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Digging deeper into the GitHub security alerts numbers

Within a month of the GitHub security alerts’ launch in November 2017, the security scan turned up over 4 million bugs in over 500,000 repositories. Let’s dig deeper into the GitHub security alerts numbers.

Digging deeper into the GitHub security alerts numbers

Within a month of the GitHub security alerts’ launch in November 2017, when GitHub began scanning for known vulnerabilities in popular open source libraries and notifying project owners that they should be using an updated version, the security scan for old vulnerabilities in JavaScript and Ruby libraries has turned up over four million bugs in over 500,000 repositories.

“By December 1st, over 450,000 identified vulnerabilities were resolved by repository owners either removing the dependency or changing to a secure version,” GitHub recently wrote on its blog.

In general, we support initiatives like this as they help open source project teams produce more secure code. In some ways, the GitHub security alerts capability is similar to Black Duck CoPilot, our free offering for open source project teams. CoPilot takes a similar approach to GitHub in the identification of vulnerabilities, but it supports a wider array of languages and package managers. And while the GitHub security alerts are similar to what Black Duck Hub provides to its users, the full Hub solution provides broader support and deeper insight.

Where did they get 4,000,000 vulnerabilities?

The GitHub numbers are interesting; specifically the numbers 450,000 resolved vulnerabilities out of 4,000,000 discovered. We know that the National Vulnerability Database (NVD) doesn’t contain anywhere near that many disclosures, so how are they arriving at that number? GitHub is likely taking the number of vulnerabilities and applying it to all the forks and versions within GitHub using that code. That makes their metric an interesting one, as I said, but masks the real problem — knowing which code has been patched in which fork. Consumers of open source projects may themselves create a fork, and that fork could very easily be outside of GitHub’s visibility.

Given that the ‘git’ model used by GitHub lacks any easy way of knowing if there are significant patches upstream to the point of the fork, consumers have no real method to know when a patch has been applied. Put another way, the best a user can do in ‘git’ is to proactively compare two branches and determine the differences in code. This implies the user is actively involved in the project, and also is sufficiently skilled to assess the potential impact of merging the security changes into their development branch.

Are all these repositories in active use?

I would also point out that the phrase ‘the majority belong to repositories that have not had a contribution in the last 90 days’ in the blog post really translates into ‘the majority belong to a code fork that may not be actively maintained for the past 90 days, but that we have no way of knowing if it’s in active use.’ There’s a reasonable chance many were forks that now live in a binary repo someplace.

In other words, while GitHub has provided alerts on a select number of projects, and are clearly working to improve security awareness within their substantial user base, in order to consume these alerts one needs to be part of the GitHub ecosystem.

As part of governance policies, enterprises cache ‘known good’ versions of components they depend upon in local repositories. This is done in part to ensure functional and API compatibility, but also acts as a protection from the external repository being removed for any reason. Hub leverages package manager information when present, but was designed with an understanding that package managers often do not have a complete view of the open source in use and by extension the associated dependencies. This allows Synopsys to have a full view of when to alert on security issues independent of language, package manager, repository, build process, component version and component origin.

Any effort to secure code is a good one.

I don’t want to detract from the GitHub security alerts effort. As I said, any effort that helps developer teams produce more secure code is a good effort. But it’s also important to understand that while the 4,000,000 / 500,000 / 450,000 numbers make impressive media stories, GitHub security alerts aren’t a magic bullet that miraculously cures open source security management.

For instance, these challenges still remain:

  • The security alerts capability is solely for users of GitHub source code repositories. While public repos get it automatically, private must opt in.
  • It’s only for JavaScript and Ruby projects.
  • It requires a package manager such as RubyGems for Ruby or npm for JavaScript.
  • It’s limited to CVEs that are reported in NVD.

While GitHub security alerts are similar to what Hub provides to its users, the Synopsys solution provides broader support and deeper insight, including:

  • Black Duck Hub supports any source repository that a team may want to use.
  • Black Duck Hub supports all popular programming languages, including Java, C, C++, C#, Ruby, Python, Go, PHP, and many others.
  • Black Duck Hub multi-factor detection combines information from the package manager (if one is used) with file system scanning. This improves accuracy and supports languages (like C and C++) that don’t leverage package managers.
  • Black Duck augments NVD data with independently researched vulnerability reports. This provides earlier notification (often three weeks earlier) and more robust risk analysis and remediation guidance than NVD.

Synopsys solutions are designed to help consumers of open source technologies better manage their processes, and we have a suite of services tailored to your role:

  • For the upstream project owner or developer, we have Black Duck CoPilot. CoPilot is completely free for any public project on GitHub and uses the core Black Duck Hub analysis engine
  • For the community manager and those looking for deeper stats on an open source project, we have Black Duck Open Hub. Open Hub is also completely free and provides an indication of any license obligations you need to be aware of when consuming the project, how active the project is, and information on their security posture.
  • For an enterprise or organization using open source components to develop applications, we have Black Duck Hub. Hub is commercial software that identifies the open source components used in an application, the license obligations present, unpatched security vulnerabilities, and the origin of components.
  • For an enterprise or organization that is using Docker containers to deliver services, we have Black Duck OpsSight. OpsSight is commercial software that identifies security risks present in container images deployed in an OpenShift or Kubernetes environment – regardless of container registry. It was designed to quickly identify any container images impacted by a security disclosure, and map that to any impacted running containers.

Find vulnerable open source dependencies in your GitHub Projects.

Try CoPilot. It’s free.

Tim Mackey

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Tim Mackey

Tim Mackey

Tim Mackey is the Head of Software Supply Chain Risk Strategy within the Synopsys Software Integrity Group. He joined Synopsys as part of the Black Duck Software acquisition where he worked to bring integrated security scanning technology to Red Hat OpenShift and the Kubernetes container orchestration platforms. In this role, Tim applies his skills in distributed systems engineering, mission critical engineering, performance monitoring, large-scale data center operations, and global data privacy regulations to customer problems. He takes the lessons learned from those activities and delivers talks globally at well-known events such as RSA, Black Hat, Open Source Summit, KubeCon, OSCON, DevSecCon, DevOpsCon, Red Hat Summit, and Interop. Tim is also an O'Reilly Media published author and has been covered in publications around the globe including USA Today, Fortune, NBC News, CNN, Forbes, Dark Reading, TEISS, InfoSecurity Magazine, and The Straits Times Follow Tim at @TimInTech on Twitter and at mackeytim on LinkedIn.

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