On Mitigating Open-Source Vulnerabilities

May 16, 2022

Open-source software has saved countless developers from reinventing the proverbial wheel so they can instead spend their time creating new ways to use existing code. That’s great! Except for one thing: Now that open-source components make up about 90% of most applications, they pose tempting opportunities for hackers. Perhaps the juiciest targets lie in the military and intelligence communities. US counter-terrorism ops rely heavily on the likes of Palantir Technologies, a heavy user of and contributor to open-source software. Another example is the F-35 stealth fighter, which operates using millions of lines of code. A team of writers at War on the Rocks explores “Dependency Issues: Solving the World’s Open-Source Software Security Problem.” Solve it? Completely? Right, and there really is a tooth fairy. The article relates:

“The problem is that the open-source software supply chain can introduce unknown, possibly intentional, security weaknesses. One previous analysis of all publicly reported software supply chain compromises revealed that the majority of malicious attacks targeted open-source software. In other words, headline-grabbing software supply-chain attacks on proprietary software, like SolarWinds, actually constitute the minority of cases. As a result, stopping attacks is now difficult because of the immense complexity of the modern software dependency tree: components that depend on other components that depend on other components ad infinitum. Knowing what vulnerabilities are in your software is a full-time and nearly impossible job for software developers.”

So true. Still, writers John Speed Meyers, Zack Newman, Tom Pike, and Jacqueline Kazil sound optimistic as they continue:

“Fortunately, there is hope. We recommend three steps that software producers and government regulators can take to make open-source software more secure. First, producers and consumers should embrace software transparency, creating an auditable ecosystem where software is not simply mysterious blobs passed over a network connection. Second, software builders and consumers ought to adopt software integrity and analysis tools to enable informed supply chain risk management. Third, government reforms can help reduce the number and impact of open-source software compromises.”

The article describes each part of this plan in detail. It also does a good job explaining how we got so dependent on open-source software and describes ways hackers are able to leverage it. The writers submits that, by following these suggestions, entities both public and private can safely continue to benefit from open-source collaboration. If the ecosystem is made even a bit safer, we suppose that is better than nothing. After all, ditching open-source altogether seems nigh impossible at this point.

Cynthia Murrell, May 16, 2022

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