The Security Problem of Open Source Software (OSS)

The Security Problem of Open Source Software (OSS)

Open Source Software (OSS) is software with source code that anyone can inspect, modify, and enhance. The principle behind OSS is collaboration and freedom. It promotes the idea that by sharing code, developers can create more robust, versatile, and secure software.

The core principle of OSS is “Openness“. This means that the software’s source code is available for anyone to review, modify, and distribute. The goal is to prompt an environment of collaboration, innovation, and shared knowledge. The concept of open-source dates back to the early days of computing. However, it gained significant momentum in the 1980s with the GNU Project and later, in the 1990s, with the release of the Linux kernel. These projects demonstrated the power and potential of collaborative software development.

Open Source Software (OSS) has numerous benefits. It encourages innovation by allowing developers to build upon existing work. It can also enhance security, as a larger pool of reviewers can identify and fix vulnerabilities faster. Moreover, it offers flexibility and reduces costs, making technology more accessible worldwide.

However, the open nature of OSS also presents cybersecurity challenges. Vulnerabilities can be exposed to a wider audience, including malicious actors. The reliance on community contributions for security patches requires vigilance and proactive management.

This type of software is made by a diverse community of individuals and organizations. From hobbyists to large corporations, contributors work together across different platforms like GitHub to develop software. Collaboration is facilitated through version control systems, bug trackers, and community forums. Projects are built using various components, including libraries, frameworks, and tools. These components are the building blocks that developers use to create software. Their open nature allows for extensive customization and integration.

The components used in Open Source are as diverse as the projects themselves. They range from highly specialized libraries to comprehensive frameworks. This nature ensures they are continuously updated and improved by the community. It comes under various licenses, each with its rules regarding how the software can be used, modified, and distributed. Common licenses include the GNU General Public License (GPL), the Apache License, and the MIT License. These licenses ensure that the software remains free and open.

Now, as we appreciate the landscape of Open Source Software, its collaborative spirit, and innovation, an important dialogue is forthcoming. The cybersecurity aspect of OSS presents unique challenges. Let’s get to tackle this challenge, highlighting the problem, and guiding with the best strategies and solutions designed for businesses.

One of the challenges with Open Source Software lies in its very nature, its development by a diverse global community. This variety brings richness but also randomness. Contributors to these projects come from various backgrounds; academic scholars, hobbyists, and professionals with differing views on security. Not all developers prioritize embedding security within their code. This variance in mindset, where some may not see security as their responsibility, can lead to vulnerable code.

The risk here is not minor. Vulnerable code can be a goldmine for hackers, offering them an open invitation to exploit. The diversity of OSS contributors, while a strength in innovation, becomes a potential weakness in cybersecurity. As these developers unite from across the globe to build and improve software, the uniformity in security practices may lag behind. It’s a reminder that while OSS excels in collaboration, it also demands a collective commitment to security.

This situation doesn’t just challenge developers; it places enterprises using Open Source tools at risk. Recognizing and addressing this issue is critical. It’s not about questioning the commitment of OSS contributors but about understanding the inherent risks in a system that relies on them heavily.

The openness of Open Source Software has the good and bad sides. While it makes it accessible to everyone, it also lays bare the code for all to examine closely. This transparency accelerates the discovery of new vulnerabilities. It’s not just about finding these vulnerabilities but the risk they pose when not publicly disclosed. The concern that intelligence agencies might exploit these vulnerabilities in targeted attacks without sharing their discoveries adds a layer of complexity to the cybersecurity landscape.

When a vulnerability is disclosed, often tagged with a CVE ID, fixing it isn’t always straightforward. OSS projects might use libraries coded by specific individuals with unique methodologies. Understanding and rectifying such code can be time-consuming. Moreover, the developers who initially wrote the code might not be the same ones tasked with fixing it. This discrepancy can lead to delays in releasing patches. Sometimes, the initial fix isn’t effective, necessitating further updates. It’s a complex scenario where the speed and functionality of patch releases are critical yet can be hindered by the very nature of open-source collaboration.

Open source tools often lack the professional support found in proprietary software. While community support is valuable, it may not always offer the timely or expert guidance needed, especially for security issues. This gap can pose challenges in effectively addressing vulnerabilities, highlighting the importance of alternative support strategies for users relying on open source solutions.

We aimed in this blog to highlight the cybersecurity challenges within Open Source Software (OSS). Our goal was to keep you aware of OSS vulnerabilities, patching delays, dependency risks, and the need for professional support. We aimed to provide security teams with insights needed to effectively handle these challenges.

Last but not least, here are our key advice to mitigate the risk of using open source tools:

  • Regularly assess and patch vulnerabilities, keep the vulnerability window minimal
  • Be aware of open source licenses to ensure compliance and understand security obligations
  • If a proprietary software solution addresses the same business needs with greater reliability, support, and viability, consider choosing it over OSS. This choice can provide added security assurances and dedicated professional assistance, ensuring smoother operational continuity and risk management
  • Ensure your team is knowledgeable and aware of the security risks associated with open source solutions
  • Leverage Software Composition Analysis (SCA) solutions within IDEs for custom development, enabling proactive identification and mitigation of vulnerabilities in open source components
  • Engage with the OSS community to share insights and learn from collective knowledge
  • Ensure you download OSS from trusted and reputable sources