Open-Source Software Risks and How to Mitigate Them

Open-source software comes with no claims or legal obligations for security and community support informing you how to implement it securely may be lacking.
Open source software

What is Open-Source Software

An estimated 90% of organizations use at least one open-source component. Software that allows for public viewing, modification, and enhancement of its code is referred to as open-source software. This software is usually developed by a developer community and is updated and maintained by volunteers.

Depending on what the developers have done, there are several licenses available for the use of open-source software. Among the most widely used programs are Mozilla Firefox, WordPress, Apache Web Server, and Linux OS.


Risks of Using Open-Source Software

As we mentioned before, open-source software is often developed by an independent community of developers. The development and distribution of software by these communities is not regulated. While this development environment is great for sharing ideas and improving the product, it also introduces the risk of including insecure code vulnerabilities.


Published Vulnerabilities

Vulnerabilities in open-source software are made public knowledge by contributors themselves, as well as by organizations like the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) and the National Vulnerability Database (NVD).

If you are part of the community for a specific project, you often get advanced warning before it is made public to groups like OWASP and NVD, but so does anyone else that is part of the community. This means that if your organization does not maintain the open source software, it is exposed to risk of breach by a cybercriminal.


Poor Security Architecture

Open-source software comes with no claims or legal obligations for security and community support informing you how to implement it securely may be lacking. The developers responsible for creating software are not usually security experts and may not understand how to code according to best practices.

While resources like the OWASP Top 10 vulnerabilities list are publicly available and targeted towards open-source communities, they don’t always provide instruction on how to implement security features to protect against these flaws.

Often open-source software includes or requires the use of third-party libraries, pulled in from package managers without inspection. This makes it more difficult and time-consuming to identify and patch any vulnerabilities present.


Intellectual Property Conflicts

There are over 200 types of licenses that can be applied to open-source software, including Apache, GPL, and MIT. Many of these licenses are incompatible with each other, meaning that some components

cannot be used together since you have to comply with all terms when using open-source software. The more components you use, the more difficult it becomes to track and compare all the license stipulations.


Lack of Warranty

Open-source software does not come with any warranties as to its security, support, or content. Although many projects are supported, they are done so by volunteers and the development of them can be dropped without notice.

Community members usually evaluate the software for security issues and provide support through public forums, but they are not obligated to do so nor are they liable for inaccurate guidance.

As open-source software is created by communities of sometimes anonymous contributors, it is difficult to verify that code being contributed is original and not taken from a third-party source with established intellectual property rights. What this means in practice is that if you use open-source software that is found to contain code with infringed rights, your organization can be held responsible for infringement.


How to Protect Yourself and Your Organization

Evaluate Use Cases for Open Source
Carefully review the use case prior to selecting an open-source software product. Involve your cyber security and legal teams in the selection process. There may be a better alternative proprietary product which better meets requirement at a reasonable cost.

Create Comprehensive Software Control Policies
Policies must spell out what sources and license types are acceptable for use and where they may be used.


Organizations benefit from the use of open-source software and there is no reason you shouldn’t benefit as well. However, knowing the risks posed by open-source software will help you avoid pitfalls associated with utilizing open source software products. By considering the risks outlined in this blog and implementing protection strategies, in addition to others as required to secure your systems, you can help promote the safe use of open-source software and maintain the integrity of your network.