5 Open Source Security Best Practices

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What is Open Source Security?

Open source software is now an integral part of most software projects. Studies show that in the average enterprise software project, a majority of the codebase consists of open source components. However, while open source is good for developers, it can also be beneficial for threat actors.

If an attacker discovers an open source component with known vulnerabilities, they can attack any application developed using that component. Examples such as the Log4j and Apache Struts show that this is a very serious threat to organizations of all sizes.

Open source security refers to the tools and processes used to secure and manage open source components throughout the software development lifecycle (SDLC). Open source security tools can automatically detect an application’s open source dependencies, identify if a component has a vulnerable version, and even identify license information (some licenses may require organizations to comply with regulations or represent legal issues).

The Importance of Security for Open-Source Components

Open source components are an important addition to software projects, but also pose significant security risks. Open source applications require an additional level of expertise and responsibility, and can do more harm than good if users do not properly manage risk and do not assume responsibility for security.

Distributed development creates risk

One of the reasons for the risky nature of open source components is distributed development. When many contributors write code collaboratively, some elements may not interact smoothly. There could be inconsistent coding styles, practices, and implementations, making it harder for organizations to identify problems. This lack of standardization is because open source contributors are often volunteers without a governing body enforcing strict protocols and policies.

Variable quality and security standards

A related problem is that it is up to the project maintainers to define and maintain quality and security standards. Some projects may actually have higher quality than some proprietary solutions, while others may be much lower quality. Developers must put in some effort to research and verify the quality of the components they use, to ensure that the standards of a project match the organization’s standards.

Rapid release cycles

Another challenge is rapid release cycles—open source components tend to be released in short cycles. When applying fixes or developing new features, project managers can release code immediately after validation. On the positive side, this provides fast feature updates and security improvement. On the negative side, it means organizations need to continuously update open source components to avoid being left behind.

Vulnerabilities are public

A final, inherent problem with open source components is that vulnerabilities are public. Open source code means anyone can test and identify vulnerabilities. When vulnerabilities are discovered by community members, these issues are often published in user and vulnerability databases. This helps users understand the risks and take action to mitigate them—but it also means that the vulnerabilities are in the public domain and open to anyone who wants to exploit them.

Open Source Security Best Practices

Inventory Open Source

The first step to successfully managing the use of open source software components is to understand which ones you are using. Even small organizations need to automate this process, because there can be hundreds or thousands of open source components. Fortunately, modern agile development practices already rely heavily on automation tools, so they can easily be adapted to include features in this area.

There are many tools available in this space, including open source tools like NPM Audit and OWASP Dependency Check, as well as commercial services.

You should create inventories of software artifacts at multiple points during the development lifecycle, such as pull request validation and branch merging. Inventory results should be stored centrally and made available to the appropriate personnel, including the security response team. 

Make sure inventories contain enough metadata to identify the application, source repository, version/commit, and other details from which the artifact originated.


Developers use three main types of security testing techniques to identify security vulnerabilities before software is released.

  • Static application security testing (SAST)—helps developers find common bugs before compiling and building. Development teams can use several SAST tools to support different languages and development platforms.
  • Dynamic application security testing (DAST)—security testing experts can inspect running builds and identify issues with configuration, error handling, application inputs and outputs, and more. SAST and DAST are often used together.
  • Interactive application security testing (IAST)—combines SAST and DAST technologies.

Perform Regular Penetration Testing

Penetration testing is the process of simulating an attack on a system to identify potential security vulnerabilities. This will help you understand how secure your system is and what areas need improvement. It can also detect malicious activity that may go unnoticed.

Frequent penetration testing ensures that open source software is up to date with the latest security patches and fixes. It can also keep you ahead of new threats and exploits that may be used against your system

Using SCA Tools

Software Composition Analysis (SCA) is an automated process for identifying open source software in a code base. Perform this analysis to evaluate security, license compliance, and code quality.

SCA tools inspect package managers, manifest files, source code, binaries, container images, and more. Identified open source components are compiled into bills of materials (BOMs) and compared against various databases such as the National Vulnerability Database (NVD).

SCA tools compare the BOM to other (usually commercial) databases to detect licenses associated with the code and analyze overall code quality (version control, contribution history, etc.). The BOM can also be compared against a database, and security teams can identify and quickly fix critical security and legal gaps.

Cross-Train Your Staff

Hiring professionals skilled in both development and security isn’t always easy. However, you can train your team and improve their security expertise. Conducting regular cybersecurity awareness training for individual teams is critical to the overall security of a software project.

Organizations need to ensure that developers have a general knowledge of cybersecurity as well as the latest trends and updates. Developers should be able to identify common security issues in their own code and open source code.

Similarly, the security team should be involved early in the development process. Security should be a priority from the start of a project, not an afterthought.

Just as you analyze and track your development process, you should actively monitor your security efforts. Taking a proactive approach can go a long way toward preparing for open source security risks.


In conclusion, open source security is an essential component of any secure system or network. By following best practices, such as regularly patching and updating open source components, implementing security controls, and security testing, organizations can significantly improve the security of their systems and protect against potential vulnerabilities. 

By taking these steps, organizations can ensure that their open source components are secure and free of vulnerabilities, protecting against potential security threats.

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