You are not safe with Semantic Versioning (right now).

TL;DR: Several recent hijacks of widely spread NPM libraries should make you double-think whether to trust the package.json-semantic-versioning notation using carets and tildes.

So what’s that about?

Version updates are one oft he most haunting things any person with any kind of computer does ever encounter. On the one hand, it’s good news – some thing that you use has evolved again, and you are right at the source. Have better tools, less bugs, new functionality, and usually delivered by just a few clicks. But there’s always these question marks – do I want to know what happened there? Do I want that now? Wasn’t that old version totally working?

So we all know that dilemma. I mean, as we speak, every Windows user is kindly remembered that one could now let that version 11 live on her system. But is it compatible with your system? Will this work out of the box? Is your time worth trying now or do you wait until the waters have settled? And while Microsoft is asking that question only once a few years apart, there’s software like Notepad++ that wants me to have its updates every single start. Because apparently, text editors can grow up so fast..?

Now imagine this problem, times a few googol, and you are in the everyday world of every web developer. In the npm universe, you have nearly total modular flexibility, which comes with so many small packages that update for whatever reason — One likes to believe that mostly these are bugfixes. Or might these be these breaking changes? Did JavaScript evolve again? Do you want that stuff? Are you state-of-the-art or are you in dependency hell?

Issues like these are the source of semantic versioning. The idea is, that you apply a certain level of trust into the usually three-membered version “major.minor.patch” label. Version “3.10.1” means

  • Major version 3; the API of your software is promised to be compatible within each major version (except for the initial version 0)
  • Minor version 10, you use a new version for new API functionality, e.g. there have been 10 times when version 3.0.0 was improved without breaking backwards compatibility
  • Patch version 1, which is incremented for bugfixes within that API specification, i.e. backwards compatible within the whole major version.

This is done in good faith because only when the package maintainer “re-think”s his API, major version is incremented, and that mediates a level of trust in that you in return only have to re-think your usage of that API, if you switch major version. Therefore, dependency management systems like the npm / yarn package.json allow for the convenient notation to specify e.g.

"dependencies": {
    /* ... */
    "styled-components": "^5.1.1",
    "websocket": "~1.0.31"
  },

The caret (^) notation tells us that when the styled-components package was added to our projects, we installed version 5.1.1, but we trust the npm universe that far that every future execution of “npm install” / “yarn install” can increase this version within the same major version, e.g. if version 5.2.0 was released in the meantime, then update for its new content, and as we speak, we are at version 5.3.3, so this project is well up-to-date with whatever the good folks put in there.

Similarly, the tilde (~) notation only allows that behavior within this minor version, e.g. at the moment any call of “… install” would retrieve the current version 1.0.34 but would not get version 1.1.0 whenever that was released.

The opposite of using these is called dependency pinning, and there is lots of further reading available, e.g. here.

There is a certain misconception that “… install” will only update any of these versions if there is no “package-lock.json” for npm or no “yarn.lock” for yarn is around. That is not the case, see below, but first, my actual point.

So the point of semantic versioning is the establishment of trust between the package developer and the user: “This update only changes about that much”.

Problem: You cannot trust the npm universe right now.

Now the last weeks showed us not only a hijacking of the npm package us-parser-js at the end of October, but also another one of the packages coa and rc 11 days ago – these appeared somewhat correlated and came with a mixture of password-stealing and secret installing of crypto-mining tools, all in all the result of some bad folks getting access to these package repositories, making them execute malicious code in their install scripts – note that install scripts are not uncommon for widely spread npm packages. This means that while you can complain that these hackers did not really adhere to the Semantic Versioning code (oh..??), and also these breaches were noticed in a couple of hours each, think about this:

anyone with a certain caret or tilde in her package.json might have infected herself just by a unluckily-timed call of “npm install”.

Think of an automated script. Think of CI. Think of anyone who just wants to build his project and be as up-to-date as one can get. A last year survey of npm developers showed that usage of two-factor authentication is just below 10%, and while this doesn’t mean that the other 90% are completely irresponsible, there just is no system in place that would promise us that such attacks will just go away soon.

So of course we can not write every dependency of your projects itself, especially if they are not direct dependencies. But think of it as Russian Roulette: At least you can minimize the number of pulling the trigger.

You can not know which package is affected next. You better make sure to pin that version to exactly a version you can trust right now, and if you are ever in need of updating this, at least have a quick googling – whether there’s some sh*t going down right now.

Do you have further ideas on how to isolate your development / CI environments from whatever just happens in the outer rims of the npm universe? Please feel free to share.

How to make npm / yarn respect their respective lockfiles (package-lock.json / YARN.lock)

In principle, you can even live with the caret / tilde, if you make sure that you never actually call “npm / yarn install” itself, but make them actually consider their so-called-lockfiles as lockfiles. In their current versions, these calls should lead to that behaviour:

# instead of npm install
npm ci

# instead of yarn install
# for yarn 1.x:
yarn install --frozen-lockfile
# for yarn 2:
yarn install --immutable

As you can see from the npm call, this is especially suited for CI environments, this means you have to make sure the package-lock.json / yarn.lock is part of your repository.

One disadvantage of our approach is that npm really likes to notice you of being not very up to date, and produce lots of noise for whatever reason that you want to get rid of. Just be sure to pay some amount of attention when you update.

One thought on “You are not safe with Semantic Versioning (right now).”

  1. There is a blog entry from two years ago that highlights this attack vector and possible mitigations:
    View at Medium.com

    I think that the npm-viewscripts tool in combination with –ignore-scripts (if possible) is a very good fundamental step while the frozen lockfile is a very good continuous step.

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