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'Set it and forget it' attitude to open-source software has become a major security problem, says Veracode

Study finds a whole sea of outdated third-party libraries

There's a minefield of security problems bubbling under the surface of modern software, Veracode has claimed in its latest report, thanks to developers pulling third-party open-source libraries into their code bases – then never bothering to update them again.

"The vast majority of today's applications use open source code. The security of a library can change quickly, so keeping a current inventory of what's in your application is crucial," Chris Eng, Vercode's chief research officer, said. "We found that once developers pick a library, they rarely update it.

"With vendors facing increasing scrutiny around the security of their supply chain, there is simply no way to justify a 'set it and forget it' mentality. It's vital that developers keep those components up-to-date and respond quickly to new vulnerabilities as they’re discovered."

In its latest report, "State of Software Secuity v11: Open Source Edition", application testing specialist Veracode revealed that a claimed 80 per cent of included third-party libraries are never updated – and that almost all of the code repositories analysed included libraries with at least one vulnerability.

That's no small number: the company used data from 13 million scans covering 86,000 repositories, in turn containing over 301,000 unique libraries. The report also cites responses from almost 2,000 developers.

Elsewhere in the report Veracode claimed that a whopping 92 per cent of the flaws discovered in third-party libraries could be fixed by simply updating to the latest version, with two-thirds of fixes being "minor and non-disruptive to the functionality of even the most complex software applications."

The report also highlighted that a slim majority, 52 per cent, of developers claimed to have a formal process for the selection of third-party libraries, with a quarter saying they are either unsure or unaware of the existence of such a process, and that "security" is the third biggest concern when selecting a library – with "functionality" and "licensing" topping the leader board.

"Although alarming, these results are not entirely surprising," application security expert Sean Wright told The Register. "We see time and time again that libraries are often not updated. Often this comes down to libraries not being effectively tracked.

"There's a reason why this type of vulnerability has a special place in the current OWASP [Open Web Application Security Project] Top 10 list. Organisations have to start tracking the libraries which they use in their software, and ensure that any identified vulnerabilities are appropriately prioritised."

"If you want to see what happens when you don't update libraries," Wright added, "just look to the 2017 Equifax breach. That cost the organisation around $1.4bn. The fix for the underlying vulnerability could have potentially involved a single line of code."

Veracode, of course, pointed to the code-scanning technology it just so happens to provide as the solution. "The growing popularity of open-source software, combined with increasingly demanding development cycles, results in a higher propensity to software vulnerabilities," claimed Chris Wysopal, co-founder and chief technology officer.

"Scanning earlier in the process significantly reduces the risk profile, and most fixes are minor so will not impact the functionality of even the most complex software."

The full report is available to download here.

OpenUK chief executive Amanda Brock said of the report: "We are pleased to see this detailed focus emerging, as the open-source software communities working on legal and governance have evolved over the last decade to produce a number of important tools including the Open Chain, ISO approved, standard for supply chain and the SPDX Software Bill of Material (SBOM) standard, currently seeking ISO approval.

"Open source is indeed like gravity today and all around us, in a way that is inescapable, particularly in our infrastructure, due to inherent transparency and the wisdom of Linus's law – that many eyes make bugs shallow.

"In many ways I suspect the open-source code is likely better positioned to managing security risks than our friends in the proprietary world. This is not an open-source issue, but a consequence of digitalisation and a general software issue. It will be solved through open collaboration to find the best resolutions." ®

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