What is Open Source Security?

Open source security is a commonly used term that describes a methodology used by software developers that gives users of the software much greater visibility into the underlying code and allows them to see exactly what that code does and how software functions are performed. This is useful, as there are many ways of achieving a goal but not all of them are ideal. Coding functions in a certain way could pose a security risk and having the ability to check the code, provided you have the necessary skills to do so, will provide reassurances that the solution is secure.

Proprietary software is usually – but not always – provided at a cost and the source code is generally not made public. As such, the security of the software is unknown, because the code is kept secret and cannot be reviewed. When you use this software, you know what the code is doing, but have no visibility into how software functions are being performed. As far as security is concerned, you need to trust that the developers have done their job well.

Vendors of open source software solutions offer transparency and this is potentially a huge benefit, but there are risks associated with open source software. Before exploring what is open source security in more detail and its advantages and disadvantages compared to closed source proprietary software, it is useful to first explain exactly what open source means.

What is Open Source?

Open source is the term used when the source code of software or projects is publicly available and can be reviewed by anyone. With open source projects, the source code is made available for anyone to use and check, and it is possible to modify the code as users see fit to achieve their specific aims, albeit with restrictions in cases.

Commercial open source software is different. The source code is controlled by a single entity and is often copyrighted and patented. In this case, the code is made available for review, but reviewers of the code must report back to the developer who is responsible for making all code changes. This article is concerned with the latter rather than the former and explores whether open source security is better than closed source.

Is Open Source Good for Security?

There has been considerable debate about whether open source security is better than closed source and security experts do not always agree on which is best as there are plusses and minuses to both. Before discussing whether open source or closed source is best for security, it is important to state that vulnerabilities may exist in both open source and closed source software.

Just making code open source does not in itself improve security as code is code, whether it is proprietary or open source. Sloppy coding, the failure to follow security guidelines, the use of hard-coded credentials, and the failure to thoroughly test code could make both open and closed source software vulnerable. That said, when code is open source there is a tendency for developers to write clearer code and adhere to best practices, which in turn facilitates security reviews.

There may still be vulnerabilities in software regardless of the care that has been taken writing the code. One of the main benefits of open source is the code is made available for anyone to review, which generally means vulnerabilities and other coding issues are more likely to be identified faster than with closed source software solutions. With closed source, it will only be the developers checking the code for errors and that is likely to be just a few individuals. That means vulnerabilities are likely to remain hidden and unaddressed for longer.

Developers of closed source solutions often argue that their solutions are more secure because the source code is private and publishing source code in public repositories such as GitHub means the code can be reviewed by good and bad actors. Security researchers can review the code and identify potential issues and report them to the software developer, but hackers could find vulnerabilities and exploit them.

In reality, bad actors do not need to pore through thousands and thousands of lines of code to identify vulnerabilities to exploit as there are much quicker and easier ways to find bugs. Besides, many bugs are identified and exploited in closed source projects where the source code is not available for review. It is also worth noting that closed source does not mean the source code will always be kept a secret.

With open source, developers can often offer bug bounties. The potential for financial rewards means the code is likely to be reviewed by people with a vested interest in finding issues and ensuring they are fixed.  One caveat is that simply making source code accessible to all does not guarantee that it will actually be reviewed nor that security vulnerabilities will be identified by code reviewers if they do exist.

Is Open Source Better than Closed Source for Security?

There are plusses and minuses with open and closed source, but for security solutions the transparency is certainly a benefit. Proprietary software is a black box and users have to trust the vendor has developed secure code and is actively checking for security vulnerabilities.

If you are looking to implement a software solution, open source security can certainly be a benefit. The fact that it is more likely to be independently reviewed by the open source community implies that any vulnerabilities or code issues affecting performance and security will be identified and addressed more rapidly than with closed source solutions. If a solution has also had a full third-party code audit, that will provide greater reassurances that the code is not only available for review but that the code has actually been thoroughly reviewed and any issues have been reported and addressed.

In summary, open source does not mean the software is more secure than closed source. It is important to assess each vendor on a case-by-case basis. That said, many security experts agree that the transparency that comes from open source security helps make software more secure, and certainly open source has far greater potential to be more secure than proprietary software.