Securing Visibility into Open Source Code

Yellow road sign with a blue sky and white clouds: open sourceThe Internet runs on open source code. Linux, Apache Tomcat, OpenSSL, MySQL, Drupal and WordPress are built on open source. Everyone, every day, uses applications that are either open source or include open source code; commercial applications typically have only 65 per cent custom code. Development teams can easily use 100 or more open source libraries, frameworks tools and code snippets, when building an application.

The widespread use of open source code to reduce development times and costs makes application security more challenging. That’s because the bulk of the code contained in any given application is often not written by the team that developed or maintain it. For example, the 10 million lines of code incorporated in the GM Volt’s control systems include open source components. Car manufacturers like GM are increasingly taking an open source approach because it gives them broader control of their software platforms and the ability to tailor features to suit their customers.

Whether for the Internet, the automotive industry, or for any software package, the need for secure open source code has never been greater, but CISOs and the teams they manage are losing visibility into the use of open source during the software development process.

Using open source code is not a problem in itself, but not knowing what open source is being used is dangerous, particularly when many components and libraries contain security flaws. The majority of companies exercise little control over the external code used within their software projects. Even those that do have some form of secure software development lifecycle tend to only apply it to the code they write themselves – 67 per cent of companies do not monitor their open source code for security vulnerabilities.

The Path to Better Code

Development frameworks and newer programming languages make it much easier for developers to avoid introducing common security vulnerabilities such as cross-site scripting and SLQ injection. But developers still need to understand the different types of data an application handles and how to properly protect that data. For example, session IDs are just as sensitive as passwords, but are often not given the same level of attention. Access control is notoriously tricky to implement well, and most developers would benefit from additional training to avoid common mistakes.


Mike Pittenger, VP of Product Strategy at Black Duck Software

Developers need to fully understand how the latest libraries and components work before using them, so that these elements are integrated and used correctly within their projects. One reason people feel safe using the OpenSSL library and take the quality of its code for granted is its FIPS 140-2 certificate. But in the case of the Heartbleed vulnerability, the Heartbleed protocol is outside the scope of FIPS. Development teams may have read the documentation covering secure use of OpenSSL call functions and routines, but how many realised that the entire codebase was not certified?

Automated testing tools will certainly improve the overall quality of in-house developed code. But CISOs must also ensure the quality of an application’s code sourced from elsewhere, including proper control over the use of open source code.

Maintaining an inventory of third-party code through a spreadsheet simply doesn’t work, particularly with a large, distributed team. For example, the spreadsheet method can’t detect whether a developer has pulled in an old version of an approved component, or added new, unapproved ones. It doesn’t ensure that the relevant security mailing lists are monitored or that someone is checking for new releases, updates, and fixes. Worst of all, it makes it impossible for anyone to get a full sense of an application’s true level of exposure.

Know Your Code

Developing secure software means knowing where the code within an application comes from, that it has been approved, and that the latest updates and fixes have been applied, not just before the application is released, but throughout its supported life.

While using open source code makes business sense for efficiency and cost reasons, open source can undermine security efforts if it isn’t well managed. Given the complexity of today’s applications, the management of the software development lifecycle needs to be automated wherever possible to allow developers to remain agile enough to keep pace, while reducing the introduction and occurrence of security vulnerabilities.

For agile development teams to mitigate security risks from open source software, they must have visibility into the open source components they use, select components without known vulnerabilities, and continually monitor those components throughout the application lifecycle.

Written by Mike Pittenger, VP of Product Strategy at Black Duck Software.