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Securing the Gateway: Why Protecting Build Systems Is Crucial in Modern Software Development

Understand why securing build systems is as important as securing production systems.

Most organizations want to innovate quickly and efficiently. Shipping code in an agile manner is paramount to staying on the cutting edge. But something is missing in the rush to innovate. While security of production systems has long been a priority for organizations worldwide, an equally critical component, the build systems within development pipelines, often does not receive the same level of attention and protection. This oversight can lead to significant vulnerabilities, as these build systems function as direct conduits to production environments, effectively acting as automated highways for potential cyber threats. 

The Hidden Dangers in Development Pipelines 

Development pipelines, the pathways that encompass everything from initial code creation to software deployment, are increasingly targeted by cyber criminals. These pipelines are essential to the rapid development and deployment capabilities that modern businesses rely on, but this speed and efficiency can also lead to increased risk, as attacks can slip through less secure defenses. The infamous attacks on Codecov, 3CX, and Microsoft are perfect examples of how vulnerabilities in development pipelines can be exploited to cause widespread damage. 

In the case of Codecov, for example, attackers injected a malicious script into Codecov’s development pipeline that was designed to exfiltrate sensitive data from Codecov’s customers.  

Why Build System Security Is Crucial  

Security leaders must understand the significance of build system security, as it safeguards not only the immediate outputs of software development but also the extensive intellectual property and sensitive data handled during the process. Here are some things to consider when it comes to the security of a build system. 

Intellectual Property at Risk: When build systems are compromised, not only is the immediate software product at risk, but also the broader intellectual assets of the company. Attackers can manipulate or steal proprietary code, leading to significant competitive and operational damage. 

Malicious Code Injection: Attackers can embed malicious code or artifacts at various stages within the development pipeline. Once introduced, this malicious content can propagate downstream, affecting production systems and, ultimately, end-users or customers. 

Sensitive Data Exposure: Development environments often handle sensitive information, including secrets, keys, and personally identifiable information (PII). Poor security practices, such as hardcoded secrets in pipeline files, can lead to data breaches, providing attackers with further ammunition to exploit. 

Attackers often gain initial access via stolen credentials of a developer or collaborator with access to the development environment, and a typical first activity for any attacker with access to source code is to search that code for additional secrets to broaden their reach. Even worse, sometimes valid secrets are found in public repositories – as seen in the Toyota software supply chain incident in October 2022.  

Common Attack Vectors in Development Pipelines 

There are several attack vectors in development pipelines that can expose organizations to significant security risks. These include: 

  1. Compromised Accounts: Weak access controls can allow attackers to assume the identities of legitimate users, gaining unauthorized access to critical systems. 
  2. Insecurely Configured Systems: Successful attacks often exploit systems that are configured insecurely, allowing unauthorized code submissions or the manipulation of software artifacts. 
  3. Use of Compromised Third-Party Tools: Third-party tools and libraries are integral to modern development workflows but can serve as entry points for attackers if compromised. 

Hardening Your Build Systems 

The security model for build systems must evolve from a default-trust stance to one of zero trust, where security measures are implemented with the assumption that threats could be present internally and externally. By design, development systems are built for easy use and rapid development (i.e., not security). Yet housed within them are trade secrets, intellectual property, and user credentials, which makes them an enticing target for attackers.  

Here’s how organizations can start securing their build systems effectively: 

  • Get Visibility. Creating an automated SDLC asset inventory for your development pipelines will allow you to apply security policies to that inventory and check for risky violations – quickly and accurately. As vulnerabilities are identified, you can then prioritize remediation for the most critical issues. 
  • Conduct Regular Security Audits: Regular audits of the development environments will help identify and address misconfigurations, unauthorized access, and other security gaps. 
  • Implement Robust Access Controls: Minimizing access based on the principle of least privilege can significantly reduce the risk of insider threats and unauthorized access. 
  • Develop a Secure SDLC Framework: Integrating security throughout the software development lifecycle—from planning to deployment—ensures that security is a priority at every phase. 
  • Education and Continuous Improvement: Keeping development teams informed about potential security risks and best practices is crucial. Additionally, staying updated with the latest security trends and technologies will help in adapting to new threats. 

By treating build systems with the same rigor as production systems, organizations can safeguard their software supply chains from increasingly sophisticated cyber threats. 

Learn more about how the evolving attack surface affects software security. 

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Published on
May 21, 2024

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