Does open source software enhance security?

Yes, but not for the reasons many think

Analysis There are several reasons why open-source software provides for superior computer and network security, but the computing public seems confused about why this is so.

Many attribute the security advantage to the very fact of openness. It's long been popular to cite the "many eyes" theory, which holds that flaws are discovered and fixed because selfless programmers spend countless hours carefully combing through the source code and alerting the development teams. In this way, we're told, the mere fact that source code is available leads to enhanced security.

Wishful thinking

Actually, the people most likely to spend hour after hour reviewing source code are blackhats looking for a novel exploit. Code review is hardly the only way to attack, but it is obviously more difficult with closed-source software. Some attacks against closed-source systems have been discovered through reverse engineering, a tedious and not entirely dependable process; but reversing is difficult, and only a minority of attackers are capable of it. Having the source code at one's disposal is a convenience.

Security through obscurity can work to a point because fewer attackers are capable of reversing a closed product profitably. Of course, once the obscurity is lost, the code becomes a target for a larger number of attackers. And because it is meant to be closed, it may possess more bugs and security holes than code that's meant to be examined freely.

Due diligence

There are advantages to openness, though not the one most often cited. Open source developers have got to be more careful and security-conscious than their closed-source counterparts. This encourages a better product overall.

There is a corresponding disadvantage in closed-source software: obscurity may inconvenience blackhats a bit and help limit the number of potential attackers, but it works only so long as obscurity is maintained. Secrecy can be useful, but it is a fragile defense. Once the code is released, the software becomes an easier target than it once had been; but because it was developed with the assumption that it would not be released, it is likely to be sloppier and easier to exploit than code developed with the assumption that world+dog will be welcome to review it. Closed-source products aren't necessarily inferior; but, human nature being what it is, they often turn out inferior. Few people are as diligent as possible when they can easily conceal their shortcuts and mistakes.

Another security advantage in openness is the fact that end users can place more confidence in their applications, utilities and clients when the source code is available for review by anyone who wishes to examine it. It is simply impossible to conceal spyware, adware and secret phone-home capabilities in products that can be examined freely.

So there are indeed a couple of security virtues in openness itself: knowing that the source has got to be made public encourages good work habits among developers, and malware functions can't be concealed. And yes, the code can be reviewed and bugs discovered before exploits are developed, though this is chiefly a matter of wishful thinking. The blackhats are likely to be well ahead of the whitehats when it comes to security-oriented code review.

One word: modular
It's beyond dispute that open source systems are potentially more secure than Windows, but the most important advantages don't come from openness per se. They come instead from the coincidence that open source systems, like Linux and BSD, are modeled on UNIX, which is designed in a more modular fashion than Windows. Such systems are more transparent to the user or administrator, and have far fewer interdependencies - two factors that are exceptionally good for security.

The deep integration and multiple interdependencies among Windows components is a major security challenge in itself. It is deep integration that makes the scores of exploits against the Internet Explorer browser so serious and difficult to fix, for example.

When a Windows component or application is broken, it is often because Windows itself is broken. Fixing a flaw affecting one component can reveal related flaws in numerous others. And sometimes, other components will have developed with dependencies on the actual bug, so that by fixing Windows, you may well break several applications that depend on code that was never right to begin with. This is what makes Windows patch development so difficult and time consuming.

On the other hand, the more modular architecture of UNIX and its open source cousins enables developers to fix a major component without needing to re-work the kernel, or re-work other system components dependent on flawed code buried in the guts of the operating system. This is why bugs in open source components, such as the Apache Web server or the Mozilla browser, can be fixed in a matter of days, while corresponding Windows components, like the IIS Web server or Internet Explorer, might take weeks or even months to sort out.

Services

Another advantage of having fewer system interdependencies is the ability to simplify and harden a system by disabling unnecessary services and networking components. For example, Microsoft has made Windows dependent on RPC (Remote Procedure Call), a service that enables one machine to execute code on another. It cannot be disabled, though it should not be enabled unless it's needed, especially on an Internet-connected machine. On UNIX-style systems, RPC can be disabled without penalty. Other examples that come to mind are Terminal Services, which is unnecessary and potentially insecure on many machines, but upon which a handy service called Fast User Switching depends; and Client for Microsoft Networks, on which a nice, third party security application, PGP (Pretty Good Privacy), depends.

There are about fifteen other questionable Windows networking services that, while not necessary for other essential components to function, are enabled by default (e.g., DCOM, which enabled the Blaster worm to spread recently). On the other hand, I can think of no potentially insecure daemon that can't be disabled on a *nix system, or a networking feature that can't be safely uninstalled. And most Linux distros enable very few such daemons by default (though The Register did find recently that the new Xandros Desktop went a bit over the top in that department).

Isolation

Windows XP is the first multiuser Windows system intended for home use. Unfortunately, it can easily be set up as a single-user system, with the owner running as root (or the administrator in Redmond parlance). I would imagine that most XP systems not set up by a professional admin or a power user are running from the admin account by default, because most users are unaware of the security benefits of isolating, or sandboxing, users. The chief benefit is that malware run from a user account will have fewer privileges, and therefore less impact, on the system overall.

Microsoft has stuffed up the multiuser environment even further by enabling powerful code like ActiveX controls to access the guts of the system when run from a user account, undermining the inherent security of the user sandbox.

And because Windows administration is so GUI-dependent, it is often necessary to log in to the admin account to get anything accomplished, which again encourages home users to work from it by default. UNIX-like systems can be administered easily from a user account, either by logging in to a shell as root, or by using a GUI admin interface such as SuSE's YaST or Mandrake's DrakX and logging in as root.

Transparency

UNIX-like systems are transparent to users and administrators. It's easy to see what processes are running, and to understand the dependencies among them. A Windows system often has scores of processes running, and it is often difficult to determine what effect killing one will have on another. Windows also stashes data in numerous obscure locations, such as the Registry, making data hygiene difficult to practice. It has numerous databases like those maintained by the Indexing Service, the famous index.dat files, and the Registry. Configuration files are difficult to locate, often unreadable, and options must be chosen with proprietary tools like Regedit and GUI interfaces. UNIX-like systems, on the other hand, use simple text configuration files that are easy to locate, and that can be edited, and even write protected, easily.

Overall, the UNIX family of systems are designed to be immensely easier to monitor, to simplify, and to administer for security. They feature fewer interdependencies, more transparency, and better isolation of users.

So, while openness provides a couple of security advantages in itself, the chief reason why Linux and BSD offer superior security is not so much because they're open source, but because they're not Windows. ®

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