Open source software is now an inseparable part of most software projects. Research has estimated that as much as 90% of enterprise software is made up of open source components. However, while open source is beneficial for developers, it can be beneficial for malicious actors as well.
If an attacker discovers an open source component that is exposed to publicly known vulnerabilities, they can potentially attack all applications developed using that component. Cases like the Log4j and Apache Struts vulnerabilities show that this is a very serious, imminent threat to organizations of all sizes.
Open source security refers to the tools and processes used to secure and manage open source components and tools throughout the software development lifecycle (SDLC). Open source security tools can automatically detect an application’s open source dependencies, identify whether any components are of a version that is vulnerable, and also identify license information (some licenses could represent compliance or legal issues for organizations).
These tools trigger alerts when risks and policy violations are detected. Many organizations are adopting a DevSecOps approach in which security is integrated at all stages of the SDLC – from planning and early development through to testing, staging, and production.
Testing for open source vulnerabilities early in the SDLC makes it easy to replace or upgrade problematic components. Another aspect of open source security is to detect actual exploits of vulnerabilities in production and guide incident response processes to identify the exploit, trace it back to an open source component, and remediate the vulnerability.
Challenges of Open Source Security
As soon as they are publicized, open source vulnerabilities can become targets for attackers to exploit. Details about these open source vulnerabilities and how to exploit them are made publicly available, giving hackers all the information they need to conduct an attack. This means speed is of the essence when remediating open source vulnerabilities.
However, a main challenge organizations face when dealing with open source vulnerabilities is that tracking these vulnerabilities and their fixes is complex. Open source vulnerabilities could manifest themselves on a variety of platforms. Open source components can have hundreds of dependencies, and any of those dependencies could themselves contain a vulnerability.
In addition, finding the latest version, patch, or fix to address a security risk is a time-consuming and expensive process, especially if a component has already been embedded into a production system.
Once open source vulnerabilities and their exploits are exposed, it is only a matter of time before attackers can use them to break into organizations. Integrating the tools and processes your business needs is critical to quickly addressing open source vulnerabilities.
Pillars of Open Source Security
There are many tools and techniques for ensuring open source components are safe and don’t pose security threats. However, three practices are especially important for maintaining your open source security posture. These are software composition analysis (SCA), vulnerability management, and digital forensics and incident response (DFIR).
Each of these is first and foremost a security discipline. There are software tools you can use to implement each of them in your organization—but it is not enough simply to use the tool. You must understand the basics of each of these fields and apply them holistically to your security strategy.
Software Composition Analysis
Software composition analysis (SCA) tools scan your codebase and automatically identify open source components. These tools help evaluate license compliance, code quality, and security.
SCA tools work by inspecting various components, including package managers, source code, manifest files, binary files, and container images. Next, the tool compiles all identified open source components into a bill of materials (BOM) and compares it against various databases, including:
- Security—SCA tools can compare the BOM against vulnerability databases, such as the National Vulnerability Database (NVD). This comparison can help identify critical security vulnerabilities to ensure teams can quickly fix them.
- Quality—SCA tools can compare the BOM against commercial databases to identify licenses associated with code components and analyze overall code quality using metrics such as version control and history of contributions.
SCA tools offer speed and reliability that cannot be matched by manual attempts to identify and track open source code. Modern applications utilize too many open source components, and human operators cannot waste their time trying to sift through this pile of components. SCA tools provide the automation needed to track open source code while ensuring developer productivity.
Vulnerability management tools continuously monitor for, identify, prioritize, and mitigate vulnerabilities. Prioritization is key to maintaining productivity while ensuring security. It prevents teams from spending time on vulnerabilities that do not pose a serious threat and do not require remediation so they can focus their efforts and resources on truly severe vulnerabilities.
Vulnerability management tools may offer various features, but most provide the following capabilities:
- Discovery—this process identifies and categorizes all assets, stores attributes in a database, and looks for vulnerabilities associated with these assets.
- Prioritization—this process ranks known asset vulnerabilities and risks and assigns a severity level to each vulnerability.
- Remediation or mitigation—this process offers information about each identified vulnerability, which may include vendor patches or recommendations for remediation.
The information provided for remediation or mitigation depends on the vendor. Vendors maintain a vulnerability intelligence database in-house. Others offer links to third-party resources like the Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS) or MITRE’s Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) database.
Digital forensics and incident response (DFIR) is a field that helps identify, investigate, contain, and remediate cyberattacks. It can also potentially provide evidence for testimonials and litigations related to cyber attacks or other digital investigations.
DFIR combines the following disciplines:
This field of forensic science helps collect, analyze, and present digital evidence, such as system data and user activity. It enables you to uncover what happened on network devices, computer systems, tablets, or phones. You can use digital forensics for various digital investigations, including internal company investigations, litigations, regulatory investigations, and criminal activities.
Incident response helps collect and analyze data to investigate digital assets to support response to security events. In addition to investigation, this process also includes other steps like containment and recovery.
Digital forensics collects and investigates data to determine a narrative of what has transpired, while incident response investigates to contain and recover from a specific security incident. However, both processes may utilize the same tools and procedures, and matters that occur when responding to a security event can be shared during future litigation.
In this article, I explained the basics of open source security and covered three disciplines and toolsets you can use to improve your open source security posture. Buying and implementing a tool, such as an SCA platform, does not mean your organization is secure. It is critical that security teams understand the strategy behind each tool, discover their open source threat surface, and ensure that they are providing holistic coverage for all relevant security threats.
By Gilad David Maayan
Gilad David Maayan is a technology writer who has worked with over 150 technology companies including SAP, Samsung NEXT, NetApp and Imperva, producing technical and thought leadership content that elucidates technical solutions for developers and IT leadership.