Top 10 Security Risks of Using Open Source Software

Open source software offers tantalizing benefits like cost savings and community innovation. But as open source usage explodes, major hidden cyber risks are emerging.

In this article, we’ll overview the top open source security pitfalls and how organizations can take protective measures. Adopting open source wisely while mitigating risks is key for security.

The Open Source Explosion

First, let’s understand the open source landscape. Open source software has source code publicly shared for free use, modification and distribution. Well-known examples include Linux, Apache, MySQL and WordPress.

Benefits driving open source adoption include:

  • Cost savings from free access.
  • Accelerated innovation from public collaboration.
  • Flexibility to modify code as needed.

With these advantages, open source now comprises 65-80% of the typical application stack. But as open source usage grows, so do security risks.

Top 10 Open Source Security Risks

While abstract, open source risks manifest in actual vulnerabilities and incidents. Here are the top open source pitfalls to safeguard against:

Unpatched Vulnerabilities

Open source projects rely heavily on community maintenance. Without disciplined vulnerability patching and version update policies, flaws can persist for years. This leaves the door open for exploitation. Actively tracking advisories and maintaining current versions is essential for risk reduction.

Inadequate Vetting

Integrating open source components without thoroughly vetting the code quality, community health, maintenance history, and overall security posture is reckless. Only incorporate widely used, reputable open source software that undergoes regular security reviews and patching. Obscure and unsupported projects often prove to be abandonware, laden with vulnerabilities.

Third-Party Dependency Risks

Open source components frequently have multiple layers of nested third-party library dependencies buried deep in their stack. If any of these dependencies contain vulnerabilities, the risks propagate through your entire architecture. Rigorously analyzing transitive dependencies and their security status is crucial.

Lack of Accountability

Since most open source projects lack dedicated development teams or sponsors, there is often minimal accountability for maintaining the software long-term or promptly fixing critical vulnerabilities. Without a responsible party focused on security and ongoing support, critical fixes can fall through the cracks indefinitely. Prioritizing projects backed by commercial entities or foundations improves accountability.

Outdated Libraries

Developers often integrate old, unsupported versions of open source libraries into projects leading to outdated code running in production. These outdated libraries not only lack the latest features, but also contain long lists of known vulnerabilities that have been patched in newer versions. Always ensure all components are kept upgraded to the current stable versions with all relevant security fixes.

Malicious Contributions

While extremely rare, the potential exists for threat actors to intentionally compromise open source projects by contributing tainted code containing subtle vulnerabilities. High-profile projects utilize rigorous reviews before accepting contributions to reduce this risk. But smaller projects are potentially susceptible, which is why vetting the integrity of code contributors is important.

Weak Cryptography

Some older open source projects still use insecure cryptographic ciphers, algorithms, and protocols which can expose communications and data. Before implementing an open source component, ensure it employs current, robust cryptography like AES encryption rather than outdated approaches like SHA-1 hashes.

License Conflicts

Each open source component uses specific licensing terms regarding modification, attribution, and redistribution. Failing to comply with these terms can open your organization to legal liabilities and intellectual property disputes. Proactively review and understand license requirements, and seek counsel for guidance on permissible usage and obligations.

Confidentiality Issues

Without proper isolation and containment controls, integrating open source components may inadvertently expose your organization’s sensitive intellectual property, source code, infrastructure details or internal communications externally. This heightens data leak and competitive intelligence risks. Treat open source similarly to third-party vendor software when it comes to hardening integrations.

Integration Challenges

Blending proprietary code with open source requires thoughtful design and secure coding principles. Taking shortcuts often results in brittle “Frankenstack” architectures which are insecure and prone to risk. Carefully encapsulate open source, manage dependencies centrally, and rigorously test integrations using techniques like fuzzing to surface potential weaknesses.

Mitigating Open Source Risks

Balancing open source’s benefits against security risks comes down to applying due diligence:

  • Maintain a software bill of materials documenting all third-party open source components.
  • Continuously monitor for vulnerabilities in dependencies and update aggressively.
  • Isolate and containerize open source to limit reach if compromised.
  • Establish security and compliance policies governing open source use.
  • Perform extensive new software evaluation including auditing source code and community.
  • Monitor system behavior for abnormal activity indicating component breach.

With vigilance, open source risks become manageable. But never assume security – validate through ongoing reviews, monitoring and testing.

The Future of Open Source Security

As open source gains steam, improving component security is a growing imperative:

  • Heightened diligence will become the norm not the exception.
  • Automated tools will help track provenance and alert on risks.
  • DevSecOps practices will expand to shift security left.
  • Centralized authorities may emerge to vet and standardize components.
  • Open source security ratings and reputation systems will guide adoption.

The open source movement will continue flourishing but expect growing pains. Embracing transparency while taming risks is critical as open source penetrates deeper across our software stack.

Conclusion

The open source movement brings immense software innovation and collaboration benefits. But as open source usage grows exponentially, new cyber risks are emerging.

With proper diligence on security practices however, organizations can harness open source safely. The key is applying the same rigor expected of commercial software – stay current, monitor actively, isolate appropriately, and verify integrity.

With awareness and responsible open source adoption, businesses can maximize benefits while ensuring security remains a priority.

FAQ’s

What are some low risk open source projects?

Projects like Linux, OpenSSL, SQLite, and Django which have thriving communities, commercial support, and security response processes in place tend to be lower risk.

How can we inventory open source components?

Application composition analysis tools can automatically detect open source components. Manual audits also help build inventories.

What steps can reduce open source security risks?

Follow best practices like patching diligently, vetting projects, isolating components, monitoring actively, and establishing OSS policies.

What is software composition analysis?

SCA scans codebases to identify all third-party libraries and components, alert on risky licenses or versions, and monitor for new vulnerabilities.

How do I know if we comply with open source licenses?

Organizations should audit codebases, document license types, seek counsel on usage terms, and configure build tools to include proper licenses/attribution.

Hitesh Patel
Hitesh Patel
Hitesh Patel is an engineer turned business owner of WPG Consulting. He is a techie enthusiast who believes in finding creative IT solutions to solve consumer problems.

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