Do More Eyeballs Mean More Secure Code?

By Sean Michael Kerner (Send Email)
Posted Jul 22, 2008


One of the basic theories behind open source and its relative security is the fact that many eyeballs are looking at code to identify potential and real trouble spots.

Not necessarily. Fortify Software has released a research report alleging that open source software developers are leaving the ramparts unprotected.

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However, according to application security vendor Fortify Software, many eyeballs alone aren't enough. In fact Fortify argues in a new study that open source software is insecure and is exposing enterprises to risk since secure development processes have not been properly adopted.

Fortify's study ran 11 open source Java projects through a barrage of tests to identify secure practices. The projects were: Derby (relational database), Geronimo (app server), Hibernate (object relational mapping tool), Hipergate (CRM web application), JBoss Application server, Jonas Application server, OFBiz E-Business solution web application, OpenCMS Content management solution, Resin Application server, Struts Web application framework and the Apache Tomcat app server.

In general, Fortify found projects had a variety of security vulnerabilities, including cross-site scripting (XSS) and SQL injection flaws, as well as an overall lack of secure development processes in place.

"We think that open source software is an area of under-explored risk that we want to help enterprises better understand it," Jacob West security research group manager at Fortify told InternetNews.com. "We found notable vulnerabilities in all of the 11 open source packages we looked at. Because of the rampant numbers we found, we think that open source projects aren't leveraging security tools properly."

West added that most of the projects examined did not make security experts readily available to their users. He argued there was also a lack of secure mechanisms for reporting and dealing with bugs.

Fortify has a degree of motivated self interest in open source Java security. Since 2006, Fortify has run the Java Open Review (JOR) project, which used Fortify's static source code analysis tools to identify bugs. Fortify claims they've worked with more than 100 open source projects to date to help them improve their code. West claimed that so far JOR has found about 389 confirmed defects, and approximately 357 have been fixed as a direct result.

Surprisingly, Hibernate, Ofbiz, Struts and Tomcat — four of the 11 projects Fortify noted were already part of JOR prior to the new Fortify study.

Sometimes tools aren't enough

West argued that sometimes tools alone are not enough, and projects need to take it on themselves to fix issues and to bake security in as part of the development process methodology.

"The main message coming from the report is around the lack of process and the need for building security in," West said.

In West's view, on the commercial proprietary side large organizations have begun to adopt secure development processes and they do things like risk assessment up front and really make security key at every step of development.

"All the evidence we've seen on the open source side is that that revolution hasn't begun yet for open source security," West said.

West then noted there are exceptions. He cited a new effort from Mozilla with its Security Metrics tracking of how effective Mozilla's security is overall. But he also noted it's not a new secure development effort from a pure coding perspective.

"The first step they have taken is to evaluate their security, that's true," West admitted. "Making that available publicly and doing it in a fairly visible way is a really good first step."

Overall, according to West, a secure development process don't necessarily fit in any one particular place within a development cycle. There are however critical areas that Fortify has identified in its report that are key, among them is the need to cultivate human expertise around security.

"In particular Microsoft blazed this path of having a security lead someone who is within the development organization and whose primary responsibility is security and that's critical," West argued. "That's not happening in open source projects today."

Additionally West commented that security needs to be built into the development process using threat modeling and code review technology.

Other studies in the past from vendors like Coverity have shown open source software to have fewer defects than proprietary alternatives. Coverity which also does source code analysis was also the recipient of a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grant in which the overall bug count of 250 open source projects were reduced. Outside of the DHS grant, Mozilla has also been a Coverity customer since 2006 to reduce software defects in the Firefox code base.

Fortify's West did not debate that other efforts at open source code analysis exist however he argued that overall there needs to be more of a commitment from open source developers for secure development processes.

"The real goal here is to raise awareness both within the enterprise community that is leveraging open source and the developers themselves," West said. "I feel strongly that we have gone about this in a responsible way and we are not calling attention to specific deficiencies in specific projects. I can't predict what the open source community will say about this report but we're making our best effort to improve the situation through calling attention to it and actively contributing to it through Java Open Review."

This article was originally published on InternetNews.com.

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