QotW #27: Open Source vs Closed Source Systems

2012-05-25 by . 2 comments

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Question of the Week number 27 is a contentious, hotly debated issue in the software world. The question itself was posed by Security.SE user blunders, who quoted the argument often used in the defence of open source as a business model:

My understanding is that open source systems are commonly believed to be more secure than closed source systems. … A common position against closed source systems is that a lack of awareness is at best a weak security measure; commonly referred to as security through obscurity.

and then we hit the question itself:

Question is, are open source systems on average better for security than closed source systems?

We’ll begin with the top voted answer by SE user Jesper Mortensen, who explained that the whole notion of being able to generally compare open versus closed source systems is a bad one when there are so many other factors involved. To compare two systems you really need to look beyond the licensing model they use, and look at other factors too. I’ll quote Jesper’s list in its entirety:

  • Licenses.
  • Access to source code.
  • Very different incentive structures, for-profit versus for fun.
  • Very different legal liability situations.
  • Different, and wildly varying, team sizes and team skillsets.

Of course, this is by no means a complete treatment of the possible differences.

Jesper also highlighted the importance of comparing pieces of software that solve specific domain issues – not software in general. You have to do this, to even remotely begin to utilise the list above.

Security.SE legend Thomas Pornin also answered this question. I’ll begin coverage of his answer with his summary:

… the “opensource implies security” idea is overrated. What is important is the time (and skill) devoted to the tracking and fixing of security issues, and this is mostly orthogonal to the question of openness of the source.

The main thrust of Thomas’ answer was that actually, maintained software is more secure than unmaintained software. As an example, Thomas cited OpenSSL remote execution bugs that had been left lying in the code tree unfixed for some time – highlighting a possible advantage of closed source systems in that, when developed by companies, the effort and time spent on Q&A is generally higher than open source systems.

Thomas’ answer also covers the counterpoint to this – that closed source systems can easily conceal security issues, too, and that having the source allows you to convince yourself of security more easily.

The next answer was provided by Ori, who lists a set of premises used for justifying the security of open source:

  1. The Customization premise
  2. The License Management premise
  3. The Open Format premise
  4. The Many Eyes premise
  5. The Quick Fix premise

As Ori rightly says, the customization premise means a company can take an open source platform and add an additional set of security controls. Ori quotes NSA’s SELinux as an example of such a project. For companies with the time and money to produce such platforms and make such fixes, this is clearly an advantage for open source systems.

For license management and open format arguments Ori covers from a compliance and resilience perspective. Using open source software (and making modifications) contains certain license constraints – the potential to violate these constraints is clearly a risk to the business. Likewise, for business continuity purposes the ability to not be locked in to a specific platform is a huge win for any company.

Finally, an answer by yours truly. The major thrust of my answer is succinctly summarised by AviD‘s comment on it:

I’ve always proposed an amendment to Linus’ Law: “Given enough trained eyeballs, most bugs are relatively shallow”

I explained, through use of a rather intriguing vulnerability introduced into development kernels by a compiler bug, that having the knowledge to detect these issues is critical to security. The source being available does not directly guarantee you have the knowledge to detect such issues.

That’s it for answers. As you can see, none of us took sides generally on the “open versus closed” debate, instead pointing out that there are many factors to consider beyond the license under which source is available. I think the whole set of answers is best summarised by this.josh‘s comment on the top voted answer – so I’ll leave you with that:

I agree. What matters most is how many people with knowledge and experience in the security domain actively design, implement, test, and maintain the software. Any project where no-one is looking at security will have significant vulnerabilities, regardless of how many people are on the project.

Liked this question of the week? Interested in reading it or adding an answer? See the question in full. Have questions of a security nature of your own? Security expert and want to help others? Come and join us at security.stackexchange.com.


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