Open Source Security Risks
Open source software is widely considered to be more secure than proprietary software, but there are open source security risks that must be considered before a decision is made about whether to use open source software or develop proprietary software.
Open source means the source code is publicly available and can be used, modified, or redistributed under license. The term also covers software that has the source code available for review, which has restrictions on usage, modification, and redistribution. In this article, we take the broader definition of the term that includes both types of software.
Open source software is ubiquitous and is used to varying degrees by all businesses. Even many proprietary software solutions have some open source components as it is more cost-effective to incorporate open source software than to develop proprietary software from scratch. However; there are open source security risks that need to be mitigated.
Open Source Security Risks
One of the main advantages of open source software is anyone can assess the quality of the coding and check it for vulnerabilities. Since there are generally more people checking open source code than checking proprietary software, vulnerabilities are usually identified and addressed more quickly.
The source code may be freely available to be checked by anyone, but that does not mean the code has been carefully reviewed line by line by skilled coders nor that security researchers have scoured the code for vulnerabilities that can be exploited. Open source code is usually reviewed to make sure it achieves its intended purpose before being incorporated into business applications, but developers do not tend to check for security vulnerabilities. One of the biggest open source security risks is incorporating code that has not been subjected to a meticulous analysis to identify security vulnerabilities.
Popular open source products such as Apache, Linux, and Firefox have a large, active community of users and code is constantly being reviewed. These projects are considered secure, but less popular open source projects are unlikely to have been subjected to the same level of scrutiny. In less popular projects, security issues may go unnoticed and remain unaddressed for longer, although greater confidence can be placed in commercial open source software that has a bug bounty program in place, such as a company that works with HackerOne for example.
With proprietary software, vulnerabilities are generally not made public until they are fixed. There are exceptions, such as when security researchers do not follow responsible disclosure protocols, but patches are often made available before details of the vulnerabilities and proof-of-concept exploits are put in the public domain. That is not the case with open source software, as vulnerabilities are made public by the people who find them and they are promptly published in the National Vulnerability Database. That means all vulnerabilities in open source software are public knowledge a soon as they are discovered and exploits could potentially be developed by cyber threat actors to exploit the flaws.
With so many eyes checking open source code it is hard but not impossible for malicious code to be introduced undetected or for undesirable functions to be added. Introducing any third-party software component is not without risk, so care should be taken to assess any code before it is incorporated into business applications, and not just check that the code achieves the purpose for which it is being introduced.
Management of Open Source Security Risks
Before using any open source code or purchasing a commercial open source software solution it is important to conduct research, evaluate the software, and perform a risk and security analysis. You should not assume that open source software solution is secure just because the distributor claims it is. Bear in mind that while open source code could be free of vulnerabilities, security issues could arise when modifying the code or even in certain use cases.
Vulnerabilities are often found in open source code, so it is vital for the latest release to be used and to keep abreast of any vulnerability disclosures. You should ensure that the software is updated promptly and mitigations are implemented to prevent vulnerabilities from being exploited if patches are not made available promptly. Hackers scan the National Vulnerability Database and actively look for open source vulnerabilities. They are quick to exploit the vulnerabilities and target companies that are slow to patch. It is a very risky strategy to adopt a set-and-forget approach with open source software.
When using open source code for a project, it is never recommended to copy and paste sections of code. Whenever possible, integrate entire components, as otherwise, it is difficult to track the code. A developer who incorporates open source code could leave a company and all knowledge of the inclusion of that code may be lost. If any vulnerabilities exist in the sections of code that have been copied and pasted, those vulnerabilities may remain unaddressed.
Open source software should only be downloaded from reputable sources and source code should be favored over packages, as binaries may not necessarily have been compiled using community-checked source code and could include potentially include malware.
Open source software has the potential to be more secure than proprietary software, and the inclusion of open source code in a project can have huge benefits; but it is important to be aware of the open source security risks and to implement strategies to reduce those risks to a low and acceptable level. If open source security risks are not managed, they could threaten the security of the entire organization.