Open Source Does Not Equal Secure

Way back in 1999, I wrote about open-source software:

First, simply publishing the code does not automatically mean that people will examine it for security flaws. Security researchers are fickle and busy people. They do not have the time to examine every piece of source code that is published. So while opening up source code is a good thing, it is not a guarantee of security. I could name a dozen open source security libraries that no one has ever heard of, and no one has ever evaluated. On the other hand, the security code in Linux has been looked at by a lot of very good security engineers.

We have some new research from GitHub that bears this out. On average, vulnerabilities in their libraries go four years before being detected. From a ZDNet article:

GitHub launched a deep-dive into the state of open source security, comparing information gathered from the organization’s dependency security features and the six package ecosystems supported on the platform across October 1, 2019, to September 30, 2020, and October 1, 2018, to September 30, 2019.

Only active repositories have been included, not including forks or ‘spam’ projects. The package ecosystems analyzed are Composer, Maven, npm, NuGet, PyPi, and RubyGems.

In comparison to 2019, GitHub found that 94% of projects now rely on open source components, with close to 700 dependencies on average. Most frequently, open source dependencies are found in JavaScript — 94% — as well as Ruby and .NET, at 90%, respectively.

On average, vulnerabilities can go undetected for over four years in open source projects before disclosure. A fix is then usually available in just over a month, which GitHub says “indicates clear opportunities to improve vulnerability detection.”

Open source means that the code is available for security evaluation, not that it necessarily has been evaluated by anyone. This is an important distinction.

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