Does Open Source Create Open Doors?

December 21, 2020

Here’s an interesting question I asked on a phone call on Sunday, December 20, 2020: “How many cyber security firms rely on open source software?”

Give up?

As far as my research team has been able to determine, no study is available to us to answer the question. I told the team that based on comments made in presentations, at lectures, and in booth demonstrations at law enforcement and intelligence conferences, most of the firms do. Whether it is a utility function like Elasticsearch or a component (code or library) that detects malicious traffic, open source is the go-to source.

The reasons are not far to seek and include:

  • Grabbing open source code is easy
  • Open source software is usually less costly than a proprietary commercial tool
  • Licensing allows some fancy dancing
  • Using what’s readily available and maintained by a magical community of one, two or three people is quick
  • Assuming that the open source code is “safe”; that is, not malicious.

My question was prompted after I read “How US Agencies’ Trust in Untested Software Opened the Door to Hackers.” The write up states:

The federal government conducts only cursory security inspections of the software it buys from private companies for a wide range of activities, from managing databases to operating internal chat applications.

That write up ignores the open source components commercial cyber security firms use. The reason many of the services look and function in a similar manner is due to a reliance on open source methods as well as the nine or 10 work horse algorithms taught in university engineering programs.

What’s the result? A SolarWinds type of challenge. No one knows the scope, no one knows the optimal remediation path, and no one knows how many vulnerabilities exist and are actively being exploited.

Here’s another question, “How many of the whiz kids working in US government agencies communicate the exact process for selecting, vetting, and implementing open source components directly (via 18f type projects) or from vendors of proprietary cyber security software?”

Stephen E Arnold, December 21, 2020


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