Open Source: Free, Easy, and Fast Sort Of

February 29, 2024

green-dino_thumb_thumb_thumbThis essay is the work of a dumb dinobaby. No smart software required.

Not long ago, I spoke with an open source cheerleader. The pros outweighed the cons from this technologist’s point of view. (I would like to ID the individual, but I try to avoid having legal eagles claw their way into my modest nest in rural Kentucky. Just plug in “John Wizard Doe”, a high profile entrepreneur and graduate of a big time engineering school.)


I think going up suggests a problem.

Here are highlights of my notes about the upside of open source:

  1. Many smart people eyeball the code and problems are spotted and fixed
  2. Fixes get made and deployed more rapidly than commercial software which of works on an longer “fix” cycle
  3. Dead end software can be given new kidneys or maybe a heart with a fork
  4. For most use cases, the software is free or cheaper than commercial products
  5. New functions become available; some of which fuel new product opportunities.

There may be a few others, but let’s look at a downside few open source cheerleaders want to talk about. I don’t want to counter the widely held belief that “many smart people eyeball the code.” The method is grab and go. The speed angle is relative. Reviving open source again and again is quite useful; bad actors do this. Most people just recycle. The “free” angle is a big deal. Everyone like “free” because why not? New functions become available so new markets are created. Perhaps. But in the cyber crime space, innovation boils down to finding a mistake that can be exploited with good enough open source components, often with some mileage on their chassis.

But the one point open source champions crank back on the rah rah output. “Over 100,000 Infected Repos Found on GitHub.” I want to point out that GitHub is a Microsoft, the all-time champion in security, owns GitHub. If you think about Microsoft and security too much, you may come away confused. I know I do. I also get a headache.

This “Infected Repos” API IRO article asserts:

Our security research and data science teams detected a resurgence of a malicious repo confusion campaign that began mid-last year, this time on a much larger scale. The attack impacts more than 100,000 GitHub repositories (and presumably millions) when unsuspecting developers use repositories that resemble known and trusted ones but are, in fact, infected with malicious code.

The write up provides excellent information about how the bad repos create problems and provides a recipe for do this type of malware distribution yourself. (As you know, I am not too keen on having certain information with helpful detail easily available, but I am a dinobaby, and dinobabies have crazy ideas.)

If we confine our thinking to the open source champion’s five benefits, I think security issues may be more important in some use cases.The better question is, “Why don’t open source supporters like Microsoft and the person with whom I spoke want to talk about open source security?” My view is that:

  1. Security is an after thought or a never thought facet of open source software
  2. Making money is Job #1, so free trumps spending money to make sure the open source software is secure
  3. Open source appeals to some venture capitalists. Why? RedHat, Elastic, and a handful of other “open source plays”.

Net net: Just visualize a future in which smart software ingests poisoned code, and programmers who rely on smart software to make them a 10X engineer. Does that create a bit of a problem? Of course not. Microsoft is the security champ, and GitHub is Microsoft.

Stephen E Arnold, February 29, 2024


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