Half of Apps Have High-Risk Vulnerabilities Due to Open Source

Open source software dependencies are affecting the software security of different industries in different ways, with mature industries becoming more selective in their open source usage.

4 Min Read
Abstract demonstrating open source security software
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The proportion of open source codebases with vulnerabilities has continued to remain level over the past two years, but the number of applications with high-risk vulnerabilities has dropped to its lowest level in four years.

That's according to the "2023 Open Source Security and Risk Analysis" (OSSRA) report, published by Synopsys on Feb. 22. The annual study, based on audits of more than 1,700 applications, found that almost every software program (96%) included some kind of open source software component, with the average codebase consisting of 76% open source code. While the number of codebases with at least one vulnerability remained mostly stable over the past three years at slightly more than 80% — 84% in 2022 — the number of applications with high-risk vulnerabilities has dropped to about half (48%) of all applications tested, from a peak of about 60% in 2020.

Overall, the data shows some bright spots in the struggle against vulnerable dependencies, of which the average application has 595, but there's no broad trend toward greater application security, says Mike McGuire, a senior software solutions manager at Synopsys Software Integrity Group.

"Organizations are struggling to keep up with the scale of open source usage," he says. "If you take those almost 600 components per application on average, and multiply that by the number of vulnerabilities that are disclosed on an annual basis, then you can really, really start to drown in the work."

Chart of open-source usage and vulnerabilities.

Open source components, and the dependencies on which popular application frameworks rely, continue to pose security problems for software makers and application developers. The ubiquity of some components — such as Log4j in the Java ecosystem — continues to cause security issues for many applications based on open source frameworks.

Outdated Dependencies Are Common

Applications that include a lot of components — and by extension, those components' dependencies — can have deep dependency trees that make it hard to find every vulnerability. Nearly all applications (91%), for example, included at least one open source component that has no development in the past two years, a likely sign that the project is no longer being maintained and, therefore, represents a security risk.

Nearly one in eight applications also had more than 10 different versions of a specific codebase, with each likely imported from a different component and that component's dependencies.

Failing to eliminate those older codebases represents a risk, Synopsys stated in the OSSRA report.

"Open source was in nearly everything we examined this year; it made up the majority of the codebases across industries, and it contained troublingly high numbers of known vulnerabilities that organizations had failed to patch, leaving them vulnerable to exploit," the report stated. "It is crucial to understand that while open source itself does not pose any inherent level of risk, failing to manage it does."

Whether more dependencies means more vulnerabilities is still a relationship under investigation. JavaScript frameworks, for example, tend to have the greatest number of dependencies, but JavaScript applications tend to be less vulnerable than Java and .NET applications, according to a report released by software-security firm Veracode in January.

Don't Fall Behind With Open Source Dependencies

The impact of open source code on security varies by industry, according to the OSSRA report. Some industries have increased their open source usage, while others have consolidated their portfolio. Depending on their level of maturity, the impact on security can be different.

Education technology companies, for example, have adopted open source components to drive new features and applications required by schools during the push for online teaching during the pandemic. In that industry, open source software accounted for more than 80% of codebases in 2022, up from about a third in 2018. Other sectors also saw dramatic, if not so stark, increases in usage. The aerospace, aviation, automotive, transportation, and logistics sector, for example, also nearly doubled its usage of open source components over five years.

The significant increase in adoption has led to many companies losing visibility into what is making up their software and what needs patching, McGuire says.

"More organizations are using more open source components, but they just don't have the programs in place to track those [patches] down," he says. "Once you get underwater with those updates — it's just like any other technical debt or debt in general, right? — it's really tough to claw your way back."

Other industries have reduced their usage of open source software, likely by consolidating on fewer projects as dependencies, according to the report. Both the Internet and software infrastructure sector, and the telecommunications and wireless sector, have reduced the contribution of open source software to their codebases to under 60%. Both industries also saw fewer high-severity vulnerabilities.

About the Author(s)

Robert Lemos, Contributing Writer

Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET News.com, Dark Reading, MIT's Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline Journalism (Online) in 2003 for coverage of the Blaster worm. Crunches numbers on various trends using Python and R. Recent reports include analyses of the shortage in cybersecurity workers and annual vulnerability trends.

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