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The alexis tocqueville institute

Finally, beyond looking for software vulnerabilities, lots of evil eyes with widespread access to source code will build on that code to create even more sinister tools. Consider this: A majority of computer attack tools are developed on open source operating systems, especially Linux and OpenBSD. Because they have the source code to the operating system itself, attackers love to bend the operating system to implement their attacks, with far less work than is required in a closed source solution. The flexibility inherent in open source solutions can be easily hijacked. From creating bizarrely mangled packets to designing difficult-to-detect backdoors, an open source operating system sure helps attackers.

Compounding this problem, there is no obvious clearinghouse for vulnerability and patch information in the open source world. Sure, a single company can fix a problem it finds, but who is going to check that solution and distribute it to the entire user base? As shown in Exhibit 97.2, we see a variety of researchers, software firms, consultants, hobbyists, and even riff-raff finding flaws and sometimes releasing patches. These patches may work, or they may cause even bigger problems. Someone could even release a patch, duping users into applying a “fix” that really opens their systems up to attack. Sure, there is usually some core team of developers or foundation standing behind an open source product, but they are often slower to react to

Open Source Vulnerabilities
and Patches

Software Firms Core Approved


Open Source

Consultants Patch

EXHIBIT 97.2 Open source versus closed source patch distribution.

© 2004 by CRC Press LLC

It is indisputable that some closed source software has leaked, including Cisco’s core operating system, IOS, and Microsoft Windows. However, despite this fact, we have not seen attackers use this code to create a bunch of new attacks against these platforms. Why? Likely, this abuse has not been seen because these events are so rare, and even when they do occur, the software changes rapidly enough to limit any damage due to exposure of older source code.

Although there have been high-profile cases of source code theft, they are extremely rare. Nearly every script kiddie hacker on the planet, as well as certain highly motivated skilled attackers, has taken a crack at stealing the Windows source. With a product as valuable as the Windows source code to have only been stolen once, and then to have never been released, it appears that the protections used by Microsoft in limiting access to the source code are, for the most part, effective. Certainly, after the October 2001 pilfering, Microsoft beefed up security even more to prevent further problems with the source code leaking out.

In May 2002, the Alexis de Tocqueville Institute, a prestigious Washington, D.C., think tank, released a study on the security issues associated with open source software. This study was certainly a thought-provoking challenge to the assumptions of open source supporters. However, it must be noted that a certain closed source software company provides funding for the Institute.** This company, which publicly verified its

*White paper available at ** “Did MS Pay for Open Source Scare?” Michelle Delio, Wired News, June 5, 2002, linux/0,1411,52973,00.html.

Some claim that even Microsoft is being dragged to the open source party, as evidenced by its release of a million lines of code for .NET. However, this argument is a red herring, as the release of the .NET source code has nothing at all to do with security. Microsoft is releasing .NET code to woo software developers to adopt Microsoft’s framework for developing Web applications. The released source code neither improves nor hurts security in any way.

Too Much Custom Tailoring Can Be Dangerous

Economics Matter to Security

Thou source of all my bliss, and all my woe,

Now, consider the most common closed source economic model of centralized software development by commercial companies. Experienced, professional programmers work at these commercial software companies, devising patches for software for millions of users. These programmers realize economies of scale in devising security solutions for a wider base of users. Instead of having open source developers around the planet time-sliced, working on security, a smaller centralized group of programmers focused on security could do a better job more cost effectively in the grand scheme of things. By considering the entire universe of software development, the closed source model of patch development and distribution could be more cost effective overall, freeing up funds industrywide to spend on improving security.

Looking at the open source economic model even more closely, there is often little direct financial motivation or legal teeth to getting an open source developer to move in creating a fix for a problem. Suppose a malicious hacker discovers and widely publicizes a vulnerability, but due to your configuration and mix of features, it impacts only your organization and a handful of others. Motivating the open source community to fix it could be difficult, and hiring your own software development firm to address the issue is onerous. Your business is business, not writing software or hiring software development firms. With commercial closed source software, you can rely on and even push a vendor to release fixes. Unlike the typical open source world, if the commercial vendor is hesitant, you can threaten to stop using the products or even send nasty letters from your lawyers explaining how the vendor is increasing your risk. The vendor may be liable for negligence in not addressing your issue. With commercial closed source solutions, you have recourse to get action from the vendor, which you often do not have in the open source space.

So, where does my opinion fall in this high-stakes computer poker game, where powerful forces on either side vie for supremacy? On the one hand, we have the caricature of the entrenched, rich, and often imperial

*Wired interview, September 2002.

The constant demand for novelty means that software is always in the bleeding-edge phase, when products are inherently less reliable.

— Charles C. Mann*

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the alexis tocqueville institute
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