A Developer’s Guide to Managing Open-Source Code Risks

Dec 30, 2021

Open-source code offers considerable advantages to businesses, so much so that some form of it is used by 72% of companies. Using open-source code saves a tremendous amount of time and often supplies a superior solution. The power of open-source code lies in the massive number of developers who contribute to it and test it. However, the same elements that make open-source code so appealing also make it vulnerable to security risks. 

Because open-source code is so prevalent, many developers default to using it without considering the risks involved. Unfortunately, this can expose your company to dangers ranging from security breaches to compliance issues. In addition — while some sizeable open-source code projects are thoroughly documented, tested, supported, and maintained — there are no guarantees regarding the quality of work put into these projects. 

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Risks of Using Open-Source Code

Before you can effectively use open-source code, you need to understand how to mitigate the risks. These include the following.

Lack of Security

Open-source code carries no security guarantees or obligations. Furthermore, developers who create open-source code are not usually security experts and often prioritize functionality over security. As a result, when vulnerabilities are identified, you may not have any instructions or support for implementing security features to address them. 

Although many sizeable open-source code projects have a better reputation for software security than proprietary software, this isn’t always true, particularly for smaller projects. Some open-source code projects don’t even have any security auditing procedures in place. 

Public Vulnerabilities 

Contributors, users, and organizations such as National Vulnerability Database make vulnerabilities in open-source code publicly known. Bad actors can exploit these vulnerabilities. Although you may get advanced notification of risks if you’re a member of an open-source code community, so will all other members. If you don’t keep the code and components updated to the latest version, this risk increases. 

Licensing Issues

The licenses attached to open-source software are varied and extensive. They are also often incompatible with each other. By using one component, you may be violating the terms of another. The more components you use, the more amplified this problem is. 

Intellectual Property Concerns

Some open-source code licenses include provisions that require any software created with the open-source components to be released entirely open-source. This restricts its commercial value and makes it useless for creating proprietary software. 

In addition to creating problems with your intellectual property, you may unknowingly be infringing on others’ intellectual property rights. Because there are no restrictions on who contributes to open-source code, it’s not always possible to know that the code is original. As a result, if you use copied code from a protected source, you may be held liable. 

Lack of Support

Open-source code projects are often the work of a small group of volunteers who do it in their spare time. If they get overwhelmed or tired of it, you may find your team responsible for fixing security issues and other code defects in-house. 

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Best Practices for Using Open-Source Code

Codifying an open-source usage policy is the best way to take advantage of the benefits of using open-source code without falling prey to the risks. Finding a balance between efficiency and thoroughness in your code review process is essential to encourage innovation while still protecting your company’s data, reputation, and intellectual property. A solid open-source strategy should include the following elements. 

Use the Original Source

Download the code from the official website whenever possible. If that’s not possible, use an authoritative Github repository rather than a second or third-hand GitHub source. The farther you get from the source of the original project, the more likely you are to encounter unreliable code that contains vulnerabilities. 

Audit All Code

Even if you don’t download open-source code directly, it’s likely included in software you’ve obtained from third parties. So, in addition to knowing exactly where open-source code is utilized in your projects, you should audit all third-party code that you use. Not only is this a good idea from a code security standpoint, but it also ensures you can fulfill all licensing obligations. 

Stay Up to Date on All Licensing Terms

It’s easy to skim over the licensing agreements and assume you understand the terms. However, without a thorough understanding of the terms you agreed to when you downloaded the code, you run the risk of violating the licensing agreement. Additionally, open-source projects can change their licensing terms, so they must be continuously monitored. Therefore, you should implement your licensing review process every time you use an open-source component in a new application or updated version. 

Include Your Legal Team

Since licensing agreements for different components may conflict with each other, bring in your legal team to ensure you’re fully complying with all relevant licenses. You may also run into compliance issues regarding data protection with some open-source code components, so you’ll also need to get clearance from your legal team on those issues. 

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How To Manage Open-Source Code Risk

For most companies, the benefits of using open-source code outweigh the risks involved. However, it’s crucial to the long-term success of your business that you have a comprehensive strategy in place for using open-source components. In addition to implementing best practices for managing open-source code risk, consider using an application that scans your code to identify vulnerabilities so you can mitigate risk and ensure compliance with open-source code licenses. 

Kiuwan Insights Open Source can help you manage open-source code risk by automating policies throughout the software development lifecycle. Our simple open-source code validation solution monitors your open-source components, automates your code management, and integrates seamlessly with your current software development operations. As a result, we’ll help you stay ahead of security vulnerabilities, obsolescence, and licensing and policy issues.  

Kiuwan works with many of the world’s largest insurance, commercial, and finance organizations to help them develop secure applications. We offer an end-to-end application security platform to reduce all of your cybersecurity risks. Integrating Kiuwan into your current DevSecOps pipeline will automate your security processes so you can detect vulnerabilities in minutes. Reach out to our team today to see how our solutions can help your business. 

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