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Article: Dealing with Java CVEs: Discovery, Detection, Analysis, and Resolution

MMS Founder
MMS Lukas Krecan

Article originally posted on InfoQ. Visit InfoQ

Key Takeaways

  • Including a dependency vulnerability check (Software Composition Analysis or SCA) as part of a  continuous integration or continuous delivery pipeline is important to maintain an effective security posture.
  • The same vulnerability can be critical in one application and harmless in another. Humans should be “kept in the loop” here, and only the developers maintaining the application make an effective decision.
  • It is essential to prevent vulnerability alert fatigue. We should not get used to the fact that the dependency check is failing. If we do, critical vulnerability may pass unnoticed.
  • It is crucial to quickly upgrade vulnerable dependencies or suppress false positives even if we are maintaining dozens of services.
  • Developers should invest in tools that help with discovery, detection, analysis and resolution of vulnerabilities. Examples include OWASP dependency check, GitHub Dependabot, Checkmarx, Snyk and Dependency Shield.

Modern Java applications are built on top of countless open-source libraries. The libraries encapsulate common, repetitive code and allow application programmers to focus on delivering customer value. But the libraries come with a price – security vulnerabilities. A security issue in a popular library enables malicious actors to attack a wide range of targets cheaply.

Therefore, it’s crucial to have dependency vulnerability checks (a.k.a. Software Composition Analysis or SCA) as part of the CI pipeline. Unfortunately, the security world is not black and white; one vulnerability can be totally harmless in one application and a critical issue in another, so the scans always need human oversight to determine whether a report is a false positive.

This article will explore examples of vulnerabilities commonly found in standard Spring Boot projects over the last few years. This article is written from the perspective of software engineers. The focus will shift to the challenges faced when utilizing widely available tools such as the OWASP dependency check.

As software engineers are dedicated to delivering product value, they view security as one of their many responsibilities. Despite its importance, security can sometimes get in the way and be neglected because of the complexity of other tasks.

Vulnerability resolution lifecycle

A typical vulnerability lifecycle looks like this:

Discovery

A security researcher usually discovers the vulnerability. It gets reported to the impacted OSS project and, through a chain of various non-profit organizations, ends up in the NIST National Vulnerability Database (NVD). For instance, the Spring4Shell vulnerability was logged in this manner.

Detection

When a vulnerability is reported, it is necessary to detect that the application contains the vulnerable dependency. Fortunately, a plethora of tools are available that can assist with the detection.

One of the popular solutions is the OWASP dependency check – it can be used as a Gradle or Maven plugin. When executed, it compares all your application dependencies with the NIST NVD database and Sonatype OSS index. It allows you to suppress warnings and generate reports and is easy to integrate into the CI pipeline. The main downside is that it sometimes produces false positives as the NIST NVD database does not provide the data in an ideal format. Moreover, the first run takes ages as it downloads the whole vulnerability database.

Various free and commercial tools are available, such as GitHub Dependabot, Checkmarx, and Snyk. Generally, these tools function similarly, scanning all dependencies and comparing them against a database of known vulnerabilities. Commercial providers often invest in maintaining a more accurate database. As a result, commercial tools may provide fewer false positives or even negatives.

Analysis

After a vulnerability is detected, a developer must analyze the impact. As you will see in the examples below, this is often the most challenging part. The individual performing the analysis must understand the vulnerability report, the application code, and the deployment environment to see if the vulnerability can be exploited. Typically, this falls to the application programmers as they are the only ones who have all the necessary context.

Resolution

The vulnerability has to be resolved.

  1. Ideally, this is achieved by upgrading the vulnerable dependency to a fixed version.
  2.  If no fix is released yet, the application programmer may apply a workaround, such as changing a configuration, filtering an input, etc.
  3. More often than not, the vulnerability report is a false positive. Usually, the vulnerability can’t be exploited in a given environment. In such cases, the report has to be suppressed to prevent becoming accustomed to failing vulnerability reports.

Once the analysis is done, the resolution is usually straightforward but can be time-consuming, especially if there are dozens of services to patch. It’s important to simplify the resolution process as much as possible. Since this is often tedious manual work, automating it to the greatest extent possible is advisable. Tools like Dependabot or Renovate can help in this regard to some extent.

Vulnerability examples

Let’s examine some vulnerability examples and the issues that can be encountered when resolving them.

Spring4Shell (CVE-2022-22965, score 9.8)

Let’s start with a serious vulnerability – Spring Framework RCE via Data Binding on JDK 9+, a.k.a. Spring4Shell, which allows an attacker to remotely execute code just by calling HTTP endpoints.

Detection

It was easy to detect this vulnerability. Spring is quite a prominent framework; the vulnerability was present in most of its versions, and it was discussed all over the internet. Naturally, all the detection tools were able to detect it.

Analysis

In the early announcement of the vulnerability, it was stated that only applications using Spring WebMvc/Webflux deployed as WAR to a servlet container are affected. In theory, deployment with an embedded servlet container should be safe. Unfortunately, the announcement lacked the vulnerability details, making it difficult to confirm whether this was indeed the case. However, this vulnerability was highly serious, so it should have been mitigated promptly.

Resolution

The fix was released in a matter of hours, so the best way was to wait for the fix and upgrade. Tools like Dependabot or Renovate can help to do that in all your services.

If there was a desire to resolve the vulnerability sooner, a workaround was available. But it meant applying an obscure configuration without a clear understanding of what it did. The decision to manually apply it across all services or wait for the fix could have been a challenging one to make.

HttpInvoker RCE (CVE-2016-1000027, score 9.8)

Let’s continue to focus on Spring for a moment. This vulnerability has the same criticality as Spring4Shell 9.8. But one might notice the date is 2016 and wonder why it hasn’t been fixed yet or why it lacks a fancy name. The reason lies in its location within the HttpInvoker component, used for the RPC communication style. It was popular in the 2000s but is seldom used nowadays. To make it even more confusing, the vulnerability was published in 2020, four years after it was initially reported due to some administrative reasons.

Detection

This issue was reported by OWASP dependency check and other tools. As it did not affect many, it did not make the headlines.

Analysis

Reading the NIST CVE detail doesn’t reveal much:

Pivotal Spring Framework through 5.3.16 suffers from a potential remote code execution (RCE) issue if used for Java deserialization of untrusted data. Depending on how the library is implemented within a product, this issue may or [may] not occur, and authentication may be required.

This sounds pretty serious, prompting immediate attention and a search through the link to find more details. However, the concern turns out to be a false alarm, as it only applies if HttpInvokerServiceExporter is used.

Resolution

No fixed version of a library was released, as Pivotal did not consider it a bug. It was a feature of an obsolete code that was supposed to be used only for internal communication. The whole functionality was dropped altogether in Spring 6, a few years later.

The only action that to take is to suppress the warning. Using the free OWASP dependency check, this process can be quite time-consuming if it has to be done manually for each service.

There are several ways to simplify the flow. One is to expose and use a shared suppression file in all your projects by specifying its URL. Lastly, you can employ a simple service like Dependency Shield to streamline the whole suppression flow. The important point is that a process is needed to simplify the suppression, as most of the reports received are likely false positives.

SnakeYAML RCE (CVE-2022-1471, score 9.8)

Another critical vulnerability has emerged, this time in the SnakeYAML parsing library. Once again, it involves remote code execution, with a score of 9.8. However, it was only applicable if the SnakeYAML Constructor class had been used to parse a YAML provided by an attacker.

Detection

It was detected by vulnerability scanning tools. SnakeYAML is used by Spring to parse YAML configuration files, so it’s quite widespread.

Analysis

Is the application parsing YAML that could be provided by an attacker, for example, on a REST API? Is the unsafe Constructor class being used? If so, the system is vulnerable. The system is safe if it is simply used to parse Spring configuration files. An individual who understands the code and its usage must make the decision. The situation could either be critical, requiring immediate attention and correction, or it could be safe and therefore ignored.

Resolution

The issue was quickly fixed. What made it tricky was that SnakeYAML was not a direct dependency; it’s introduced transitively by Spring, which made it harder to upgrade. If you want to upgrade SnakeYAML, you may do it in several ways.

  1. If using the Spring Boot dependency management plugin with Spring Boot BOM,
    • a.    the snakeyaml.version variable can be overridden.
    • b.    the dependency management declaration can be overridden.
  2. If not using dependency management, SnakeYAML must be added as a direct dependency to the project, and the version must be overridden.

When combined with complex multi-project builds, it’s almost impossible for tools to upgrade the version automatically. Both Dependabot and Renovate are not able to do that. Even a commercial tool like Snyk is failing with “could not apply the upgrade, dependency is managed externally.”

And, of course, once the version is overridden, it is essential to remember to remove the override once the new version is updated in Spring. In our case, it’s better to temporarily suppress the warning until the new version is used in Spring.

Misidentified Avro vulnerability

Vulnerability CVE-2021-43045 is a bug in .NET versions of the Avro library, so it’s unlikely to affect a Java project. How, then, is it reported? Unfortunately, the NIST report contains cpe:2.3:a:apache:avro:*:*:*:*:*:*:*:* identifier. No wonder the tools mistakenly identify org.apache.avro/avro@1.9.0 as vulnerable, even though it’s from a completely different ecosystem.

Resolution: Suppress

Summary

Let’s look back at the different stages of the vulnerability resolution and how to streamline it as much as possible so the reports do not block the engineers for too long.

Detection

The most important part of detection is to avoid getting used to failing dependency checks. Ideally, the build should fail if there is a vulnerable dependency detected. To be able to enable that, the resolution needs to be as painless and as fast as possible. No one wants to encounter a broken pipeline due to a false positive.
 
Since the OWASP dependency check primarily uses the NIST NVD database, it sometimes struggles with false positives. However, as has been observed, false positives are inevitable, as the analysis is only occasionally straightforward.

Analysis

This is the hard part and actually, the one when tooling can’t help us much. Consider the SnakeYAML remote code execution vulnerability as an example. For it to be exploitable, the library would have to be used unsafely, such as parsing data provided by an attacker. Regrettably, no tool is likely to reliably detect whether an application and all its libraries contain vulnerable code. So, this part will always need some human intervention.

Resolution

Upgrading the library to a fixed version is relatively straightforward for direct dependencies. Tools like Dependabot and Renovate can help in the process. However, the tools fail if the vulnerable dependency is introduced transitively or through dependency management. Manually overriding the dependency may be an acceptable solution for a single project. In cases where multiple services are being maintained, we should introduce centrally managed dependency management to streamline the process.

Most reports are false positives, so it’s crucial to have an easy way to suppress the warning. When using OWASP dependency check, either try a shared suppression file or a tool like Dependency Shield that helps with this task.

It often makes sense to suppress the report temporarily. Either to unblock the pipeline until somebody has time to analyze the report properly or until the transitive dependency is updated in the project that introduced it.

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