Librarians like our acronyms, but we’re not the only profession to indulge in linguistic gymnastics. The technology field is awash in acronyms: HTTP, AWS, UI, LAN, I/O, etc. etc. etc. One acronym you might know from working in libraries, though, is OSS – Open Source Software.
Library technology is no stranger to OSS. The archived FOSS4LIB site lists hundreds of free and open source library applications and systems ranging from integrated library systems and content management systems to metadata editing tools and catalogs. Many libraries use OSS not specific to libraries – a typical example is installing Firefox and Libre Office on public computers. Linux and its multitude of distributions ensure that many library servers and computers run smoothly.
It’s inevitable, though, that when we talk about OSS, we run into another acronym – FUD, or Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. FUD is commonly used to create a negative picture of the target in question, usually at the gain of the person making the FUD. In the technology world, OSS often is depicted by proprietary software companies as being inferior to proprietary software – the Microsoft section in the FUD Wikipedia page gives several good examples of such FUD pieces.
It should be no surprise that FUD exists in the library world as well. One example comes from a proprietary software company specializing in library management systems (LMS). We’ll link to an archived version of the page if the page is taken down soon after this post is published; if nothing else, companies do not like being called out on their marketing FUD. The article poses as an article talking about the disadvantages of an LMS. In particular the company claims that OS LMSes are not secure: they can be easily breached or infected by a computer virus, or you can even lose all your data! The only solution to addressing all these disadvantages is to have the proprietary software company handle all of these disadvantages for you!
The article is a classic example of OSS FUD – the use of tactics to sow fear, hesitation, or doubt without providing a reasoned and well-supported argument about the claims made in the article. However, this is probably not the first time you ran into the idea that OSS is insecure. A talking point about OSS insecurity is OSS security bugs stay unaddressed in the software for years. For example, the Heatbleed bug that caused so much havoc in 2014 was introduced into the OpenSSL code in 2012, resulting in a two-year gap where bad actors could exploit the vulnerability. You’ve also probably run into various versions of the thinking around OSS security that Bruce Schneier describes below:
“Open source does sound like a security risk. Why would you want the bad guys to be able to look at the source code? They’ll figure out how it works. They’ll find flaws. They’ll — in extreme cases — sneak back-doors into the code when no one is looking.”
OSS is open for all to use, but it’s also available for all to exploit if you go down the path described in the above line of thinking.
The good news is that, despite the FUD, OSS is not more insecure than its proprietary counterparts. However, we also must be weary of the unchecked optimism in statements claiming that OSS is more secure than proprietary software. The reality is that OS and proprietary software are subject to many of the same information security risks mixed with the unique risks that come with each type of software. It’s not uncommon for a small OSS project to become dormant or abandoned, leaving the software vulnerable due to a lack of updates. Conversely, a business developing proprietary software might not prioritize security tests and fixes in its work, leaving their customers vulnerable if someone exploits a security bug. While there are differences between the two examples, both share the risk of threat actors exploiting unaddressed security bugs in the software.
OSS, therefore, should be assessed and audited like its proprietary counterparts for security (and privacy!) practices and risks. The nature of OSS requires some adjustment to the audit process to consider the differences between the two types of software. A security audit for OSS would, for example, take into account the health of the project: maintenance and update schedules, how active the community is, what previous security issues have been reported and fixed in the past, and so on. Looking at the dependencies of the OSS might uncover possible security risks if a dependency is from an OSS project that is no longer maintained. Addressing any security issues that might arise from an audit could take the form of working on and submitting a bug fix to the OSS project or finding a company that specializes in supporting OSS users that can address the issue. As we wrap up Cybersecurity Awareness Month in the runup to Halloween, let’s get our scares from scary movies and books and not from OSS FUD.