What Can Hackers Do With Stolen Source Code?

The Lapsus $ digital extortion group is the latest to mount a high-profile data-stealing rampage against major tech companies. And among other things, the group is known for grabbing and leaking source code at every opportunity, including from Samsung, Qualcomm, and Nvidia. At the end of March, alongside revelations that they had breached an Okta subprocessor, the hackers also dropped a trove of data containing portions of the source code for Microsoft’s Bing, Bing Maps, and its Cortana virtual assistant. Sounds bad, right?

Businesses, governments, and other institutions have been plagued by ransomware attacks, business email compromise, and an array of other breaches in recent years. Researchers say, though, that while source code leaks may seem catastrophic, and certainly aren’t goodthey typically aren’t the worst-case scenario of a criminal data breach.

“Some source code does represent trade secrets, some parts of source code may make it easier for people to abuse systems, but accounts and user data are typically the biggest things companies have to protect,” says Shane Huntley, director of Google’s Threat Analysis Group . “For a vulnerability hunter, it makes certain things easier, allowing them to skip a lot of steps. But it’s not magic. Just because someone can see the source code doesn’t mean they’ll be able to exploit it right then. ”

In other words, when attackers gain access to source code — and especially when they leak it for all to see — a company’s intellectual property could be exposed in the process, and attackers may be able to spot vulnerabilities in their systems more quickly. But source code alone isn’t a road map to find exploitable bugs. Attackers can’t take over Cortana from Microsoft or access users’ accounts simply because they have some of the source code for the platform. In fact, as open source software shows, it is possible for source code to be publicly available without making the software it underpins less secure.

Google’s Huntley points out that the same broad and diverse vetting needed to secure open source software is also vital for critical proprietary source code, just in case it is ever stolen or leaks. And he also notes that major vulnerabilities in open source software, like the recent Log4j flawshave often lurked undiscovered for years or even decades, similar to inconspicuous typos that aren’t caught by an author, editor, or copyeditor.

Microsoft detailed its Lapsus $ breach on March 22 and said in a statement that “Microsoft does not rely on the secrecy of code as a security measure and viewing source code does not lead to elevation of risk.”

Typically, security researchers and attackers alike must use “reverse engineering” to find exploitable vulnerabilities in software, working backward from the final product to understand its components and how it works. And researchers say that the process can actually be more helpful than looking at source code for finding bugs, because it involves more creative and open-ended analysis than just looking at a recipe. Still, there’s no doubt that source code leaks can be problematic, especially for organizations that haven’t done enough auditing and vetting to be sure that they’ve caught most basic bugs.

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