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Software security myths

Nowadays, everybody runs software, and software gets more and more complex. Even a few code lines can produce significant security vulnerabilities that put confidential information and personal data at risk.

But there is open-source software! Sometimes, we read statements like “open-source software is more secure than proprietary software,” or people consider audits that were conducted three years ago as “security guarantees.” We show you why these myths are wrong.

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Myth 1: Open-source software is more secure than proprietary software

Wrong. The differences between “open source” and “proprietary” are licenses, not security features. This blanket statement often implies that “everybody” can look at open-source code, and then software magically becomes more secure. On the other hand, “you can’t check proprietary code,” and this is at least “highly suspicious!”

Ask yourself whether you can understand and check the complete source code of a new app, imported libraries, and so on. Are you used to programming? Then, this may be like a walk in the park for you. Did you realize the recent background update of your app, though? Did you check all imported libraries? Did you check the source code of your operating system? Did you also check the source code of your mostly proprietary hardware? Can you understand every line of code, possible risks for the security and integrity of your system? Do you know every algorithm? It is a safe bet that this isn’t the case. Vulnerabilities like Dirty COW or Heartbleed showed that open-source software isn’t magically secure only because everybody can look at the code.

A correct statement is that maintained software is more secure than unmaintained software: You may get more secure software when its developers regularly check the code and fix vulnerabilities as fast as possible.

Myth 2: Audited software is more secure than software which hasn’t been audited

Another myth is that “audited software is more secure than software which hasn’t been audited.” Some people tell you that audits conducted three years ago guarantee that this code is secure. This is wrong, of course.

For instance, there were two independent audits of the well-known OpenVPN software in 2017. The developers fixed the vulnerabilities; everything seemed to be okay. However, Guido Vranken discovered four critical security vulnerabilities afterward. This example shows that security audits won’t discover every possible vulnerability in somebody’s source code. It isn’t the purpose of audits to find every potential security vulnerability in code.

Furthermore, you have to keep in mind that developers aren’t obliged to fix any bugs found by auditors. They can say, “We won’t fix that.” They can also try to fix a vulnerability and introduce a new one or even more.

Another aspect is time: An audit conducted one, two, or three years ago may be already irrelevant because developers modified hundreds of lines of code or updated dependencies.

Myth 3: Many reported issues mean insecurity

Some people state that hundreds of GitHub issues (or issues reported elsewhere) indicate code insecurity. This is also wrong.

Imagine a Computer Science student’s small project: This student implements a lightweight web browser and uploads it to GitHub. About 150 users download the browser, 100 use it daily. No one reports any issues in the following months since the users don’t encounter any problems.

On the other hand, there is a well-known and globally used web browser. People report issues every day, and there are hundreds of issues still open.

The question is: Which web browser is more secure? The first one since there are 0 reported issues or the second one because millions of people use it every day and its developers are trained programmers?

We recommend checking some of the oldest and some of the newest issues. Some people misuse issue trackers for feature requests, and not every issue is a security vulnerability. Check some security-related issues and whether the developers fixed these issues as soon as possible.

Myth 4: Using open-source software packages is secure

The final statement is about using open-source software packages. Typically, Linux-based operating systems come with their own package repository, and then there are software-specific repositories (e.g., Python Package Index, NPM repository, or Flathub). Some people think that using these repositories is secure since they provide open-source software, and there is (again) some magical security present.

This is wrong, of course. In May 2018, an Ubuntu user spotted “2048buntu,” a cryptocurrency miner on the Ubuntu Snap Store. In July 2018, people discovered several malicious packages in the Arch User Repository (“acroread,” “balz,” “minergate”), which gathered information about the victim’s system. In October 2018, a security engineer scanned the Python Package Index and identified 12 packages, which performed different malicious actions. In November 2018, a malicious version of “event-stream” was discovered in the NPM repository, which could steal account data for cryptocurrencies.

So, don’t believe that packages are automatically secure and good, even if you download them from official repositories.

Summary

The bottom line is that there is no magical security in open-source products, audits aren’t security guarantees, and many issues don’t imply insecurity. These myths are nothing but blanket statements that aren’t true in general.

Use maintained software and observe how its developers handle security vulnerabilities. The rest is about trust as always on the internet.

Sources

Changelog

  • Dec 7, 2018: Added information about malware in various software repositories.

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