Open Source Security Vulnerabilities Plague Large Organizations

Security Week

Published: March 26, 2012 07:35

An analysis of a widely-used repository for open source components revealed that Global 500 organizations collectively downloaded more than 2.8 million insecure components in one year.

The study was the result of an analysis by Aspect Security in cooperation with Sonatype. Sonatype operates the Central Repository, which contains 300,000 components and is used by more than 60,000 development organizations worldwide. As both the open source ecosystem and adoption of its technologies continue to grow a rapid pace, security is being challenged and undermined by a lack of awareness of vulnerabilities and the extent to which open source components are being used.

“Today’s applications commonly use 30 or more components, which in turn might rely on dozens or hundreds of other components,” the researchers note in their report. “As components run with the full privilege of the application, vulnerability in any given component can completely undermine the security of an entire application.”

According to the analysis, there were more than 46 million downloads of insecure versions of the 31 most popular open-source security libraries and Web frameworks. Google Web Toolkit for example was downloaded 17.7 million times with known vulnerabilities. One in three of the most popular components had older, vulnerable versions still being commonly downloaded even when a newer version was available with a security fix.

Just why someone would use a vulnerable version with a new one available was the subject of speculation. The researchers place the blame on the open source ecosystem’s lack of a centralized update notification mechanism, which ultimately means users can be left unaware of the existence of software flaws or their remedies.

"Our analysis points to critical gaps in the open-source component ecosystem -- a lack of visibility and control compounded by the lack of a centralized update notification infrastructure," said Wayne Jackson, CEO of Sonatype, in a statement. "Every day, mission-critical applications are compromised by malicious exploit, yet as this analysis shows, organizations have no clear view into component usage. Sonatype is working to correct this problem with the delivery of products and information services that offer actionable insight at every stage of the application development process."

These figures however should not make proprietary software makers smile. In February, application security firm Coverity reported that the average defect density – the number of defects per thousand lines of code – is roughly the same for open source and proprietary projects, particularly when the size of the projects is comparable. For example, Linux 2.6, which has nearly 7 million lines of code, has a defect density of .62 - roughly identical to that of codebases belonging to its proprietary counterparts, the firm stated.

Still, the research by Aspect Security found that the Global 100 financial services firms alone downloaded more than 567,000 insecure components in one year, underscoring the challenges organizations face as open source adoption continues.

"The data clearly show that organizations consume huge numbers of vulnerable libraries,” said Jeff Williams, CEO of Aspect Security, in a statement. “This is a wake-up call for software development organizations. While the numbers from this report are alarming, the take-away is clear -- open-source software is critical to forward-thinking development organizations, but there must be education and control to accompany its usage."

To address the issue, the researchers urge organizations gather information about the open source components they use, analyze applications to uncover potential vulnerabilities and establish strong controls throughout the development lifecycle.

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