Thanks to several high-profile vulnerabilities and an overall increase in the number of flaws this year, open-source software has taken over Microsoft Corp.s position at the bottom of the security heap.
A research note from two analysts at Aberdeen Group Inc. issued last month calls open-source software and Linux distributions the "2002 poster children for security problems." Of the 29 advisories issued through October by the CERT Coordination Center at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, 16 have addressed vulnerabilities in open-source or Linux products.
Seven of the advisories are related to Microsoft products, the Boston-based research company reports.
"Open-source software is now the major source of elevated security vulnerabilities for IT buyers," the Aberdeen report says. "The poster child for security glitches is no longer Microsoft; this label now belongs to open-source and Linux software suppliers."
This data seems to contradict the commonly held belief that open-source software is more secure than proprietary products. Advocates of the open-source process often claim that their products are more secure due to the larger number of people poring over the code, looking for vulnerabilities and bugs.
However, many security experts find fault with that argument. The fact is, they say, neither one is inherently more secure than the other; it all comes down to the skill with which the code is written and audited.
"Unless theres a great deal of discipline underlying the development, theres no difference in the security. Open source is not inherently more secure," said Peter Neumann, principal scientist at SRI International, in Menlo Park, Calif., and a security and networking expert. "If everyone has the same bad skills, all the eyeballs in the world wont help you. Unless theres discipline, you still come up with garbage."
However, the CERT statistics dont necessarily tell the whole story. CERT does not issue an advisory for every new vulnerability. It tends only to focus on the high-risk issues that are likely to affect a broad base of users, such as the flaw in OpenSSL, which was later used to spread the Slapper worm.
Microsoft officials said the report highlights how far the industry as a whole has to go in addressing the security of its products.
"This demonstrates that as an industry we have a lot of work to do in security," said Mike Nash, vice president of the Security Business Unit at Microsoft, in Redmond, Wash. "Microsoft has come a long way in the past 12 months, but the most important thing to realize is that this is very much an industry issue. Our goal is to make sure the number of vulnerabilities found outside of Microsoft is as low as possible. But theres also the issue of how quickly we respond to issues once theyre found, and I think weve done a good job at that."