When will we learn? May 12, 2022 on Drew DeVault's blog

Congratulations to Rust for its first (but not its last) supply-chain attack this week! They join a growing club of broken-by-design package managers which publish packages uploaded by vendors directly, with no review step, and ship those packages directly to users with no further scrutiny.

Timeline of major incidents on npm/Crates/PyPI/etc

There are hundreds of additional examples. I had to leave many of them out. Here’s a good source if you want to find more.

Timeline of similar incidents in official Linux distribution repositories

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Why is this happening?

The correct way to ship packages is with your distribution’s package manager. These have a separate review step, completely side-stepping typo-squatting, establishing a long-term relationship of trust between the vendor and the distribution packagers, and providing a dispassionate third-party to act as an intermediary between users and vendors. Furthermore, they offer stable distributions which can be relied upon for an extended period of time, provide cohesive whole-system integration testing, and unified patch distribution and CVE notifications for your entire system.

For more details, see my previous post, Developers: Let distros do their job.

Can these package managers do it better?

I generally feel that overlay package managers (a term I just made up for npm et al) are redundant. However, you may feel otherwise, and wonder what they could do better to avoid these problems.

It’s simple: they should organize themselves more like a system package manager.

  1. Establish package maintainers independent of the vendors
  2. Establish a review process for package updates

There’s many innovations that system package managers have been working on which overlay package managers could stand to learn from as well, such as:

For my part, I’ll stick to the system package manager. But if you think that the overlay package manager can do it better: prove it.

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