Actually, npm does not recommend not running as root. Well, not any more.
It has changed around the same time that you asked your question. This is how the README looked like on February 7, 2011: “Using sudo with npm is Very Not Recommended. Anyone can publish anything, and package installations can run arbitrary scripts.” It was explained later in more detail as “Option 4: HOLY COW NOT RECOMMENDED!! You can just use sudo all the time for everything, and ignore the incredibly obnoxious warnings telling you that you’re insane for doing this.”
Now it is actually considered a recommended technique of installing npm:
Simple Install – To install npm with one command, do this:
curl http:/ /npmjs.org/install.sh | sudo sh
My advice would be to never do it because it means basically this:
- find out what the local DNS (or anyone else spoofing the DNS response or poisoning the DNS cache) says is the IP address of npmjs.org
- connect with insecure TCP with that IP (or with whoever says it’s his IP) on port 80
- trust the router that you think you should talk to (or anyone who gave you the DHCP response said you should talk to) to deliver packets to the right host
- possibly go through another layer of transparent caching proxy
- trust all other networks between you and the other end of the TCP connection
- don’t know for sure who you are connected with
- cross your fingers
- request install.sh script over insecure HTTP with no verification whatsoever
- and then run whatever was returned by whoever you’re talking to with maximum privileges on your machine without even checking what is it.
As you can see this is really, literally, with no exaggeration giving root shell to whatever you get after asking for a script from the Internet over an insecure connection with no verification whatsoever. There are at least 5 different things that can go wrong here, any of which can lead to an attacker taking total control over your machine:
- DHCP spoofing
- ARP spoofing
- DNS cache poisoning
- DNS response spoofing
- TCP session hijacking
Also note that using ‘sh’ instead of ‘sudo sh’ is usually not any less risky unless you run it as a different user who doesn’t have access to your private data, which is usually not the case.
You should use HTTPS connections if available to download such scripts so you could at least verify who you are talking to, and even then I wouldn’t run it without reading first. Unfortunately npmjs.org has a self-signed certificate so it doesn’t really help in this case.
Fortunately npm is available on GitHub that has a valid SSL certificate and from where you can download it using secure connection. See: github.com/isaacs/npm for details. But make sure that the npm itself doesn’t use insecure connections to download the files that it downloads – there should be an option in npm config.
Hope it helps. Good luck!