Thanks to several high-profile vulnerabilities and an overall increase in the number of flaws, open-source software has taken over Microsoft Corp.s position at the bottom of the security heap.
A recent research note from two analysts at the Aberdeen Group 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 of them addressed vulnerabilities in open-source or Linux products.
Seven of the advisories were related to Microsoft products.
“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.”
Microsoft officials say 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.”
The CERT 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 thanks to the larger number of people poring over the code, looking for vulnerabilities and bugs.
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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 later spread to the Slapper worm.
Microsoft, for example, issued 11 bulletins about new vulnerabilities in October alone.