards were added to SUNSPOT to avoid the Orion builds from failing, potentially alerting developers to the adversary’s presence.

Analysis of a SolarWinds software build server provided insights into how the process was hijacked by StellarParticle in order to insert SUNBURST into the update packages. The design of SUNSPOT suggests StellarParticle developers invested a lot of effort to ensure the code was properly inserted and remained undetected, and prioritized operational security to avoid revealing their presence in the build environment to SolarWinds developers.

This, of course, reminds many of us of Ken Thompson’s thought experiment from his 1984 Turing Award lecture, “Reflections on Trusting Trust.” In that talk, he suggested that a malicious C compiler might add a backdoor into programs it compiles.

The moral is obvious. You can’t trust code that you did not totally create yourself. (Especially code from companies that employ people like me.) No amount of source-level verification or scrutiny will protect you from using untrusted code. In demonstrating the possibility of this kind of attack, I picked on the C compiler. I could have picked on any program-handling program such as an assembler, a loader, or even hardware microcode. As the level of program gets lower, these bugs will be harder and harder to detect. A well-installed microcode bug will be almost impossible to detect.

That’s all still true today.

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Author Of this post: Bruce Schneier

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