Open Source Code = Insecure Code?

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Written By: Nigel Stanley
Published: 5th August, 2008
Content Copyright © 2008 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.

Research released by application security vendor Fortify ( in July 2008 has highlighted security flaws in commonly used open source applications, some of which are being installed and deployed by large enterprises and government organisations.

The paper, "Open Source Security Study - How are Open Source Development Communities Embracing Best Security Practices?" reports on research undertaken by Fortify into the security of open source projects.

A range of projects were examined ranging from the Derby relational database through to the JBoss application server and the OpenCMS content management server. The projects were analysed using Fortify SCA, a static analysis tool used to detect security flaws in software code. Any major security issues identified by the tool were then checked manually to confirm the finding.

Flaws were uncovered that spanned two or three generations of product, showing a lack of attention for up to 1 year. Across the range of projects analysed, issues per 1000 lines of code (KLOC) ranged from 0.27 through to 178.2. Cross site scripting and SQL injection class attacks were prevalent and clearly still show that developers are missing these code security problems.

Conclusions from the team at Fortify focus on the need for organisations to treat open source with care ensuring that any installed code has been checked for security flaws. They also urge open source developers to take care with their development and undertake robust security testing of any code being developed.

The report was interesting from a number of perspectives. First, it provides some empirical data to suggest that open source software can contain security flaws, as does commercial software. Clearly this is a report from an application security vendor so any evidence like this is bound to be tied up with special interests but it says what it says. But any sensible, objective observer would suggest that open source software is just as prone to software code security flaws as commercial software (or vice versa) as we are all capable of making mistakes. I guess what it does highlight is the need to maintain development hygiene within a software development lifecycle and methodology that supports productive coding which is also secure, whether you are writing open source or proprietary.

Quality of code has been a mantra shouted by both sides of the open vs. proprietary debate, with both parties able to point out the flaws of the others' products. Of course there are very many large organisations and governments that have deployed open source solutions which are tight as a drum from a security perspective. Likewise there are others that have done the same with proprietary solutions.

Sure, it would be fascinating to take a cross section of proprietary applications in the same class as those examined and see if the issues/KLOC were just as prevalent. I would guess, with little effort, one could quite easily select some ghastly proprietary applications and demonstrate terribly insecure code.

So where does this Fortify study leave us? I come away from it unsurprised, but hoping that it can be used by sensible CISOs and CIOs to offer some balance to the often venomous rants undertaken by both extreme sides of the proprietary vs. open software debate.

The report can be accessed from here.

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