Syntax Highlighting and Remote Code Execution: Why Developers are an Easy Target

We chastise our relatives for installing unheard-of apps onto their phones, yet we execute thousands upon thousands of lines of untrusted code on our laptops every time we run npm install or update our text editor plugins.

At least that dodgy Candy Crush clone is running in an iOS or Android sandbox. What about that Visual Studio Code extension so many just installed because that Rockstar Developer on Twitter recommended it with a muscle-flexing emojii? Did they check it didn’t invoke fs.readFile against their SSH keys and use the standard http module to upload them to the Maltese mafia?

Of course we didn’t; we never do. Perhaps we should lay off patronising our relatives about their seven browser toolbars until we get our own house in order.

My only defense against someone compromising my machine via a text editor plugin is VimScript being so horrible that even the most dedicated adversary would throw their laptop out of the window before completing a successful exploit.


Let’s assess the extent of the problem through the setup process of a new developer.

They install their OS of choice along with a package manager. Assuming Homebrew on macOS, that already means any compromise of GitHub or any one of the Homebrew developers leads to RCE over countless developers’ machines. The encouragement to update frequently means even a short window of compromise will hit many users.

An editor or IDE is installed: VSCode, Atom, Sublime, IntelliJ, PyCharm, Vim. They pile on the plugins for the tech stacks they use: better autocomplete for Go; the Redux plugin that heavily-clapped Medium post mentioned; the ESLint plugin brought up at the last JS meetup.

Installing them is easy. Auditing them is harder. Worst of all, isolating them from sensitive data on the rest of your computer is far more difficult than it should be.


We’re suspicious of piracy websites with nefarious scripts despite their running within a sandboxed browser, yet we happily install random Homebrew recipes that lead to arbitrary Ruby code running under current user privileges. Still, at least Homebrew recipes are usually small and easy to audit. A bad actor uploading nefarious software to Homebrew’s GitHub would hopefully be quickly spotted.

Editor plugins and software libraries are another matter entirely.

Install software packages via the likes of npm and pip, and a large tree of subdependencies is resolved. That expands the authors of the dependency code running on our machine from dozens to hundreds or thousands. That’s thousands of developers with varying incentives, security postures, knowledge of secure programming, and even ethics.

The attack surface for exploiting your development environment went from just your machine to the lowest common denominator of your machine, the machines of those thousands of developers, and all third parties in between.

The credentials of an author behind a popular library like JavaScript’s lodash or Python’s requests being stolen is a serious possibility; it has been attempted before with varying degrees of success. Even a couple of hours passing before the compromised asset is withdrawn would lead to compromised libraries being baked into innumerable Docker images, being fixed in package lock files, and being pushed to production environments all over the world.

ESLint was compromised with the subtlety of a drunkard brawling outside a British town centre at 2am, brazenly evaling content from Pastebin. While I applaud the quick responses of the teams backing these compromised OSS projects, a job they do for free in their spare time lest we forget, what does it say about the impact of a sophisticated, stealthy compromise from an adversary worth their salt?

What about one that doesn’t force push over the version control history, doesn’t lock out other developers from accounts, just subtly modifying a pending commit with an obfuscated vulnerability? Remember that OpenSSH was compromised by nothing more than an off-by-one error. Are we confident the developer community would find it quickly, or would it sit around uncovered for years like Heartbleed?


Text editors and IDEs are another area we developers must be frank about. It has all of the problems of libraries but with additional nuances. Most editors have no proper isolation for their plugins. If a new ELisp package is loaded into Emacs, that code can do anything under current user privileges including running (call-process "rm" nil nil nil "-fr" "/home") or fseting the password entry function of ELisp to replace it with a version that sends off its passwords to a remote server. These Emacs-specific example can be replicated in any modern editor like Visual Studio Code, Atom, or Brackets.

That said, Emacs is especially vulnerable because, unlike most other editors, its users tend to use it as a hardware agnostic “operating system” too. This would be fine except for the fact that the Lisp Machine model that inspires Emacs has no understanding of modern security: everything is mutable, allowing any package to overwrite or intercept code in any other package. There’s no process isolation or access control. That syntax highlighting package you just downloaded has the ability to overwrite parts of TRAMP to inject SSH commands into the remote servers you log in to and tamper with emails you write in GNUS.

(I lament the lack of a modern, secure, GUI-first Lisp Machine-inspired development environment. That will be the focus of a future post.)


With companies pushing agile development and DevOps, it’s increasingly likely that developers have keys to the kingdom or at least some important parts of it. The move towards smaller teams with full ownership over their microservices means compromising one developer could easily could lead to gaining access to datastores with personally identifiable information.

Software developers have an increasingly large red target painted on their backs. The attack surface is growing as we turn to ever-growing piles of mostly unaudited packages, libraries, and plugins for developing. The assumption that non-technical staff must follow security guidelines but technical staff “already know this stuff so needn’t bother” has never been more dated.

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