A recent meeting between IT industry leaders and White House officials highlighted open source software sustainability concerns as high-profile breaches and zero-day attacks have many organizations reviewing their software supply chains.
The White House published a statement describing, among other things, how participants had a “substantive and constructive” discussion on how to make a difference in the security of open source software while continuing to effectively engage and support the open source community.
Meeting participants included Deputy National Security Advisor for Cyber and Emerging Technology Anne Neuberger, National Cyber Director Chris Inglis, and officials from the Office of the National Cyber Director, Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Department of Defense, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Energy, the Department of Homeland Security, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Science Foundation. Akamai, Amazon, Apache Software Foundation, Apple, Cloudflare, Facebook/Meta, GitHub, Google, IBM, the Linux Foundation, the Open Source Security Foundation, Microsoft, Oracle, Red Hat and VMware all sent representatives.
The White House reported that the discussion focused on preventing security defects and vulnerabilities in code and open source packages, improving the process for finding defects and fixing them and shortening the response time for distributing and implementing fixes.
There were few specific recommendations, but the White House is clearly bringing more pressure to bear after the disclosure of the zero-day Log4j vulnerability in Java applications wreaked havoc in enterprise IT environments and government agencies. That vulnerability made it clear just how dependent organizations are on open source software projects and brought to attention the fact that many are created and maintained by just a handful of volunteer maintainers and contributors. The individuals that created those projects don’t always have a lot of cybersecurity expertise. In fact, many of them would argue that the onus for securing open source software is on the organizations that use what amounts to free software. It’s not the responsibility of the contributors and maintainers of open source software to drop everything and create a patch on-demand to address a zero-day vulnerability.
The federal government, however, has made it clear via executive order that it expects IT vendors and large enterprises that depend on open source software to do more to secure it. In the meantime, IT teams will need to evaluate their dependence on open source software; especially if, from a security perspective, that software isn’t sustainable simply because there are not enough contributors with the necessary expertise.
Naturally, this is a complex issue. In many cases, organizations are relying on open source components without even realizing it. Those components have been embedded within an application by an independent software vendor (ISV) that typically doesn’t disclose how that application was constructed. When a zero-day vulnerability is disclosed, cybersecurity teams can spend weeks looking for all the ways the instances of an application they either built themselves or licensed are impacted.
“There’s no way to really know,” said Mitch Ashley, principal for Techstrong Research, an arm of Techstrong Group, the parent company that publishes DevOps.com. “A vulnerability can be anywhere.”
It’s not abundantly clear how critical an issue the sustainability of open source software security is just yet. Relative to the amount of open source software currently employed, the number of security issues that have been encountered is comparatively small, noted Ashley.
“The innovation benefits enabled by open source software far outweigh the risks,” he said.
It may be a while before the open source community comes to terms with rising software supply chain concerns. However, it’s clear that many more members of the IT community are about to be held accountable for it.