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Is Open Source More Secure? Understanding the Nuances

Recently in a debate, my colleague argued that Linux couldn't have malware since it's open source. I understood him, because most of the time when people speak about open source, they always mention the fact that it is secure and free to use.

Personally, when I started learning how to use Open Source Operating Systems, I started wondering and asked myself some questions: " Then how is open source secured," and "By whom?" After a period of time, I understood that any operating system or software, whether open source or proprietary, could potentially be hacked and infected with malware. Then I realized there might be some people who work to make life easy for everyone.

What we have to bear in mind is the fact that open source doesn't inherently guarantee security, but it does offer advantages if leveraged correctly.

Let's explore some key considerations around open source security:


  1. he Thousand Eyes Principle: The idea that with enough people inspecting open source code, vulnerabilities will be discovered. While sound in theory, it's challenging to scale this effort for complex projects with millions of lines of code. Not everyone using open source actively contributes or reviews the codebase.
  2. Successes and Failures: Open source has seen notable successes like the Linux operating system and the AES encryption standard. However, vulnerabilities like Log4J and supply chain attacks demonstrate that issues can slip through, even after years of public scrutiny.
  3. Embedded Secrets: A significant risk arises when developers mistakenly encode sensitive information like passwords and cryptographic keys directly into the source code, exposing it to potential abuse across numerous projects.

To mitigate these risks, organizations like the Open Source Security Foundation (OpenSSF) provide valuable resources, including guidance on secure coding practices, project management, and industry best practices for open source development.

The crux is that open source is not inherently more secure, but it offers the potential for increased security if leveraged effectively. By embracing principles like Kirchhoff's principle (no security through obscurity) and the Thousand Eyes approach, coupled with robust processes and community participation, open source can achieve a higher level of security assurance.

So, who is responsible for open source security?

Ultimately, open source security is a shared responsibility. It requires a commitment from developers like you and me, project maintainers, and the broader community to diligently review, contribute, and prioritize security throughout the software development lifecycle.
Let's continue fostering a culture of collaboration, transparency, and security-conscious practices to unlock the full potential of open source software securely.

Security is never “done” – any actions policymakers and other stakeholders take to improve OSS security should be viewed as part of a perpetual commitment to enhancing the resilience of the critically important infrastructure that OSS supports (IBM).

Top comments (2)

otacke profile image
Oliver Tacke

You might want to amemd the list of threat examples with the recent backdoor in the xz library ( which would really have meant trouble - and was only found by pure chance ... By a Microsoft employee ...

emmanuelbinen profile image

Thank you for that. This is really worth mentioning.