Subscribe to receive notifications of new posts:

Cloudflare's Handling of an RCE Vulnerability in cdnjs


6 min read

cdnjs provides JavaScript, CSS, images, and fonts assets for websites to reference with more than 4,000 libraries available. By utilizing cdnjs, websites can load faster with less strain on one’s own origin server as files are served directly from Cloudflare’s edge. Recently, a blog post detailed a vulnerability in the way cdnjs’ backend automatically keeps the libraries up to date.

This vulnerability allowed the researcher to execute arbitrary code, granting the ability to modify assets. This blog post details how Cloudflare responded to this report, including the steps we took to block exploitation, investigate potential abuse, and remediate the vulnerability.

This vulnerability is not related to Cloudflare CDN. The cdnjs project is a platform that leverages Cloudflare’s services, but the vulnerability described below relates to cdnjs’ platform only. To be clear, no existing libraries were modified using this exploit. The researcher published a new package which demonstrated the vulnerability and our investigation concluded that the integrity of all assets hosted on cdnjs remained intact.

Disclosure Timeline

As outlined in RyotaK’s blog post, the incident began on 2021-04-06. At around 1100 GMT, RyotaK published a package to npm exploiting the vulnerability. At 1129 GMT, cdnjs processed this package, resulting in a leak of credentials. This triggered GitHub alerting which notified Cloudflare of the exposed secrets.

Cloudflare disabled the auto-update service and revoked all credentials within an hour. In the meantime, our security team received RyotaK’s remote code execution report through HackerOne. A new version of the auto-update tool which prevents exploitation of the vulnerability RyotaK reported was released within 24 hours.

Having taken action immediately to prevent exploitation, we then proceeded to redesign the auto-update pipeline. Work to completely redesign it was completed on 2021-06-03.

Blocking Exploitation

Before RyotaK reported the vulnerability via HackerOne, Cloudflare had already taken action. When GitHub notified us that credentials were leaked, one of our engineers took immediate action and revoked them all. Additionally, the GitHub token associated with this service was automatically revoked by GitHub.

The second step was to bring the vulnerable service offline to prevent further abuse while we investigated the incident. This prevented exploitation but also made it impossible for legitimate developers to publish updates to their libraries. We wanted to release a fixed version of the pipeline used for retrieving and hosting new library versions so that developers could continue to benefit from caching. However, we understood that a stopgap was not a long term fix, and we decided to review the entire current solution to identify a better design that would improve the overall security of cdnjs.


Any sort of investigation requires access to logs and all components of our pipeline generate extensive logs that prove valuable for forensics efforts. Logs produced by the auto-update process are collected in a GitHub repository and sent to our logging pipeline. We also collect and retain logs from cdnjs’ Cloudflare account. Our security team began reviewing this information as soon as we received RyotaK’s initial report. Based on access logs, API token usage, and file modification metadata, we are confident that only RyotaK exploited this vulnerability during his research and only on test files. To rule out abuse, we reviewed the list of source IP addresses that accessed the Workers KV token prior to revoking it and only found one, which belongs to the cdnjs auto-update bot.

The cdnjs team also reviewed files that were pushed to the cdnjs/cdnjs GitHub repository around that time and found no evidence of any other abuse across cdnjs.

Remediating the Vulnerability

Around half of the libraries on cdnjs use npm to auto-update. The primary vector in this attack was the ability to craft a .tar.gz archive with a symbolic link and publish it to the npm registry. When our pipeline extracted the content it would follow symlinks and overwrite local files using the pipeline user privileges. There are two fundamental issues at play here: an attacker can perform path traversal on the host processing untrusted files, and the process handling the compressed file is overly privileged.

We addressed the path traversal issue by checking that the destination of each file in the tarball will be contained within the target directory that the update process has designated for that package. If the file’s full canonical path doesn’t begin with the destination directory’s full path, we log this as a warning and skip extracting that file. This works fairly well, but as noted in the comment above this check, if the compressed file uses UTF-8 encoding for filenames, this check may not properly canonicalize the path. If this canonicalization does not occur, the path may contain path traversal, even though it starts with the correct destination path.

To ensure that other vulnerabilities in cdnjs’ publication pipeline cannot be exploited, we configured an AppArmor profile for it. This limits the capabilities of the service, so even if an attacker successfully instructed the process to perform an action, the operating system (kernel / security feature) will not allow any action outside of what it is allowed to do.

For illustration, here’s an example:

/path/to/bin {
  /path/to/child ix,
  /tmp/ r,
  /tmp/cache** rw,

In this example, we only allow the binary (/path/to/bin) to:

  • access all networking
  • use all signals
  • execute /path/to/child (which will inherit the AppArmor profile)
  • read from /tmp
  • read+write under /tmp/cache.

Any attempt to access anything else will be denied. You can find the complete list of capabilities and more information on AppArmor’s manual page.

In the case of cdnjs’ autoupdate tool, we limit execution of applications to a very specific set, and we limit where files can be written.

Fixing the path traversal and implementing the AppArmor profile prevents similar issues from being exploited. However, having a single layer of defense wasn’t enough. We decided to completely redesign the auto-update process entirely to isolate each step, as well as each library it processes, thus preventing this entire class of attacks.

Redesigning the system

The main idea behind the redesign of the pipeline was to move away from the monolithic auto-update process. Instead, various operations are done using microservices or daemons which have well-defined scopes. Here’s an overview of the steps:

First, to detect new library versions, two daemons (for both npm and git based updates) are regularly running. Once a new version has been detected, the files will be downloaded as an archive and placed into the incoming storage bucket.

Writing a new version in the incoming bucket triggers a function that adds all the information we need to update the library. The function also generates a signed URL allowing for writing in the outgoing bucket, but only in a specific folder for a given library, reducing the blast radius. Finally, a message is placed into a queue to indicate that the new version of the given library is ready to be published.

A daemon listens for incoming messages and spawns an unprivileged Docker container to handle dangerous operations (archive extraction, minifications, and compression). After the sandbox exits, the daemon will use the signed URL to store the processed files in the outgoing storage bucket.

Finally, multiple daemons are triggered when the finalized package is written to the outgoing bucket. These daemons publish the assets to and to the main cdnjs repository. The daemons also publish the version specific URL, cryptographic hash, and other information to Workers KV,, and the API.

In this revised design, exploiting a similar vulnerability would happen in the sandbox (Docker container) context. The attacker would have access to container files, but nothing else. The container is minimal, ephemeral, has no secrets included, and is dedicated to a single library update, so it cannot affect other libraries’ files.

Our Commitment to Security

Beyond maintaining a vulnerability disclosure program, we regularly perform internal security reviews and hire third-party firms to audit the software we develop. But it is through our vulnerability disclosure program that we receive some of the most interesting and creative reports. Each report has helped us improve the security of our services. In this case, we worked with RyotaK to not only address the vulnerability, but to also ensure that their blog post was detailed and accurate. We invite those that find a security issue in any of Cloudflare’s services to report it to us through HackerOne.

We protect entire corporate networks, help customers build Internet-scale applications efficiently, accelerate any website or Internet application, ward off DDoS attacks, keep hackers at bay, and can help you on your journey to Zero Trust.

Visit from any device to get started with our free app that makes your Internet faster and safer.

To learn more about our mission to help build a better Internet, start here. If you're looking for a new career direction, check out our open positions.
CDNJSSecurityBug Bounty

Follow on X

Thomas Calderon|@calderonth
Sven Sauleau|@svensauleau

Related posts