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I am fascinated with the security aspects of using GitHub Actions for my own workloads since I have started using them. My first conference session on this topic was at NDC London in January, 2021, and I have been advocating on these learnings ever since. That is why I also decided to run my usual security checks on the entire marketplace, starting with forking the actions so I can enable Dependabot on the forked repositories.
The Marketplace shows us almost 15 thousand actions that are available for us to use! That means there is lots of community engagement for creating these actions for us, but also lots of potential for malicious actors to create actions that can be used to compromise our systems. Do be aware that in this post I’ll only be taking actions into account that have been published to the marketplace. Since any public repo with an action.yml file in the root directory can be used inside of a workflow, there are many more actions that are available to us that are not part of this research.
Analysis of the actions from the GitHub Actions Marketplace
I created a new repo to run these checks using GitHub Actions by scheduling a workflow that runs every hour and checks the dataset for new actions that have not been forked to my validation organization yet.
Some caveats up front:
- I could only load the information for 10.5 thousand actions. All the others have issues that makes it that I cannot find them anywhere. These are not included in the dataset for this analysis.
- Some have been archived by their maintainer, but still show up in the Marketplace. These are of course older and have more security issues in them. The actions are included in this analysis. I’m planning to remove these when the Marketplace doesn’t show them anymore.
- There are some actions where I could not parse the definition file (if used), often because of duplicate keys in their definition file. I’ve reached out to some of the maintainers to get those fixed, but also want to improve my method of loading these kinds of files. Currently the library I use for this does not support duplicate keys and throws unrecoverable errors when it finds them.
I’ve reported this information back to GitHub and they are planning to improve the freshness of the data in the Marketplace. Still, this is a good two thirds of the actions that are available in the marketplace, so this is a representable dataset to look at.
Examples of actions that show up in the marketplace but will give an error when you want to load the detail information for them include:
Additionally, all this analysis is done on the default branch for the repository. I myself have one action, for example, that uses a Dockerfile in the main branch, but I am working on converting it to Node in another branch. This number should be small enough to have no significant impact on the overall analysis.
Security alerts for dependencies of the Actions
I have forked over the action repos to my own organization and enabled Dependabot on them to get a sense of the vulnerable dependencies they have in use. Some caveats to this analysis are:
- Not every dependency will end up in the action itself, so a high alert from Dependabot will point to a ‘possibly’ vulnerable action. Since this is not something you can track automatically and see if this would be the case, we cannot be sure that the action itself is vulnerable.
- This only works for Node based actions, which is 4.7k, so almost 50% of the analysed actions. Dependabot does not support Docker at the moment.
- I’m only loading the vulnerable alerts back from Dependabot that have a severity of High or Critical.
I’m planning to add something like a Trivy container security scan to the setup so that we get some insights from this as well.
Security scan results
Of the 10488 scanned actions, 3130 of them have at least 1 high or critical alert! This is a way higher than I even expected and very scary! And this is only for Composite or Node based actions! If your dependencies already are not up to date and thus have security issues in them, how can we expect your action to be secure? That calculates to 30% of the actions that have one or more high or critical alert on their Dependencies.
To be complete: I have not filtered down the alerts to a specific ecosystem. Since GitHub Actions is one of the ecosystems Dependabot alerts on, there is a chance these alerts come from a dependency on a vulnerable action for example, which would be unfair (since these will not end up in the action I am checking). Since there are only 3 actions in the GitHub Advisories Database, I expect this to be of zero significance, but still: it is worth mentioning.
Diving into the security results
I’ve also logged the repos with more 10 (high + critical) alerts to a separate report file and that file contains more than 600 actions!
The highest number of high alerts in one single action, is 58. Since that repo happens to be Archived, it should not be in the actions marketplace at all, as well as the fact that this should not be used at all. Luckily it is only used by a small number of workflows. I’d rather see that the runner would at least add warnings to the logs for calling actions that are archived.
The highest number of critical alerts in one singe action is 16. This repo is also only used by less than 10 other repos, so it is not a big impact. Since there is no API for finding the dependents that Dependabot finds, I cannot easily find out how many workflows are impacted by this.
I’ve checked some of the repos with many of alerts and found one example that has 14 high severity alerts and 2 critical alerts. This action is used by 34 different public repos (so in private repo usage could even be more!). One of these dependents is a repo with 425 stars and another has 6015 stars. That last one is producing a serverless CMS that will be delivered as 48 different packages into the NPM ecosystem. One of those packages sees more than a 1000 downloads a week! This is a lot of impact for a single action that could be prevented by enabling Dependabot. Of course, more analysis is needed for this case to see if the alerts are actually relevant for the action. This depends on what the action does and how it uses the dependencies.
In short, this is a top level overview of the security results:
So for all action repos I could scan, 30% have at least 1 vulnerability alert with a severity of high or critical.
Node based actions
Filtering this down to only the Node action types, this becomes a lot scarier:
That is 58% of the Node actions that have at least 1 vulnerability alert with a severity of high or critical! And all demos and docs still indicate you can just use the actions as is and only hint at the security implications of that!
Want to learn how to improve your security stance for using actions? Check out this guide I made: GitHub Actions Maturity Levels.
There is a lot of improvement that can be made to actions ecosystem. I would like to see GitHub take a more active role in this by, for example:
- Enforce certain best practices before you can publish an action to the marketplace
- Clean up the marketplace when an action’s repo gets archived (work for this is underway)
- Add a security score to the marketplace, so that users can see how secure an action is, run at least these type of scans on the action repo and report it back to the end user
- Add a check that validates you also pushed a new release of the action to prevent maintainers to add Dependabot and keep their (vulnerable) dependencies up to date, but not actually release a new version of the action.
- Add API’s to not only the marketplace, but also Dependabot. This information should be publicly available, but currently I had to scrape this of the webpages.
Need help securing your GitHub Actions, or do you want to learn more? We’re happy to have a pressure-free chat and see how we can help you.