Your Text Editor Is Malware

Emacs wants you to install unauthenticated code off of a wiki; I can help.

Are you a programmer? Do you use a text editor? Do you install any 3rd-party functionality into that text editor?

If you use Vim, you’ve probably installed a few vimballs from vim.org, a website only available over HTTP. Vimballs are fairly opaque; if you’ve installed one, chances are you didn’t audit the code.

If you use Emacs, you’ve probably installed some packages from ELPA or MELPA using package.el; in Emacs’s default configuration, ELPA is accessed over HTTP, and until recently MELPA’s documentation recommended HTTP as well.

When you install un-signed code into your editor that you downloaded over an unencrypted, unauthenticated transport like HTTP, you might as well be installing malware. This is not a joke or exaggeration: you really might be.1 You have no assurance that you’re not being exploited by someone on your local network, by someone on your ISP’s network, the NSA, the CIA, or whoever else.

The solution for Vim is relatively simple: use vim-plug, which fetches stuff from GitHub exclusively via HTTPS. I haven’t audited it conclusively but its relatively small codebase includes lots of https:// and no http:// or git://2 that I could see.

I’m relatively proud of my track record of being a staunch advocate for improved security in text editor package installation. I’d like to think I contributed a little to the fact that MELPA is now available over HTTPS and instructs you to use HTTPS URLs.

But the situation still isn’t very good in Emacs-land. Even if you manage to get your package sources from an authenticated source over HTTPS, it doesn’t matter, because Emacs won’t verify TLS.

Although package signing is implemented, practically speaking, none of the packages are signed.3 Therefore, you absolutely cannot trust package signing to save you. Plus, even if the packages were signed, why is it the NSA’s business which packages you’re installing, anyway? TLS is shorthand for The Least Security (that is acceptable); whatever other security mechanisms, like package signing, are employed, you should always at least have HTTPS.

With that, here’s my unfortunately surprise-filled step-by-step guide to actually securing Emacs downloads, on Windows, Mac, and Linux.

Step 1: Make Sure Your Package Sources Are HTTPS Only

By default, Emacs ships with its package-archives list as '(("gnu" . "http://elpa.gnu.org/packages/")), which is obviously no good. You will want to both add MELPA (which you surely have done anyway, since it’s where all the actually useful packages are) and change the ELPA URL itself to be HTTPS. Use M-x customize-variable to change package-archives to:

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`(("gnu" . "https://elpa.gnu.org/packages/")
  ("melpa" . "https://melpa.org/packages/"))

Step 2: Turn On TLS Trust Checking

There’s another custom variable in Emacs, tls-checktrust, which checks trust on TLS connections. Go ahead and turn that on, again, via M-x customize-variable tls-checktrust.

Step 3: Set Your Trust Roots

Now that you’ve told Emacs to check that the peer’s certificate is valid, Emacs can’t successfully fetch HTTPS URLs any more, because Emacs does not distribute trust root certificates. Although the set of cabforum certificates are already probably on your computer in various forms, you still have to acquire them in a format usable by Emacs somehow. There are a variety of ways, but in the interests of brevity and cross-platform compatibility, my preferred mechanism is to get the certifi package from PyPI, with python -m pip install --user certifi or similar. (A tutorial on installing Python packages is a little out of scope for this post, but hopefully my little website about this will help you get started.)

At this point, M-x customize-variable fails us, and we need to start just writing elisp code; we need to set tls-program to a string computed from the output of running a program, and if we want this to work on Windows we can’t use Bourne shell escapes. Instead, do something like this in your .emacs or wherever you like to put your start-up elisp:4

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(let ((trustfile
       (replace-regexp-in-string
        "\\\\" "/"
        (replace-regexp-in-string
         "\n" ""
         (shell-command-to-string "python -m certifi")))))
  (setq tls-program
        (list
         (format "gnutls-cli%s --x509cafile %s -p %%p %%h"
                 (if (eq window-system 'w32) ".exe" "") trustfile))))

This will run gnutls-cli on UNIX, and gnutls-cli.exe on Windows.

You’ll need to install the gnutls-cli command line tool, which of course varies per platform:

  • On OS X, of course, Homebrew is the best way to go about this: brew install gnutls will install it.
  • On Windows, the only way I know of to get GnuTLS itself over TLS is to go directly to this mirror. Download one of these binaries and unzip it next to Emacs in its bin directory.
  • On Debian (or derivatives), apt-get install gnutls-bin
  • On Fedora (or derivatives), yum install gnutls-utils

Great! Now we’ve got all the pieces we need: a tool to make TLS connections, certificates to verify against, and Emacs configuration to make it do those things. We’re done, right?

Wrong!

Step 4: TRUST NO ONE

It turns out there are two ways to tell Emacs to really actually really secure the connection (really), but before I tell you the second one or why you need it, let’s first construct a little test to see if the connection is being properly secured. If we make a bad connection, we want it to fail. Let’s make sure it does.

This little snippet of elisp will use the helpful BadSSL.com site to give you some known-bad and known-good certificates (assuming nobody’s snooping on your connection):

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(let ((bad-hosts
       (loop for bad
             in `("https://wrong.host.badssl.com/"
                  "https://self-signed.badssl.com/")
             if (condition-case e
                    (url-retrieve
                     bad (lambda (retrieved) t))
                  (error nil))
             collect bad)))
  (if bad-hosts
      (error (format "tls misconfigured; retrieved %s ok"
                     bad-hosts))
    (url-retrieve "https://badssl.com"
                  (lambda (retrieved) t))))

If you evaluate it and you get an error, either your trust roots aren’t set up right and you can’t connect to a valid site, or Emacs is still blithely trusting bad certificates. Why might it do that?

Step 5: Configure the Other TLS Verifier

One of Emacs’s compile-time options is whether to link in GnuTLS or not. If GnuTLS is not linked in, it will use whatever TLS program you give it (which might be gnutls-cli or openssl s_client, but since only the most recent version of openssl s_client can even attempt to verify certificates, I’d recommend against it). That is what’s configured via tls-checktrust and tls-program above.

However, if GnuTLS is compiled in, it will totally ignore those custom variables, and honor a different set: gnutls-verify-error and gnutls-trustfiles. To make matters worse, installing the packages which supply the gnutls-cli program also install the packages which might satisfy Emacs’s dynamic linking against the GnuTLS library, which means this code path could get silently turned on because you tried to activate the other one.

To give these variables the correct values as well, we can re-visit the previous trust setup:

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(let ((trustfile
       (replace-regexp-in-string
        "\\\\" "/"
        (replace-regexp-in-string
         "\n" ""
         (shell-command-to-string "python -m certifi")))))
  (setq tls-program
        (list
         (format "gnutls-cli%s --x509cafile %s -p %%p %%h"
                 (if (eq window-system 'w32) ".exe" "") trustfile)))
  (setq gnutls-verify-error t)
  (setq gnutls-trustfiles (list trustfile)))

Now it ought to be set up properly. Try the example again from Step 4 and it ought to work. It probably will. Except, um...

Appendix A: Windows is Weird

Presently, the official Windows builds of Emacs seem to be linked against version 3.3 of GnuTLS rather than the latest 3.4. You might need to download the latest micro-version of 3.3 instead. As far as I can tell, it’s supposed to work with the command-line tools (and maybe it will for you) but for me, for some reason, Emacs could not parse gnutls-cli.exe’s output no matter what I did. This does not appear to be a universal experience, others have reported success; your mileage may vary.

Conclusion

We nerds sometimes mock the “normals” for not being as security-savvy as we are. Even if we’re considerate enough not to voice these reactions, when we hear someone got malware on their Windows machine, we think “should have used a UNIX, not Windows”. Or “should have been up to date on your patches”, or something along those lines.

Yet, nerdy tools that download and execute code - Emacs in particular - are shockingly careless about running arbitrary unverified code from the Internet. And we are often equally shockingly careless to use them, when we should know better.

If you’re an Emacs user and you didn’t fully understand this post, or you couldn’t get parts of it to work, stop using package.el until you can get the hang of it. Get a friend to help you get your environment configured properly. Since a disproportionate number of Emacs users are programmers or sysadmins, you are a high-value target, and you are risking not only your own safety but that of your users if you don’t double-check that your editor packages are coming from at least cursorily authenticated sources.

If you use another programmer’s text editor or nerdy development tool that is routinely installing software onto your system, make sure that if it’s at least securing those installations with properly verified TLS.


  1. Technically speaking of course you might always be installing malware; no defense is perfect. And HTTPS is a fairly weak one at that. But is significantly stronger than “no defense at all”. 

  2. Never, ever, clone a repository using git:// URLs. As explained in the documentation: “The native transport (i.e. git:// URL) does no authentication and should be used with caution on unsecured networks.”. You might have heard that git uses a “cryptographic hash function” and thought that had something to do with security: it doesn’t. If you want security you need signed commits, and even then you can never really be sure

  3. Plus, MELPA accepts packages on the (plain-text-only) Wiki, which may be edited by anyone, and from CVS servers, although they’d like to stop that. You should probably be less worried about this, because that’s a link between two datacenters, than about the link between you and MELPA, which is residential or business internet at best, and coffee-shop WiFi at worst. But still maybe be a bit worried about it and go comment on that bug. 

  4. Yes, that let is a hint that this is about to get more interesting...