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Is OWASP at Risk of Irrelevance?

A growing group of OWASP members and board leaders are calling for the AppSec group to make big changes to stay apace with modern development.

10 Min Read
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As the OWASP Foundation navigates its third decade of existence, many application security experts and OWASP volunteer contributors say it's time for the organization to make some big changes to stay relevant. This week, a group of over 60 high-profile OWASP members sent an open letter to the OWASP board of directors and to the foundation's executive director demanding significant changes to the foundation. Many of these co-signers were leaders of flagship OWASP projects, lifetime contributors, and former OWASP board members.

"OWASP simply isn't driving innovation anymore," says Contrast Security co-founder and CTO Jeff Williams, author of the first OWASP Top Ten, the OWASP chair from 2001 through 2011, and one of the co-signers. "Open source has changed, and OWASP needs to keep up by supporting contributors better."

Among the signatories were also two current board members, Glenn ten Cate and Mark Curphey. While Curphey says the letter is the result of mutual collaboration within the group, it also aligns very closely with a manifesto he published last year as a part of his successful bid for a seat on the 2023 board. As the founder of OWASP, Curphey hadn't been directly involved with the organization for some time, but he had always been a supporter and advocate for OWASP while he was busy being a security practitioner, security product leader, and entrepreneur in the application security space.

Curphey focused on the following three major points during his campaign for the board:

  • Change OWASP's funding model to emulate the way the Linux Foundation and its Open Software Security Foundation work with donors to support the project.

  • Install a chief product officer to lead the charge to clean up projects (and prioritize the high-impact ones) and renovate the OWASP site to make it more developer-friendly.

  • Change the culture of OWASP to eliminate red tape and add more transparency in how vendors are (or are not) involved in the OWASP mission.

The open letter echoes many of these points, while calling for a change in governance that could fuel a drastic effort in fundraising that OWASP members feel could pull in millions of dollars to hire dedicated developers and project leaders.

OWASP Then and Now

When OWASP was formed in 2001, it was a scrappy labor of love founded by application security advocates who were concerned about the mounting risk that insecure Web applications posed to the Internet. They wanted to boost awareness of the problem outside the bubble of cybersecurity insiders. And so OWASP was born to help deliver education and resources not only to security professionals, but also developers and enterprise stakeholders.

The idea was to give organizations technical guidance that could enable developers to improve their coding practices and reduce the risk of vulnerabilities in the software they deployed. This was the genesis of the OWASP Top 10, the group's vaunted list of the 10 riskiest flaws in applications. The list was first published in 2003 and has since spawned numerous updates and sub-lists. It also has fueled a host of security open source projects, commercial products, and services.

Much has changed since those early years. The awareness piece of OWASP has certainly hit its mark, and today the group has grown to support over 240 chapters and tens of thousands of members and participants around the world. It hosts a full slate of local and global events and a number of projects like the Top 10, the Software Assurance Maturity Model (SAMM), and Zed Attack Proxy (ZAP).

However, the scope of application security work to be done has broadened considerably as the world has moved way beyond Web applications and is now awash with mobile apps, IoT and embedded systems, wearables, and everything in between — all of which is driven by software.

And the development environment has radically changed, too. Modern development practices have co-opted methods like continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD), DevOps, and agile development to take over from traditional waterfall development patterns. Developers lean heavily on microservices architectures and mix-and-match open source components to build out their software.

Unfortunately, in the face of all that change, some things have also stayed the same. Many of the issues on that first OWASP Top 10 are just as problematic today and still on the list, including injection flaws, misconfigurations, and authentication failures. What's more, they have only been exacerbated by the expanded scope, the speed of development, and the tangle of software supply chain dependencies that have been added to the mix over the years.

Clamoring for Change

In the context of these factors, many OWASP insiders argue that the nonprofit has not kept up with the pace of change within the software development world. They say the foundation isn't supporting the needs of the OWASP community, especially in regard to the foundation's flagship projects, which includes over a dozen projects among OWASP's 274 other projects.

"What worked in the past simply isn’t working now and OWASP needs to change. Year after year, concerns have been raised and there have been promises of change, but year after year it hasn't happened," said the open letter to the OWASP board and the foundation's executive director. "The gap between what our projects and the community around them want, and the support that OWASP provides, continues to grow wider."

With the publication of this latest missive, the letter's co-signers say that some of OWASP's most impactful projects — ones that are relied on by many enterprises and by products enterprises use today — are left to "operate independently, in some cases managing their own sponsorships, finance, websites, domains, communication platforms, and developer tools."

The signatories are clamoring for some drastic changes in funding models and governance to get the group back to serving the needs of developers in the context of modern software delivery models. They developed an action list consists of five major points, calling the foundation and board to:

  1. Develop a community plan that prioritizes key initiatives, pointing to the OSSF plan as a reference.

  2. Change the foundation's governance structure to "better reflect the need of the entire security community."

  3. Establish an aggressive funding campaign to raise $5 million to $10 million to pay for dedicated developers, community managers, and support staff.

  4. Improve centralized infrastructure and services for the community to take the heat off the projects.

  5. Take a more centralized hand in managing the product portfolio and what goes on in local chapters.

Williams says he signed because he felt that the changes the group called for are "unfortunately necessary."

"OWASP has a glaring hole in not having a financial plan built from the bottom up based on project needs," he says. "Without that, it's impossible to fundraise effectively. Writing down an aggressive funding plan, going after some big funding increments, and taking on more aggressive projects is the only way to keep OWASP moving quickly."

Next-Step Realities

The question is whether the foundation and the OWASP community is willing and able to make some of these changes. According to Chenxi Wang, a former OWASP board member, there are many items in the proposal that are "much needed" since she believes OWASP has devolved into an organization that doesn't do much more than run events.

"But some of the other items seem to be too ambitious for OWASP, which has a volunteer board and a small operating staff. For example, the item to 'actively manage the project portfolio and chapters' would require a substantial effort going forward, which may not be something the foundation can do with today's resources," she says. "Also, the proposal about funding prioritized projects would require a change to today's model and may disenfranchise newer projects."

As she sees it, the proposal is going to require drastic changes to the funding model, the community model, and the way funds are distributed.

"To do all of this in one swoop is going to be too disruptive," Wang says. "A phased approach is the only way to make this happen."

For his part, OWASP Foundation executive director Andrew van der Stock says he also agrees with many of the points in the letter. The day after the letter was published, the proposals were presented at the foundation's monthly board meeting. He says the meeting went well, and he agrees that the board needs to set a prioritized plan anyway as a part of their fiduciary duty.

"Beyond the way it was presented, there's nothing in there that we disagree with," he says of the letter. "I think creating a plan within 30 days is definitely doable. My major concern is really around if we don't manage to achieve all of the five goals in a timeframe that the projects want us to achieve it in."

He also wonders whether the board's current bylaws and the will of the OWASP community's paying members will allow for the kind of governance and funding changes the co-signers want. For example, OWASP isn't set up the way the OSSF organization is, which currently has a board that consists of members that buy their seats through corporate membership and pay significantly to retain those seats. OWASP currently has about 7,000 financial members in addition to the 80,000 people who participate in the community through events, chapter meetings, and projects. That paying membership includes individuals who pay $50 a year, lifetime members who pay $500, and corporate sponsors who pay $5,000 and up, depending on the level of support they want to give.

"I don't think our community would support that change. It's one of those things that I think is going to be a little bit unrealistic," says van der Stock, who adds that these kinds of changes would require a change in OWASP bylaws, which are already in the last stages of being overhauled to a set of "fairly standard" nonprofit bylaws in response to a discovery about a year ago that the original bylaws were invalid according to Delaware General Corporate Law. That routine procedure alone required an extensive process that included a vote by the general membership.

Nevertheless, van der Stock says that OWASP could definitely flourish if the board can find a way to pull in more funding.

"If we could get between $5 million and $10 million a year, we could get a lot done. If we could get people to work on projects full-time, these things would appear much quicker and probably with much higher quality," he says, noting that the foundation currently only has five staffers on its roster. "I think the only friction really, and the only thing that might be contested, is the governance model. I think our community would have a lot to say about that."

This is the concern from Williams as well.

"I'm worried that OWASP won't be able to respond to the letter, given the current governance structures," he says.

But according to Curphey, the board meeting was a good start to laying out the change-makers' proposal and considering next steps.

"The board meeting was positive," he says. "There's still a long way to go, but we'll see. I did have to leave early to attend another board meeting, but when I left was very pleased with progress and desire from current board to adapt and change."

Why Should CISOs Care?

The big question for CISOs and security practitioners is whether any of this internal jockeying at OWASP really matters to them. According to Wang, the decisions and actions the foundation makes today may not necessarily directly impact CISOs right now. But it could have a long-term ripple effect that influences the kind of technology options they'll have for helping developers in the long run.

"This could result in better support of emergent technologies, which down the line could impact the way practitioners adopt these technologies," she says.

About the Author(s)

Ericka Chickowski, Contributing Writer

Ericka Chickowski specializes in coverage of information technology and business innovation. She has focused on information security for the better part of a decade and regularly writes about the security industry as a contributor to Dark Reading.

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