How To Use Open-Source Software Without Increasing Security Vulnerabilities


Nate Nead is the CEO of DEV.co and SEO.co. Nate and his teams specialize in custom software development, web design and digital marketing.

Open-source software is becoming increasingly popular for businesses and individuals around the world. Freely available and easy to use, open-source projects have the potential to completely revolutionize entire industries and boost the efficiency of millions of people using them.

That said, if you’re not careful, open-source software can exacerbate your existing security vulnerabilities and add new risks to your business. So what steps can you take to use open-source software without opening the door to new security threats?

Why Use Open-Source Software?

In case you aren’t familiar, open-source software is the term for projects that can be used without a license. They are free to use and access, for both personal and commercial purposes. Typically created by an individual or a small team, these projects become adopted by a community of people, who then improve, modify and support the project in the future.

This arrangement has a number of advantages, including:

Free Accessibility: The project is free to everyone at all times. Depending on the nature of the project, it could mean giving millions of people a useful tool that makes them more productive or incentivizing the creation of even more innovative technologies.

Full Transparency: Open-source projects tend to be fully transparent, allowing people to see the back end of the code and make modifications to it as they see fit. You can learn the inner workings of the software and tweak it to your own specifications.

Community Support: These projects also have a ton of community support, often with thousands of developers contributing their own ideas, leaving feedback and answering common questions from others.

But even with these advantages, open-source software can be a liability.

Open-Source Software And Vulnerabilities

There are many reasons why open source software presents additional security challenges.

The Shared Responsibility Model: Under the shared responsibility model, used by the majority of tech companies and independent developers, every party in a given interaction bears some security responsibility. A company using open-source software has security obligations to its users that the open-source community simply cannot be responsible for.

Lack Of Accountable Parties: Open-source projects are often delivered for free and with no expectations on either end of the transaction. That means if there’s a security flaw in the project, no one can be held accountable for that flaw. You can’t exactly sue someone for a defect in a digital product that they gave away for free.

Inexperienced Developers: Oftentimes, open-source projects are created by inexperienced developers who are looking for ways to gain industry experience before picking up a full-time job. This isn’t always the case, but inexperienced developers do often lead to less secure projects.

Busy Developers: Other times, open-source projects are side projects or hobbies of people who are committed to full-time work somewhere else. If there is a problem with the code, they may not be able to address it for weeks, or even months.

Total Transparency: The transparency of open-source projects is a massive strength, but it can also be a weakness. When a bug is discovered, the entire community knows about it. If there is a massive security vulnerability, cybercriminals will learn how to exploit it quickly.

How To Use Open-Source Software Without Security Issues

Thankfully, there are several steps you can take to use open-source software without facing additional security issues.

1. Choose the right projects. First, make sure you’re choosing the right projects. Not all open-source projects are worth using; some are the product of more experienced, more responsible developers. Analyze the quality of the product and get to know the people who created it. And if there are multiple software options, compare them directly to figure out which one is superior.

2. Analyze the risks and compensate for them. Every open-source project is going to come with some risks. Be sure to analyze those risks and find a way to compensate for them on your end.

3. Tap into the power of the community. The open-source community is a huge strength, so take advantage of it. Ask lots of questions, work with experienced community programmers and contribute your own knowledge when you can.

4. Track your dependencies. Keep meticulous track of all open-source dependencies in your software environment; these will be vital to address in the event of a newly identify security risk.

5. Keep watch for patches, updates and warnings. Stay plugged into the community to learn about new bugs, new patches, new updates and posted warnings. The sooner you act in response to these new threats, the better.

Open-source software remains unfairly stigmatized in the business world. It’s an excellent tool — and a free one — that can help you innovate better products and run more efficiently. All you have to do is take some extra precautions to accommodate for the potential security issues, and make sure you’re using open-source software responsibly.


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