In the modern era of computing and data storage, the most critical element of any system is the software on which it runs. While hardware is still important, devices have developed to the point where the differences between compromised and secure networks, databases, and files come down to code, not physical security measures.
One thing that has not changed since the earliest days of computing, however, is the rapid rate at which technology develops. Likewise, the importance of keeping up is a major factor for any business that hopes to stay relevant or secure. Due to this, as well as the high cost of proprietary software tools, open-source software (OSS) has come to dominate the world of coding.
What Is Open-Source Software?
In the world of software development, the term “open-source” refers to any software with accessible source code that anyone can modify and share freely. Protocols, algorithms, and even fully-developed programs and games can be created with open-source coding.
In most cases, open-source code is adapted and integrated into programs where it can be useful. Because source code is the part of the software that users don’t see or interact with, common open-source code is, at times, worked on by hundreds or even thousands of independent parties that can be used seamlessly without any outwardly-recognizable signs.
In the early days of computing, there were very few dedicated professional programmers, and so the early internet was almost entirely made up of open-source code. The efforts of enthusiasts and professionals alike were aided by the network effect as the internet grew in popularity, allowing more people to contribute and refine the very protocols that were connecting them.
Today, many companies employ in-house software engineers; however, much of the code that we still use relies on the efforts of open-source developers. In fact, a 2019 report by Gartner found that 96% of codebases contain at least some open-source code.
Advantages of Open-Source Software
There are many reasons why open-source coding is still so common. When compared to private development, open-source programs have many advantages. By giving programmers direct access to a program’s source code, the software can be continuously improved and expanded. This allows developers to add new features and fix bugs as they arise, rather than having to rely on the software’s original developer to address these concerns.
The ability to grow and adapt quickly is essential to success in today’s increasingly fast-paced work environment. Organizations attempting to stay on top (or simply keep up with the market) have needs that evolve rapidly. Because of this, many companies look for solutions with the least amount of friction between development and implementation.
Dangers of Open-Source Software
For all of the advantages that open-source software brings, there are a number of very significant risks stemming from the very aspects that make it so adaptable. And as prevalent as open-source coding is, a staggering number of organizations lack the structure to address these risks. A 2022 report by the Linux Foundation found that less than half of businesses had an open-source security policy in place for OSS development or usage.
This lack of preparation can open the door to a wide variety of cyberattacks. Because anyone can access the source code of these programs, any flaws or vulnerabilities could quickly become public knowledge. Malicious actors can also freely examine the code that underlies any programs utilizing a piece of open-source software.
The exploitation of these vulnerabilities can have wide-ranging negative impacts on all sorts of businesses. Everything from proprietary business data to private medical records can be compromised by attacks utilizing loopholes in open-source code.
On a more sophisticated level, there are numerous ways in which open-source code can be compromised by hackers, causing anyone who then uses it to fall into their hands. For instance, if a code is compromised before it is used, any flaws built into it will remain there unless specifically eliminated. This may sound simple, but the reality is far more challenging. Unless security experts know precisely what to look for and where to look for it, detecting malicious lines of code can be virtually impossible. Even attempting to do so requires knowledge of whether the code has been compromised to begin with. In most cases, however, vulnerabilities do not become known until they have already been exploited.
Types of Open-Source Security Risks
To better understand how the aforementioned attacks can occur, let’s examine some of the most common methods that hackers use to inject malicious code into open-source programs.
Upstream Server Attacks
In upstream server attacks, malicious entities infect a system “upstream” as it is uploaded onto a computer system or device. To accomplish this, malicious code is added to the software at its source, often through a malicious update, infecting all users “downstream” as they download it.
Midstream attacks are fundamentally similar to upstream attacks, but instead of tampering with code at its initial source, they target intermediary elements. These include software development tools and updates that pass on the malicious code from there.
CI/CD Infrastructure Attacks
Another variation of the upstream attack model, CI/CD infrastructure attacks introduce malware into the development automation infrastructure of an open-source code requiring “continuous integration” or “continuous delivery” steps.
Dependency Confusion Attacks
Unlike the previous three types of attacks, Dependency Confusion Attacks exploit private, internally-created software dependencies by registering a new dependency with the same name in a public repository with a higher version number. The malicious code is then optimally placed to be pulled into software builds in place of the latest legitimate version of the software.
Case Study: Log4Shell
Regardless of whether hackers compromise open-source code by one of the above methods or learn of a genuine loophole from an open hacking forum, once a door has been opened, any and all data within the compromised system is immediately vulnerable. Some measures can be taken to avoid some of these, but even the biggest companies have fallen prey.
One of the most dangerous and well-publicized instances of open-source software falling vulnerable to attack came in 2021 when a code-execution vulnerability exploit for Log4j was released. At the time, Log4j was a virtually ubiquitous open-source utility used in countless popular applications, including Microsoft, Amazon, and Twitter servers.
Referred to as “Log4Shell,” the vulnerability was first reported in November of that year after being identified in the popular game Minecraft. The code exploit was also published in a tweet a few weeks later, leading to numerous forums warning users that hackers could execute malicious code on servers or clients running the Java version of Minecraft.
Millions of servers were left vulnerable by the exploit. The Apache Software Foundation assigned Log4Shell the highest-possible severity rating in the Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS), and the director of the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) called the exploit a “critical” threat. Using Log4Shell, attackers were able to install blockchain crypto, steal system credentials, and access sensitive data before a patch was released.
Truly Secure Data with Sertainty
The simultaneously derivative and interconnected nature of the modern internet makes avoiding open-source code a practical impossibility. For this and other reasons, traditional perimeter security falls notably short when it comes to keeping malicious actors out of your system.
Because of this omnipresent threat, Sertainty leverages proprietary processes through its UXP Technology that enable data to govern, track, and defend itself – whether in flight, in a developer’s sandbox, or in storage. These UXP Technology protocols mean that even if systems are compromised or accessed from the inside, all data stored in them remains secure.
At Sertainty, we know that data is the most valuable asset to your organization’s continued success. Our industry-leading Data Privacy Platform has pioneered what it means for data to be intelligent and actionable, helping companies move forward with a proven and future-proof approach to cybersecurity needs.
As the digital landscape evolves and networks become more widely accessible, Sertainty is committed to providing self-protecting data solutions that evolve and grow to defend sensitive data. Open-source security breaches may be inevitable, but with Sertainty, privacy loss doesn’t have to be.