Open source software (OSS) is built by communities of developers who contribute their knowledge and time to OSS projects they find appealing. That code can then be used by individuals, communities and organizations in their software products—the only obligation they have is to play under the rules of the license with which the OSS project was published.
This type of knowledge sharing brings many benefits to OSS users as it speeds up software development time and can help companies become more competitive in the market. Unfortunately, there is also a catch. Those benefits also come with certain risks which every OSS user needs to be aware of and take necessary actions to mitigate.
The OSS License
One specific risk to consider involves the OSS license. Not knowing what your obligations are under the license (or not abiding by those obligations) can cause an OSS user to, for example, lose intellectual property or experience a monetary loss.
Operational Impact on the Product
Another risk is the operational impact that the OSS in use will have on the product. It’s important to understand whether the community is consistently managing the OSS project and its issues in a timely manner, and that your organization has implemented the latest version and deployed patches have been applied. Using out-of-date, unpatched or unmaintained OSS could impact your release capabilities, product quality and customer trust.
The third risk to consider when using OSS is that of security risk. As open source is software—and in many cases very complex software—it brings with it the possibility of introducing software security vulnerabilities into your source code. Some vulnerabilities can be introduced into your projects through dependencies that the OSS your organization is using has on other OSS projects. Additionally, vulnerabilities could be unintentionally introduced by developers as they code a functionality using open source. The reason for this is that software developers, whether professionals or hobbyists, oftentimes do not consider security while coding. This has a substantial impact on their work and their contributions to open source projects.
It’s not necessarily that developers intentionally skip the implementation of security procedures. Secure coding is a specific discipline in software development that guards against the accidental introduction of vulnerabilities—a discipline that must be learned.
Understand that many developers are self-taught or have been trained in schools and universities (where we are only recently seeing courses in software and application security emerging). Many use their software development skills as a hobby, to contribute to OSS projects or to pursue their own personal projects. Unfortunately, training programs, programming courses in schools and online tutorials often neglect to convey this knowledge or to stress the importance of building secure software.
It’s also important to note that many organizations find it difficult to introduce a secure coding discipline into their software development process. In other words, this struggle persists beyond open source projects. If you’re with an organization experiencing this pain point and unsure where to begin, you’ve come to the right place. There are several strategies that can be used to begin your secure coding journey.
By giving developers the education required for them to become security aware, you’re setting them up for consistent, secure development success. There are a variety of in-person and computer-based training options on the market.
Software Composition Analysis (SCA) Tooling
Implementing an SCA tool will uncover incorrectly coded strings or vulnerabilities that have been introduced in code or OSS components. Not only can SCA tools assist developers in identifying potential software risks, some SCA solutions can help to train developers by offering remediation guidance or short training videos on how to avoid such vulnerabilities in the future.
It’s essential for software issues to be discovered early because the deeper into the process they’re identified, the more time-consuming and costly they are to remediate. As such, in recent years there has been a push to shift left, introducing security into the product development life cycle from the very beginning.
Companies and individuals need to also understand that this security mindset doesn’t start and end in the coding phase of the development process. A security mindset needs to be a part of every phase: from design to deployment to maintenance, all the way through to the product’s end of life.
Emphasizing a security mindset also has a long-term, broad reaching positive effects on the whole software development ecosystem, including the OSS world. As developers are trained to code securely (through university courses and other training institutions, coding portals or professional development through their employer) they pass this knowledge on to the projects with which they’re involved. This then leads to the production of higher quality proprietary and open source software, which in turn minimizes risk across the board.