This week a big refresh of the Flathub website came online and there was quite some buzz around this in the Linux world. However this same week I noticed a worrying thing about Flathub: it is distributing different applications with known security problems. I am really worried about this because many people will unknowingly install these flatpaks, thinking that they are safe because they installed them from a reliable source.
The most striking example of this is Adobe Reader. This application was last updated by Adobe in 2013, so that means it’s 10 years old. Adobe does not support this software any more since 26 June 2013. While the Github Readme of the project mentions that this application is not supported any more, has know security vulnerabilities and is unstable, nothing of this is mentioned on the Flathub page itself. This means that many people who stumble upon this page, will install this flatpak without being aware of these risks. At the moment of writing, Adobe Reader is listed on the Flathub homepage as the third application, because it’s a new package and after a couple of days it had already 1666 installations. I’m wondering how many of these people are aware of the fact that they are installing a no longer supported application with known security bugs.
Unfortunately, Adobe Reader is not the only example. Let’s take a look at Visual Studio Code. I see three different variants on Flathub: two open-source builds Code – OSS and VSCodium and then the proprietary Microsoft build Visual Studio Code. Of these three, only one is up to date at the time of writng: VSCodium. Version 1.77.2 fixed a security problem, but neither the Code – OSS nor the Visual Studio Code flatpak have this version. The latter is the most popular one with 1.3 million installations.
Fortunately security sensitive flatpaks like Firefox, Chromium, Brave and Thunderbird are up to date, so it looks like this is not a bigger, more general problem. Still I think it’s unacceptable that several packages of vulnerable software are offered in the default Flathub repository.
But flatpak packages run in a sandbox so the security risk is only theoretical, isn’t it? Sorry, that ‘s not a serious way of dealing with security. You just need a security vulnerability in flatpak or in the Linux kernel and your software can escape the sandbox. At least two sandbox escape bugs have been found in flatpak in the past (CVE-2021-21261 and CVE-2019-10063). For sure more of these bugs will be discovered in the future, especially if flatpak becomes more popular. Combine this with a vulnerability in the packaged software, such as the Adobe Reader of Visual Studio Code, and opening a file downloaded from the Internet can be enough to get your system compromised.
In practice, we see such sandbox escape bugs being exploited in Chromium/Google Chrome: it has a built-in sandbox to protect the system from security vulnerabilities, yet it often has updates for zero-day vulnerabilities. Up to now already 2 different security fixes were published in 2023 which were already being exploited in the wild. Despite the sandbox. Sandbox escape is explicitly mentioned in the security advisory from a few days ago. Not relying on a single layer of defense against security breaches is called defense in depth and this is simply an essential practice if you care about security.
A PDF viewer is definitely at risk because you often open files downloaded from the Internet with it. But even though a programming editor/lightweight IDE like Visual Studio Code does not appear the most security sensitive application, make no mistake: they can also be targeted by people with bad intentions. I’m thinking of the case uncovered two years ago, where security researchers (!) were successfully targeted by North-Korean hackers who abused a feature in Microsoft’s fully fledged Visual Studio IDE. A security vulnerability in your IDE will only make such abuse easier. Think also of teachers who need to open (untrusted) code from students, which are at risk when their IDE has known security vulnerabilities.
One of the new features of the new website, is that flatpaks by the original developers of the software, are now marked as verified. But I don’t think that’s very useful because it does not say anything about how well it’s maintained and whether there are known security problems. Software which was not packaged by the original author, but which is well maintained, is by far preferred over software which was packaged by its original developer but who has now abandoned maintenance. Compare this to Linux distributions: the software is usually not packaged by the original developer, but by the distribution’s maintainers. That does not make these packages unreliable.
Windows does actually have much more security features enabled by default than Linux: files which originate from the Internet, are marked as such (mark-of-the-web) and these files will then undergo more security protections by the OS and by applications (Protected View in Office for example), there is an integrated malware scanner (Defender), Windows has a firewall enabled by default and it does automatic updates. Many of these things are not the case in Linux. Yet we hear of ransomware attacks on Windows users on a daily basis. It should make us realize that Linux will not be immune to these problems. The first thing we should do, is at least not run software with know security problems.
One thing that has to be done is, is that in the description on Flathub there is a warning in bold explaining that the software has known security vulnerabilities and it should clearly discourage users to install it. But I think that is not enough. People will just search for PDF, will recognize Adobe and won’t even read the description because they know the Adobe PDF reader. And then they will be surprised to discover during usage that the software is unstable and insecure. The same is true for Visual Studio Code: most people installing the flatpak simply won’t be aware that the packaged version has known vulnerabilities.
I think there is only one reasonable solution: these software packages should be moved to a separate repository which is not enabled by default. This repository should be called “unsupported”. If people do the effort of enabling this repository, then they should clearly get an extra warning that the software can be unstable, insecure and that they cannot expect any support. When searching, people should not get such software at the top between other well-maintained software. It should be shown in a separate unsupported category at the bottom. If we don’t do these things, then I’m afraid security incidents will happen one day, possibly destroying all trust in Flathub and Linux in general. And that is something which we should really avoid.