by July 6, 2001 0 comments

The debate is endless–proponents of
free (open source) software and proprietary (closed source) software are fighting it out
on mailing lists, Usenet, personal flames, advertisements, and Websites. The
question–which gives better security as a generic model of software development, open
source or closed source software?

The immediate reaction (may I call it
knee-jerk) to this question is, “If it’s open for scrutiny, then it can’t
be secure, since anyone can go through the source code and find out potential
exploits.” Yes, it does look that way. At least until we try to separate the facts
from the myths.

Myth 1

Since anyone can examine
free software source code, anyone can find security holes and exploit them.

Absolutely true. Anyone can examine the
source code, look for (and perhaps find) security holes and exploit them.

By the same token, anyone could also
examine the source code, find potential holes, and report them to the author. Experience
says that the number of “good guys” examining any given source code is much more
than the number of black hats. It follows that the chances of a hole being found and fixed
far outstrip the chances of a hole being found and exploited.

For example, a number of buffer overflows
were found in various Linux programs, arising from the use of an insecure function
(strcpy). These were quickly fixed using a secure version (strncpy), before any
significant exploits of these holes could be made on the Internet. In addition, hundreds
of other software packages (which hadn’t been demonstrated to be insecure) were
examined and all strcpy’s replaced with their secure versions, much before anyone
thought of trying to exploit them.

Myth 2

Since free software
explicitly comes with no warranty, there’s no incentive for the authors to fix
security holes quickly or effectively.

At the very least, a statement like this
shows a serious lack of understanding of the free software development model. Many papers
have discussed what drives a person to make free software, and while we don’t have
the bandwidth to discuss this in detail, a couple of motivations stand out
starkly–peer recognition and creativity. Programmers write free software because
they’re innately creative people, and for many, their day jobs are unable to
channelize that creativity. Another driving factor is peer recognition, where recognition
that comes to you as an author of good software is worth its weight in gold.

Given these, it follows that free software
authors are extremely interested in ensuring that their products are kept updated and
bug-free as far and as soon as possible.

This is borne out by numerous examples. To
take just one, when the infamous “teardrop attack” was first launched in 1997,
Linux and FreeBSD fixes were available within a few hours of the attack becoming
widespread. Contrast this with proprietary operating system vendors, who took from two
weeks to forever to come out with a fix. To quote one network appliance vendor,
“There’s no fix scheduled for this. The device is more secure when used on a
secure network protected by a firewall.”

Which brings us to… Myth 3

The free software author
may not have the resources, time, or inclination to provide security fixes for her

That’s quite possible. However,
exactly the same is true of proprietary software authors. There have been many cases of
companies which write proprietary software refusing to acknowledge a security issue as
such (the “it’s-not-a-bug-it’s-a-feature” syndrome), or refusing to
act on security issues in older versions, since they’d prefer users to upgrade to the
latest versions (presumably at a hefty cost). And what do you do when the author flatly
refuses to fix the problem?

As a free software user, you don’t
have to depend on the author’s mood to get fixes for your software. You can fix it
yourself, hire a professional to do it for you, convince (or blackmail) a friend into
doing it, or send out a request onto one of the many help channels available on the Net.
Unlike proprietary software, where only the author has the resources to fix security
problems, free software has an endless number of fallback resources.

Myth 4

Keeping a security or
encryption algorithm proprietary is the only way to ensure it not being cracked.

I can’t do better than to quote Bruce
Schneier, a respected cryptography expert here: “…Security has nothing to do with
functionality. You can have two algorithms, one secure and the other insecure, and both
can work perfectly. They can encrypt and decrypt, they can be efficient and have a pretty
user interface, they can never crash. The only way to tell good cryptography from bad
cryptography is to have it examined.”

What does this mean? It means that just
because an algorithm hasn’t been broken yet doesn’t imply that it’s secure.
The only way to ensure that an algorithm is secure is by exposing it to review by a large
number of experts from various backgrounds.

Obviously this isn’t possible with
proprietary software and algorithms, since experts will want to discuss, publish papers
and present their findings about their research, which proprietary software authors
don’t permit. Open algorithms and security products, on the other hand, are designed
to be secure even when the algorithm is known to everyone. They go through massive amounts
of peer reviews and public exposure, and are only accepted by end-users when all probes
against them turn out negative. PGP, SSH, IPSec, and SSL are excellent examples of open
algorithms and products that have withstood the test of time, against the combined might
of crackers as well as benevolent reviewers.

Closed (proprietary) algorithms, however,
suffer from the “house-key-under-the-front-doormat” syndrome–you’re
absolutely safe as long as your algorithm remains unknown. Once the algorithm is revealed,
however, each and every product that relies on that algorithm is instantly vulnerable.
Only a very lucky fluke can give you a secure algorithm without public reviews. Examples abound in the world of security.
US digital cellular companies relied on proprietary crypto algorithms. On the day the
algorithms were revealed, they were cracked, and today the same companies are considering
public algorithms to replace their broken ones. Similarly, Microsoft’s PPTP (a VPN
protocol) relied heavily on proprietary encryption techniques. These were cracked because
though they used a known encryption algorithm, they surrounded it with proprietary
infrastructure, which completely negated the power of the encryption algorithm. There were
multiple rounds of escalation of this problem, with MS fixing problems and cracker
organizations finding out further problems in the fixes, which could’ve been avoided
if MS had chosen a known algorithm and infrastructure in the first place.

In conclusion, then, we see that
there’s really no reasonable way of implementing security except by peer review and
public scrutiny. There have been many instances where the free software and open
development model has scored over the proprietary, closed development model where security
issues are concerned, and more turn up each day.

In the short as well as the long run, open
software and algorithms will score over their closed cousins in providing trusted and
tested secure systems, despite many proprietary software authors’ claims to the

Raj Mathur

is manager, technical marketing at SGI India

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