Is GitHub Safe?
Nearly every developer uses Git at some point. It is taught at most universities and widely available for anyone to use. This makes hosting solutions like GitHub a natural choice for many users, especially students, small teams, and anyone working with open source software.
With so many people turning to GitHub to manage their projects, it raises an important question: Is GitHub safe?
To use GitHub – a cloud-based repository hosting platform – you also have to use Git, the underlying software that it supports. Since Git lacks authentication and verification measures, that makes both Git and the hosting platform GitHub unsafe.
Organizations manage their GitHub security with a variety of add-on features, but how to secure GitHub and protect IP remains a constant priority. Read on to learn about recent GitHub security breaches, best practices for how to secure GitHub, and safer alternatives.
Is GitHub Safe?
Native GitHub is not safe for teams wanting to ensure against IP leakage.
By safe, we mean free from danger or threats, whether it is:
- An outside attack (e.g., a hack).
- An internal threat (e.g., developer error).
Here are the main reasons why GitHub is not safe:
GitHub relies on Git, which is an open source software, to support it. This presents a risk for users, as Git does not incorporate authentication or verification features. You can only control Git with server access. Further, developers can easily rewrite your change history. Since Git is distributed, everyone ends up with a copy of the repository on their device, meaning that file access is unrestricted. This leads to added vulnerability for teams using any Git solution, including GitHub. While GitHub incorporates added security features, like two-factor authentication and SAML single sign-on, these are not guaranteed to protect your IP.
Additionally, the ability to easily create fake repositories within GitHub and to push them as “pull requests” – which sends a notification to developers about changes made to branches – makes GitHub a commonly targeted platform for hackers to deploy malware.
Why Is GitHub Security Important?
GitHub security is important because data breaches are becoming more common, more costly, and happening on a larger scale. A 2023 report from Git Guardian, a company that monitors public and private source code, found that IP leakage in open-source settings jumped 67 percent in 2022.
This statistic represents outside risk, but internal vulnerabilities are also on the rise, especially as teams grow and work across geographies. The same report cites that 10 percent of developers working in GitHub had accidentally exposed sensitive company information within the past year.
Attacks are typically the main concern when evaluating GitHub security, but these temporary breaches can also lead to long-term problems. A recent survey from cyber security leader Palo Alto Networks asked 2,500 executives how long it takes their team to respond to attacks. Most respondents cited that it takes more than an hour, meaning that cyber threats are often uncontained for a long period of time.
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Recent GitHub Security Breaches
GitHub security breaches have made headlines and spurred discussion in the developer community. These recent examples have illustrated the need for a secure GitHub alternative.
In June 2023, hackers created fraudulent GitHub repositories to deliver malware. The attackers pretended to be researchers, saying they worked at a non-existent cybersecurity firm. Through GitHub, the hackers contacted researchers and asked them to collaborate – but actually deployed malware on the devices of people they contacted.
In April 2021, hackers used GitHub to hack into almost 100 crypto-mining apps and mine multiple cryptocurrencies. Bitcoin detailed how the hackers used GitHub Actions to automate the attacks and deploy malicious code. The incident impacted thousands of repositories.
📕 Related Resource: Learn more about Enterprise Application Security.
Why Do Hackers Target GitHub?
Hackers target GitHub and other popular Git hosting tools for many reasons. But the biggest is the potential they see in hacking into repositories on GitHub and stealing intellectual property, which they can later replicate or sell.
Hardworking developers from companies all over the world use GitHub for personal and business needs, often on an ad hoc basis. And developers in the heat of battle can often overlook security concerns. Hackers know this — and exploit it.
Watch a Free Demo of Helix Core, a Secure Alternative
Like GitHub, Helix Core offers a single source of truth and an easy way to collaborate. Helix Core also goes a step above with advanced security features, such as the ability to restrict file access by user. See what makes Helix Core the most trusted version control with a free demo overview.
Other Common Git Security Issues
Native Git lacks security features. Git hosting solutions can only do so much. As a result, there are many Git security issues that you need to be prepared for anytime you’re using Git, including when working in GitHub repositories.
Here are a few of the most common Git issues when it comes to security.
Insecure Directories (.git/config)
Hackers use URLs containing the git directory (e.g., [company].git/config) to access the metadata within a Git repository. Metadata often includes user login information (such as passwords) or customer data information. And hackers can then use that information to plan an attack.
Many security breaches are the result of hackers stealing passwords. These breaches can be avoided by strengthening security measures, such as using two-factor authentication (2FA).
Git vulnerabilities can also leave repositories exposed to hackers. For instance, CVE-2018-11235 is a well-documented Git vulnerability. This vulnerability allows for random code execution when a user operates in a malicious repository. This is just one of dozens of documented Git vulnerabilities.
In the case of CVE-2018-11235, Git hosting providers (such as GitHub) acted fast. They deployed patches to prevent hackers from taking advantage of this vulnerability.
April 2023 Git Vulnerabilities
Git vulnerabilities continue to be discovered and are announced on a frequent basis – often after many teams have already fallen victim. Git hosting providers do address them through patches. For example, in April 2023, GitHub released additional security patches to address several Git vulnerabilities on Windows.
2023 Git Availability Issues
While less prominent than Git security breaches, Git experienced several widespread outages in May 2023, affecting productivity and causing thousands of users to air their frustrations on social media. In one instance on May 9, a “status red” outage led to GitHub being unable to read newly written code.
This caused millions of code failures, resulted in lost data, and led to duplicate work for teams across the globe. Days later, on May 11, a Git server crashed, and 15 percent of Git data requests failed or lagged. Availability issues like these can compromise your access to GitHub repositories and result in even more work for already busy teams.
Lack of Git Access Control
Git access control is lacking in native Git.
However, there are Git security tools that you can add on. Some of these give you Git access control options. For instance, using Git code hosting tools adds a layer of security. Popular Git code hosting tools include GitHub, GitLab, Bitbucket, or Helix TeamHub. Safeguards within these tools — such as user authentication — help protect your repositories and manage access.
Other tools give you encryption features, such as git-secret, which encrypts files in a Git repository.
Helix Core: A Secure Git Alternative
By now, you’ve answered the question: Is GitHub safe? If you’ve decided that the underlying Git security is not strong enough for your organization, a version control alternative like Helix Core by Perforce might be a better fit. Our comparison of Git vs. Perforce dives into key differences between these two tools, evaluating everything from efficiency to scalability.
From a security perspective, Helix Core has several features that let teams collaborate while also protecting their data. Helix Core allows you to:
- Set permissions all the way down to a single file and IP address.
- Allow outside contributors to access only the files they need.
- Provide your user’s Single Sign On when integrated with your organization’s IdP.
- Review your full audit history to see what was accessed, what was changed, when, and by what team member.
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Want to learn about and test out Helix Core’s file safety features before making a switch? Helix Core is free for up to 5 users.