"Always Contribute Back": A Qualitative Study on Security Challenges of the Open Source Supply Chain

Dominik Wermke, Jan H. Klemmer, Noah Wöhler, Juliane Schmüser, Harshini Sri Ramulu, Yasemin Acar, and Sascha Fahl.
44th IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy (IEEE S&P '23)
May 22-24, 2023
Conference publication


Open source components are ubiquitous in companies’ setups, processes, and software. Utilizing these external components as building blocks enables companies to leverage the benefits of open source software, allowing them to focus their efforts on features and faster delivery instead of writing their own components. But by introducing these components into their software stack, companies inherit unique security challenges and attack surfaces: including code from potentially unvetted contributors, as well as the obligation to assess and mitigate the impact of vulnerabilities in external components.

In 25 in-depth, semi-structured interviews with software developers, architects, and engineers from industry projects, we investigate their projects’ processes, decisions, and considerations in the context of external open source code. We find that open source components play an important role in many of our participants’ projects, that most projects have some form of company policy or at least best practice for including external code, and that many developers wish for more developer-hours, dedicated teams, or tools to better audit included components. Based on our findings, we discuss implications for company stakeholders and the open source software ecosystem. Overall, we appeal to companies to not treat the open source ecosystem as a free (software) supply chain and instead to contribute towards the health and security of the overall software ecosystem they benefit from and are part of.