Open Source Software Security Implications and the Emperor's New Clothes

Jeff Phillips, Code Siren, LLC

3 January 2024 - Industry


Open-source software has become ubiquitous in the digital world, lauded for its transparency, flexibility, and cost-effectiveness. Nevertheless, like any powerful tool, it demands responsible use and a clear understanding of potential risks. Security is one risk lurking beneath the surface, like the invisibility of the Emperor's new clothes.

The Emperor's Blind Spots

In the famous fairy tale "The Emperor's New Clothes," the Emperor is tricked into believing he is wearing a magnificent robe when naked. This story is a metaphor for the dangers of blindly trusting open-source software without carefully evaluating its security risks. Just as the Emperor's courtiers were afraid to speak up for fear of being ridiculed, many organizations are hesitant to criticize open-source software for fear of being seen as behind the times or ungrateful.

The very openness that fuels open-source software popularity creates a double-edged sword. While readily available source code fosters collaboration and rapid innovation, it also grants adversaries a detailed map of potential vulnerabilities. Imagine a castle with its blueprints plastered on the gatehouse walls; any cunning foe could exploit hidden passages or weaknesses in the defenses. This transparency makes open-source software a lucrative target for malicious actors, particularly nation-state actors and sponsored advanced persistent threats (APTs) with sophisticated attack capabilities.

The Emperor's delusion is often apparent in the open-source software community. FOMO, hype, and bandwagon effects can propel certain projects to stardom without thorough security scrutiny. Organizations eager to embrace the latest shiny tool may overlook critical vulnerabilities, exposing themselves to potential breaches with catastrophic consequences. Just because everyone admires the "beautiful" Emperor's non-existent attire does not make it real. [1]

Beyond blind trust, relinquishing control of the code presents another challenge. Unlike proprietary software, where updates flow from a single source, open-source software relies on the community to fix and address vulnerabilities. Delays or lack of expertise within the community can leave organizations stranded, vulnerable, and frustrated. It is like entrusting your castle's safety to a fickle court, hoping they prioritize repairs before an attack plunges your kingdom into chaos. Ethereum 2.0 and Bitcoin's scaling issues are prime examples.

Furthermore, the intricate web of dependencies often underpins open-source software, creating a tangled security landscape of hidden costs. Each dependency is a potential weak point, introducing additional attack vectors and hidden risks. Imagine your castle riddled with secret tunnels dug by unknown hands, each offering an unseen path for invaders. Managing these dependencies and ensuring their security adds another layer of complexity to the already intricate task of securing your software ecosystem.

The Emperor's story also mirrors the human tendency to shy away from criticism. Fear of ostracization or backlash can stifle discussions about open-source software vulnerabilities, leaving problems in the shadows. Within the vibrant open-source community, this "collective blindness" can hinder the timely patching and resolution of critical issues. Remember, it is the little boy's courageous honesty that ultimately exposes the Emperor's deceit, and similarly, open and honest discourse is crucial for maintaining the security of the open-source software kingdom.

There are several reasons why open-source software may be more vulnerable to attack than proprietary software. First, open-source projects often have limited resources and lack the security expertise of commercial software vendors. Second, the open nature of open-source software can make it difficult to track and manage vulnerabilities. Third, some open-source software projects may be deliberately targeted by attackers because they are seen as more vulnerable or because many organizations use them. [2]

Security Implications

One of the biggest security concerns with open-source software is its vulnerability to attack. Unlike proprietary software, where the source code is kept secret, the source code of open-source software is freely available for anyone to see. This exposure means that attackers can easily identify and exploit vulnerabilities in the code, which can have serious consequences for organizations that rely exclusively on open-source platforms.

Many users do not even fully understand the concept of publicly-exposed source code. This exposure potentially uncovers vulnerabilities that adversaries and APTs could exploit that would otherwise never be uncovered. This increasing attack vector is a major concern for financial institutions, healthcare organizations, and entities that handle sensitive information as their core business.

The potential consequences of a successful attack on open-source software are significant yet often undiscussed, like the unseen threads of the Emperor's new clothes. In contrast, proprietary software breaches garner headlines, and vulnerabilities in open-source code can quietly infiltrate critical systems, their impact only becoming apparent when it is too late. [3]

Challenges of Reliance

With open-source software, a large enterprise or government loses control of the code and relies on the subject's open-source community to fix vulnerabilities and provide updates. As we have seen from the Bitcoin and Ethereum communities, this can be extremely problematic if the community is slow to respond or lacks the necessary expertise. Alternatively, in some cases, some of the open-source community tries to self-destruct or sabotage the platform.

Open-source software always depends on multiple dependencies, which can introduce additional OpSec risks. The entire system could be vulnerable if one of these dependencies is compromised (which happens all the time). [4]

Technical Risks Facing Integrators and Software Distributors

Integrating open-source software with existing proprietary systems can be technically challenging and price-prohibitive. Open-source software typically comes with limited support, which can be problematic for mission-critical systems that require constant availability and uptime.

Operational security concerns and a lack of customized security controls often plague open-source software since open-source projects are usually designed for a broad range of users and may not meet the specific needs of a large organization.

Formalized certification processes, often built with proprietary software in mind, can present hurdles for open-source projects. These frameworks might not fully account for open-source development's collaborative, community-driven nature, potentially making compliance a complex and expensive endeavor. [5]


While open-source software offers undeniable cost advantages, a blind leap of faith without thorough scrutiny can leave your digital castle vulnerable. The Emperor's delusion is a cautionary tale – blindly trusting any open-source or proprietary software is a recipe for disaster.

Instead, embrace informed skepticism and diversify your software portfolio. Just as monarchs rely on a balanced court of advisors, a diverse mix of open-source and proprietary solutions can strengthen your security posture. Leverage the advantages of open-source for specific needs but supplement it with the stability and robust support of commercial software where critical security demands it. Remember, just like the little boy who pointed out the Emperor's nakedness, we are responsible for critically analyzing and addressing potential software vulnerabilities, regardless of their origin. Only then can we truly build a secure digital kingdom, shielded from the dangers lurking in the shadows.


  • [1] Meyers, J.S., Newman, Z., Pike, T., and Kazil, J. “Dependency Issues: Solving the World’s Open-Source Software Security Problem.” War on the Rocks, 5 May 2022.
  • [2] Castles, Robert. “Blind Trust in Open-Source Software Puts Businesses at Risk.” Spiceworks. July 19, 2022.
  • [3] Mathpati, Ninad. Open-Source Software Overview: Benefits, Risks, & Best Practices. February 8, 2023.
  • [4] Mark, John. “Why Open Source Failed.” Medium, 26 Dec. 2018.
  • [5] “Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Security Agency, and U.S. Department of the Treasury. October 10, 2023. Improving Security of Open Source Software in Operational Technology and Industrial Control Systems.
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