Securing your open-source projects

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Open-source software (OSS) is everywhere. Upward 95% of all commercial databases contain at least one OSS component. OSS is often free, saving developers time and efforts to create their components or capabilities from scratch. 

However, using OSS potentially also carries serious risks. As many as 75% of open source codebases have been found to contain vulnerabilities, with about 50% containing severe vulnerabilities. These are not due to the open-source model itself or the quality of the code but due to a combination of factors that can seriously harm your data and systems. 

That said, here’s what you need to know about open source security, the main risks and vulnerabilities associated with OSS, and what you can do to prevent them!

What are the leading open-source security risks?

Open-source vulnerabilities and risks arise for several reasons. In essence, vulnerabilities are due to weak code that opens the door for exploits and attacks. However, these are further compounded by factors associated with OSS, which must be kept in mind.

Following are the main reasons for open source security risks.

Publicity of vulnerabilities

Vulnerabilities to open-source software are announced publicly by organizations such as the National Vulnerability Database (NVD) and the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP), as well as by developers and contributors to the open-source community. 

While there are advanced notices for community members before vulnerabilities are made public, this doesn’t guarantee that vulnerabilities won’t be exploited. Nor does it mean that everyone will implement patches and fixes on time. This inconsistency creates openings in security and leaves vulnerable components open to attacks.

While the legal issues around using open source code are not strictly speaking security vulnerabilities, they create additional difficulty around using such software. 

Open source is often considered entirely free and open, but this needs to be qualified. To legally use such components, you need to comply with all the license conditions they are under. There are currently over 200 different types of open source licenses, many of which cannot be used together. As the number of licenses you use increases, it becomes harder to avoid conflicts and remain compliant.

In addition to these compliance requirements, there are also possible issues around intellectual property (IP) infringement that can come up. This is because there is no strict commercial regulation or control over them, allowing for proprietary code to end up in your software. You must perform extensive due diligence when using OSS to avoid legal action.

No warranty and security guarantees

With open-source software, there may be no verifications, no support, no warranty, and no security guarantees. Open source development is frequently a volunteer effort, and projects may be shut down or abandoned when developers can’t keep up. 

This also means that there may or may not have been proper testing during the development process. Community members often provide some testing and support but cannot be relied upon entirely to have spotted every possible issue. 

Of course, when the community does find vulnerabilities, it works toward fixing these. However, this may take more time than usual, exposing those using the software.

Operational risks

Tracking down the latest patch or fix can sometimes be a complicated process. Regular maintenance and checking that all open source components are patched with the latest version is necessary. This requires companies to keep inventories and automate the process of keeping track to avoid any unplugged holes in the system.

A further operational risk is that of having to fix vulnerabilities in projects that have been abandoned and have no community support anymore. Here, companies must set aside manpower and resources to track such projects and ensure they are properly managed and secured.

Development insufficiencies 

Sometimes, despite all the bright minds participating in the open-source ecosystem, certain development malpractices and insufficiencies can still appear. 

Bad practices, such as copy-pasting code, can open up vulnerabilities and make them hard to track. For one, when copy-pasting, any vulnerability already presented in the code will also be transferred to your project. And once a code snippet becomes part of your database, it cannot be tracked and updated, opening the door to future vulnerabilities.

Moreover, issues with the code can also arise due to faulty transfers, such as via email instead of a repository. Such unsafe handling allows the code to be manipulated before it reaches its recipient. 

The above are some of how vulnerabilities and risks may arise due to the use of OSS. However, there are ways to prevent vulnerabilities through good open-source cyber security practices. Here’s what you can do!

How to prevent open source security risks and vulnerabilities

Following are some of the open-source security measures and practices you can implement to reduce the risks of using such software. 

  • Emphasize security-first: create and enforce a security policy specifying the permissible risk level in using open source libraries and components. Maintain an inventory of all open-source software in use, and track all OSS licenses, component history, vulnerabilities, and updates.
  • Train your staff: provide non-security staff with training and introduce greater cooperation between development and security teams to harden your security stance. Make sure developers understand security issues and know how to identify and mitigate them. 
  • Automate, monitor and test: use an automated security tool to monitor for vulnerabilities through logs, audits, incident alerts, etc. Test all open-source software before implementation and throughout its whole life cycle. Implement security checks through static analysis that scans and tracks code. Perform manual code review where needed.


How secure is open source?

Open-source software is not inherently more or less secure than closed-source software. While some people consider its potential for security to be greater, ultimately, it comes down to whether developers have made the code secure. The open-source community is a great additional layer of support in this regard, but it is no guarantee.

What are the risks of open source?

The risks associated with open source software are that vulnerabilities are known and public, such software doesn’t come with a warranty or software guarantees, and its development may be abruptly discontinued. Moreover, it also carries the risk of development insufficiencies and malpractices, which is why it must be checked carefully. 

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