Mistakes and discoveries

The story starts with a blunder. In fact, my first major blunder of the year. A couple of weeks ago, I was enthusiastically adding continuous integration and deployment to my projects. It the midst of it, I found out that GitLab CI can be used to build artifacts for deployment. For example, a project could be build, and provide the built binaries as artifacts.

Since I had been adding CIs to many of my projects, one of my requirements was to have PDFs for my documents (resume, project papers for instance) to be built automatically any time I change the source on Overleaf. For those who don't know, Overleaf is an online service that allows people to write and compile Latex online. However, there is no way to directly link to the latest built PDF. I realized that GitLab's pipeline artifacts could be used to automatically generate the PDF every time the source code is changed.

Luckily, Overleaf also provides a Git URL to access the source code of the project. Now initially, my plan was to somehow automate the extraction of the source code of the project from overleaf, and then build it in GitLab. But having a Git interface to Overleaf meant that I could just use the GitLab's repository mirror feature! If you haven't had any experience with GitLab, repository mirror feature just checks the source of the Git repository every hour, and in case the source is changed, it pulls the repo and syncs the changes to the GitLab repo. If pipeline is set up, then the pipeline will be built everytime the sync shows change in the source code, and the built PDF would be updated. Simple right?

Anyway, I set it up as such for my resume and one of my upcoming research papers. I even made shortcuts from https://pallav.xyz/resume and similar URLs pointing to the link of the artifact. I thought it was a wonderful setup until...

The blunder

The git URL provided by Overleaf does not need any authentication. When I set up GitLab mirror sync, the repository showed the URL of the synced repository right under the title.

GitLab mirror image

This meant that anyone with that URL could clone, and make arbitrary changes to the PDF that was so conviniently updating every hour. That means, anybody could've changed my resume to say absolutely anything. That's scary.

Out of panic, I first made a new repository on GitLab which pulls the Overleaf repo as a part of the pipeline, and set the URL as a secret variable instead of the mirror URL. Then I set up a pipeline schedule for the new GitLab repository, so that it too checks for updates every hour from the Overleaf repo.

Once the new repo pipeline was working, I duplicated the Overleaf project to another project and deleted the original one (since the URL was in a way compromised). I went ahead and changed all redirects (like pallav.xyz/resume) to the new repo's artifacts. Once the disaster mitigation was complete, it occured to me that I could not possibly be the only one to have made this error.

The Discovery

With my researcher mode on, I started looking out for other projects who might've done the same error as me. For one thing, even if some person was smart enough to not publically expose the URL, even merging the branch of an overleaf project to an existing git project would, by default be named...

Merge https://git.overleaf.com/xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

so, it was still likely that people may not have realized that the innocent looking git.overleaf.com URL would give every person in the world, write access to their project.

But you know what's even more interesting? In the above URL, if I replace git by www, it would become the read-write URL to the actual project in overleaf. You don't even need to use Git to exploit this!

Coming back to my researcher mode - I knew what my first place to look should be - GitHub. GitHub has an amazing advanced search. So I went ahead and in GitHub and searched for git.overleaf.com. See what I mean?

Overleaf merges on GitHub

Over 2000 results in the commits section itself!

A quick look at the projects showed multiple resumes, and other documents. Apart from the merge requests, there were people who were using the Overleaf Git URL as sub-modules in their repositories. Since the submodules aren't synced, it was clear that it was meant for their own convinience, and the actual document was not meant to be public (let alone read-writable by world). Such git-modules' URLs were visible in the .gitmodules files of repositories. The interesting ones in this category were unpublished papers, which were (are) still undergoing work/research. 😞


Well, for one thing, I'll be a lot more careful about what I put online. Hopefully this article will also encourage other people to follow suit.

UPDATE (JAN 14 2018)

I had reported this as a potential vulnerability to Overleaf, and got their response fairly quickly. For some reason, Google had marked the mail as spam, so I was a bit late in seeing the response.

Hi Pallav,

Thanks for getting in touch.

Yes, using git in this way does make it quite easy to leak the secret link to your project, unfortunately. We've written about this in our help articles (Important Privacy Considerations):
- https://www.overleaf.com/help/230-how-do-i-push-a-new-project-to-overleaf-via-git
- https://www.overleaf.com/help/233-how-do-i-connect-an-overleaf-project-with-a-repo-on-github

We had not realized that there were so many people using the git links in this way, however. We're reviewing the list on GitHub and will continue to work on this over the weekend. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.


and a follow up mail:

Hi Pallav,

To follow up on my previous email: we've now used the GitHub API (and searches on GitLab and Bitbucket) to identify the affected projects, and we have taken the precaution of making those projects 'protected', which means that only users who have been invited by email can access them. We've contacted all of the affected authors to let them know about this and added messages in Overleaf to make it clear why the projects were protected. We'll continue to run these scans periodically to identify new projects that may be added in future.

In the medium term, and as part of our integration with ShareLaTeX, Overleaf will be changing the default access mode for new projects from unlisted (anyone with the secret link can access) to protected (only invited users can access), but will still allow users to turn on Link Sharing. This will be to match the behavior that we've recently implemented on ShareLaTeX: https://www.overleaf.com/blog/614-integration-update-link-sharing-on-sharelatex .

Thanks again for bringing this problem to our attention. If you have found this response helpful, I would encourage you to add a note to your blog post about the actions we've taken so far to fix the problem. If you have any other questions or comments, please let us know by reply.


Anyway, that's all for today. In case you liked the article, share it with your friends 😊

Pallav Agarwal Image
My name is Pallav Agarwal. I am an undergrad of the department of Computer Science and Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, India. I love experimenting with tech, and this blog is a way for me to give a little helping hand to other's who are like me (but don't know it yet).

I am ambitious, intelligent, competitve (sometimes too much), loyal and brutally honest. People I respect the most are teachers, which is partially why I myself like to teach too. Apart from programming, I also like travelling, adventure sports and trying new food items. If you like a post, have a query, or just want to chit-chat, let me know here