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A guide for open source software (OSS) security

When you search for a dependable open source software (OSS) component to integrate into your software supply chain, evaluation of the component's security emerges as a critical task. This involves not only examining the immediate functionalities of the component but also the overall state of the software project itself, including the maintainers and contributors that stand behind it and drive its development.

An evaluation entails:

  • scrutinizing the development methodology;
  • gauging the project community's activity;
  • analyzing the codebase's security, particularly in terms of open source vulnerabilities; and
  • assessing the open source project maintainer's level of involvement and responsiveness to security issues serves as an important element for review.

In this blog post, we explore OSS security and highlight key aspects to consider, given the myriad of unique development processes and widespread usage of open source components.

Defining OSS security

OSS security is the practice of ensuring the safe usage of software components that are developed and distributed as open source.

Evaluation of OSS security encompasses a variety of factors, many of which will be unique to different organizations. Notably, these factors pertain to the software's design, code quality, and level of support from the OSS community.

When you leverage OSS, you put your trust in the developers of that specific software project and their presumable commitment to ensuring its security. However, this trust remains incomplete until you assess the software yourself and measure its security against a defined set of standards. Your assessment is necessary. It's assurance of the software's security posture in the larger context of your software development life cycle (SDLC).

Understanding security risks inherent in OSS

While OSS presents an array of advantages due to its open and adaptable nature, it also contains security complexities that require specific attention, especially in the context of software supply chains.

Consider the following usage risks inherent in OSS:

  • Challenges stemming from a project's open nature: The free accessibility of the source code allows for collaborative improvements in which maintainers and contributors find and fix bugs. However, this openness also means threat actors can readily analyze the code to find and exploit vulnerabilities.

  • Lack of comprehensive testing: Open source projects typically lack centralized quality control, resulting in no guarantee that the code has been rigorously tested for security flaws. An absence of efficient testing procedures can lead to latent bugs or vulnerabilities slipping through the cracks.

  • Limited vendor accountability: Unlike commercial software vendors, who often provide dedicated support, open source projects tend to lack the structure or resources required to take accountability for security issues. A decentralized structure, or a reduced resource, could lead to delays in addressing vulnerabilities, potentially exposing users of that OSS to related risks.

While OSS's collaborative spirit can facilitate bug identification and remediation, it can also expose the code to exploitation by threat actors. By prioritizing OSS security in your SDLC, you can harness open source's advantages while proactively addressing its associated risks.

Evaluating OSS security

To fortify the security posture of OSS in your SDLC, take a proactive approach. As you explore strategies to elevate your OSS security, several critical aspects come into play.

Below, we delve into strategic measures that can substantially enhance your OSS security posture:

  • Review code quality: Before utilizing an open source codebase, it's crucial to check the quality of the code. This is pivotal because code quality directly influences security. Inadequate code quality increases susceptibility to security vulnerabilities.

  • Evaluate open source licensing: Thoroughly assess the software's licensing terms. Confirm whether or not the license permits redistribution or modification and if there are any special conditions. Also, consider the potential ramifications of the license in your specific use case, particularly in a case such as GPL which might introduce risks for closed-source products as opposed to licenses such as BSD or MIT.

  • Gauge community involvement: Ensure the software project is actively maintained by a community. Continued involvement from its original maintainers can be a good sign as well, but note that they could also have passed the reins to new champions to improve upon or carry on the success of the project. A balanced combination of community contributions and oversight can enhance the software's stability and security over the long term.

  • Check code maintenance: To gauge the software's health and security status, pay attention to both code maintenance practices and repository updates. Ensure maintainers or the community promptly address bug reports and security vulnerabilities. Assess the frequency of repository updates, as regular updates often indicate a well-maintained project, while prolonged inactivity might suggest potential risks. Also, check the version of the open source project you're considering. Generally, the earliest versions tend to exhibit more security issues due to a gradual identification of vulnerabilities over time.

  • Make security assessments: When evaluating software security, consider two risk factors: vulnerabilities, which are often unintentional weaknesses, and malicious contributions, which are deliberate insider threats to software. Gather insights from news, blogs, and developers to gain a comprehensive understanding of potential vulnerabilities or past instances of harm associated with the software. This approach ensures a thorough assessment of security challenges and risks.

By using these strategies to evaluate OSS, you give your organization the best chance to remain empowered against the evolving landscape of security threats and challenges.

Elevating OSS security into your development workflow

Incorporating robust security measures into your SDLC isn't just a best practice — it's a necessity in today's threat landscape. If your SDLC processes are firmly rooted in infosec best practices, you can significantly bolster your application and minimize risks of vulnerabilities and malware.

Consider the strategies below which can be augmented with Sonatype's solutions:

  • Strengthen your application's defenses: Strengthen your application's security by implementing best practices for writing clean and secure code. Prioritize readability and maintainability to reduce the possible introduction of vulnerabilities. Boost these efforts by automating your security processes with Sonatype Repository Firewall, which enables early identification of vulnerabilities and blocks malicious components automatically.

  • Advocate rigorous code review and testing: Instill a code review culture within your team with repeatable practices to proactively uncover security flaws. Incorporate diverse perspectives and expertise into the review process. Security testing tools and techniques normalize your analysis, help identify vulnerabilities, and enforce compliance with security standards. Streamline security endeavors with Sonatype Lifecycle to receive ongoing monitoring alerts for vulnerabilities on any component, and enforce custom policies tailored to your compliance goals.

  • Prioritize dependency management: Recognize the pivotal role of streamlined management of software dependencies. Today's software often hinges on a diverse array of open source libraries and components. Regularly scrutinize and update these dependencies to preempt vulnerabilities stemming from outdated code. Stay vigilant about security advisories and patches. Sonatype Lifecycle enables you to know the location of each of your components and their dependencies, so you can quickly generate a software bill of materials (SBOM) for any application, both to provide full visibility of your application's dependencies and to help efficiently remediate vulnerabilities as well.

  • Extend your secure design principles to OSS components: Aligning your design decisions with security principles builds a foundation to defend against vulnerabilities throughout development. Apply these principles to your use of OSS as well. Sonatype Lifecycle makes this easier by offering real-time, data-driven insights into the security health of your software components, so you can ensure that you are using OSS components safely.

Building confidence in the security of your OSS use

OSS brings immense flexibility and collaborative potential to the table, yet it carries with it inherent complexities that demand careful attention — especially in the context of a software supply chain.

By implementing robust security measures in your SDLC, you can transform your software's security landscape:

  • shielding it from potential threats; 

  • enhancing threat detection capabilities; and

  • proactively identifying vulnerabilities, while still reaping the benefits of OSS components.

Sonatype Repository Firewall and Sonatype Lifecycle operate as potent allies in your quest for fortified security. Sonatype Repository Firewall guards against vulnerabilities, preventing malicious components from infiltrating your systems. Sonatype Lifecycle serves as a comprehensive toolkit for ongoing monitoring, compliance enforcement, and visibility into your software components.

By fostering a culture of security awareness and embracing OSS security, you build not only stronger applications but inspire trust, resilience, and innovation. Ultimately, securing your use of the OSS ecosystem translates into safeguarding your product's future.

Picture of Aaron Linskens

Written by Aaron Linskens

Aaron is a technical writer on Sonatype's Marketing team. He works at a crossroads of technical writing, developer advocacy, software development, and open source. He aims to get developers and non-technical collaborators to work well together via experimentation, feedback, and iteration so they can build the right software.