Why Open-Source Software Security Should Be Your Top Priority

This image lists the four components of the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Secure Software Development Framework, also known as the SSDF. The four components are: 1) Prepare the organization; 2) Protect the software; 3) Produce well-secured software; and 4) Respond to vulnerabilities.

Open-source software (OSS) is at the heart of innovative technologies and some of the most impressive AI successes being implemented today. It’s also the target of threat actors who seek to leverage the inherent risk of open source. The White House and the National Institute of Standards and Technologies (NIST) have issued guidance for organizations using Python and OSS, and now is the time to prepare for security challenges, especially if your organization is operating in the United States.

This article is a primer on these challenges, with recommendations for organizations.

Timeline: The Liability Burden Shifts, and Breaches Are Expensive

In May 2021, the White House issued Executive Order 14028, which kickstarted numerous cybersecurity improvement initiatives. In February 2022, as directed by this Executive Order, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) published NIST Software Supply Chain Security Guidance and the NIST Secure Software Development Framework (SSDF). The framework is comprised of four main categories:

This image lists the four components of the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Secure Software Development Framework, also known as the SSDF. The four components are: 1) Prepare the organization; 2) Protect the software; 3) Produce well-secured software; and 4) Respond to vulnerabilities.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology released a framework comprised of four recommendations for secure software development.
  1. Prepare the organization: Ensure readiness for secure software development at the organizational level.
  2. Protect the software: Safeguard all software components against tampering and unauthorized access.
  3. Produce well-secured software: Utilize people, processes, and tools to create secure software with minimal vulnerabilities.
  4. Respond to vulnerabilities: Identify and address remaining vulnerabilities in software releases, establishing processes for timely response and prevention.

Traditionally, organizations have taken reactive measures for software security. However, the NIST SSDF emphasizes the need for proactive efforts, especially when it comes to open-source software. The complexity of open source, including dependency relationships and varying security practices, poses challenges.

In September 2022, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget introduced memorandum M-22-18, which formalized the NIST framework as mandatory for secure software development in federal government agencies and their software vendors. According to M-22-18, organizations selling software to the U.S. government must self-attest compliance with the NIST guidelines by June 2023 for critical software and September 2023 for all other software.

In March 2023, the White House published the National Cybersecurity Strategy, emphasizing the need for a collective defense and improving the security of the digital ecosystem, which includes open-source software. The strategy, which highlights the importance of adopting the NIST Cybersecurity Framework across sectors to improve cybersecurity practices and resilience, assigns responsibility for insecure software to manufacturers and software publishers rather than consumers or open-source developers:

We must begin to shift liability onto those entities that fail to take reasonable precautions to secure their software while recognizing that even the most advanced software security programs cannot prevent all vulnerabilities.” 

-National Cybersecurity Strategy

The specific legislative details regarding the implementation of the National Cybersecurity Strategy by the administration and Congress are still evolving. However, it is important for all software teams, especially those handling sensitive consumer or business data in sectors like financial services or healthcare, to be mindful of previous cases such as the $700-million fine imposed on Equifax by the Federal Trade Commission due to a vulnerability in the Apache Struts open-source project, resulting in the exposure of millions of sensitive consumer records.

This image is a timeline, titled "The Burden of Liability Shifts to Software Manufacturers and Publishers." It has seven events shown: 1) July 2019: Equifax agreed to pay up to $700 million as part of a global settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over a Sept. 2017 Equifax security breach;
2) September 2019: SolarWinds security breach; 3) May 2021: U.S. White House Executive Order 14028 kickstarts numerous cybersecurity improvement initiatives; 4) February 2022:  National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) publishes NIST Software Supply Chain Security Guidance and the NIST Secure Software Development Framework (SSDF); 5) September 2022: U.S. Office of Management and Budget introduces memorandum M-22-18, which formalizes the NIST framework as mandatory for secure software development in federal government agencies and their software vendors; 6) January 2023: CircleCI security breach; and 7) March 2023: White House publishes the National Cybersecurity Strategy, emphasizing the need to improve open-source software security through the implementation of NIST SSDF guidelines. The strategy assigns responsibility for insecure software to manufacturers and software publishers.
There have been many high-profile cybersecurity breaches for companies operating in the United States. The executive branch of the U.S. government has issued guidance and frameworks to assist organizations in strengthening their cybersecurity protections.

Challenge 1: Threat actors target open sources, and open-source security solutions cannot protect your organization.

Open-source software offers numerous benefits, including flexibility, cost-effectiveness, and rapid innovation. However, it also carries inherent vulnerabilities. Organizations that work with sensitive data or in highly regulated industries may expose themselves to potential risks when using platforms like PyPI or conda-forge, and these responsible open-source software maintainers have cautioned makers that these packages are not for business use.

These platforms host various packages from myriad sources. While many open-source communities have processes in place to review and vet code, not all packages undergo the same level of rigorous security checks. This could lead to the inadvertent introduction of insecure or malicious code into your systems in the form of typosquatting, malware, dependency confusion, and/or author impersonation. Additionally, the open nature of these platforms makes them attractive targets for threat actors who may attempt to compromise popular packages or distribute malicious ones.

Recommendation:

Review all vendors in your open-source software supply chain, and note all vendors who provide you with software or services related to security. Look for opportunities to centralize package and environment management with one platform, which will help ensure your organization’s open-source software users are selecting packages from a central location that meets your organization’s security requirements.

Scanning for common vulnerabilities and exposures (CVEs) is important. But you must go further than that—with CVE curation by experts—to ensure secure open-source packages and environments. You’ll also want tokenized access to software packages, centralized and managed by your IT administrators, for more robust security.

Challenge 2: Policy controls are a necessity, and they are only your first line of defense.

Policy controls and enforcement are not just an option—they are a necessity. In an era where data breaches are increasingly common and costly, robust security policies and controls are your first line of defense against cyber threats. They help prevent unauthorized access, detect anomalies, and respond to incidents.

However, the open-source nature of platforms like PyPI or conda-forge can make implementing and maintaining these measures complex and resource intensive. This often involves assembling multiple bespoke solutions to scan, control artifacts, and build policies.

Recommendation:

Evaluate your organization’s OSS supply chain governance and compliance, and check with vendors to see if they have a policy engine to assist your security efforts across the organization. Further, see if they can help you set up custom policies for different teams so you can limit access to deployment or production environments to only those who require it.

Challenge 3: The burden of liability is shifting to software manufacturers and publishers.

Navigating the complexities of compliance with government regulations is a daunting task. The 2023 National Cybersecurity Strategy and Executive Order 14028 emphasize the shared responsibility of all stakeholders in securing the digital ecosystem. These regulations lay out specific requirements for organizations, including conducting risk assessments, implementing security measures, and reporting incidents. Non-compliance can lead to penalties and reputational damage.

Achieving and maintaining compliance in the face of these complex regulations and the ever-evolving cybersecurity landscape can be overwhelming. This is where having a trusted partner becomes invaluable.

Recommendation: 

Choose your open-source vendors carefully. Consult buyer’s guides, third-party and user reviews, and other resources to determine if the promises vendors make are evident in their solutions. Consider vendors’ years of experience, the quality of their teams, and their support options in addition to their products. You will want all partners to be as committed to security as your organization, as your team will bear the liability responsibility.

Anaconda Can Help Secure Your OSS Supply Chain

It is important for you to take proactive steps to secure software across your organization. Anaconda’s solutions align with these national strategies and the fundamental principles of the NIST framework by providing tools and features that help enforce crucial policies and controls, ensuring your open-source software ecosystem is secure and compliant right from the start. While we recognize that no system can be completely impervious to threats, our products are meticulously designed to provide unparalleled security, safeguarding your data and systems in an increasingly interconnected digital landscape.

With Anaconda, we’ve done the hard work for you. When you download from Anaconda, you’re downloading something we’ve built and secured from the ground up. We provide tools and features that help enforce crucial policies and controls, ensuring your open-source software ecosystem is secure and compliant from the beginning. We created our platform so you can focus on what you do best, knowing your open-source supply chain is in safe hands.

Here’s how Anaconda can help you navigate the evolving landscape of cybersecurity responsibilities:

  1. Centralized Repository: Streamline your open-source software management with our centralized repository, enhancing visibility and control over your software ecosystem.
  1. Trusted Source: Rely on Anaconda’s Conda Signature Verification for the highest level of authenticity and integrity of your packages. This feature allows you to install or update packages with confidence, knowing they originate from verified sources and remain untampered with during transit. Trust Anaconda to secure your package distribution system and provide you with crucial information about potential compromises.
  1. Tokenized Access: Safeguard against unauthorized access and prevent compromises of package source code or distribution process with our tokenized access.
  1. Policy Enforcement: Enforce stringent security measures in your open-source package environments with Anaconda, significantly reducing vulnerabilities and potential legal risks. Our unique CVE curation service provides a comprehensive, accurate, and curated database of CVEs, enabling informed decisions about the packages you use and ensuring alignment with your organization’s security policies.
  1. Software Bill of Materials (SBOM): Equip your organization with Anaconda’s SBOMs, offering a comprehensive view of your software supply chain. Our SBOMs, built in accordance with Software Package Data Exchange (SPDX) specifications, provide visibility into software components, facilitating awareness of potential risk factors and enabling quicker response times should issues arise.
  1. NIST-SSDF Compliance: Anaconda is actively committed to achieving and maintaining compliance with the NIST Secure Software Development Framework (SSDF), ensuring that we meet the requirements of our customers and contribute to a robust and secure software development process.

When you choose Anaconda, you get the capabilities to build secure Python solutions faster—and you’re investing in the future of your organization’s security. With Anaconda in place as your enterprise platform, you are demonstrating your commitment to taking reasonable precautions to secure your software.

To learn more about how Anaconda can help you build secure Python solutions faster, book a free security consultation or schedule a demo today.

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