Programming languages are a lot like people where each has quirks that make them what they are. Each is a little different in its own way.
While we’re not defined by our flaws and particularities, they are a part of us, shaping how we interact with the world around us. The same holds true for programming languages when we think about how different kinds of vulnerabilities raise their heads in the languages we love.
Our research is based on WhiteSource’s extensive database of reported open source security vulnerabilities which continuously aggregates information from multiple sources like the National Vulnerability Database (NVD), security advisories, GitHub issue trackers, and other popular open source projects issue trackers.
Starting out, some of us set out to prove that one programming language reigns secure above all the rest. But sorting through the data, we found that there is a reason why all seven of these languages are so popular, and each one has its own set of issues and advantages when it comes to security.
The winner of the Most-Open-Source-Vulnerabilities category is C. According to our database over the past 10 years C has accumulated the highest number of reported open source vulnerabilities, with almost 50% of all open source vulnerabilities reported for all seven languages.
Does this mean that C is the most insecure programming language? Not at all.
C has been in use for nearly 50 years, and has the largest volume of code behind it. It also powers major infrastructure components that power our software products like the Linux kernel, Open SSL and many more. Being this central to development and in use for so long, means that there are many eyes reviewing the code, and many hands reporting and fixing bugs, over a long period of time, which is one of the reasons C has such a high count of known open source vulnerabilities.
C Known Security Vulnerabilities per project:
To learn more about the programming languages and the best practices for using it securely, we also looked at each language’s most common vulnerability types, or CWE’s.
The most common CWE’s for other languages were related to web and web services: cross-Site-Scripting (XSS), Input Validation, Permissions, Privileges, and Access Control, and Information Leak / Disclosure. The vulnerability type that topped the list for C was Buffer Errors (CWE-119). The reason C stands out with Buffer Errors is that these and other related CWE aren’t possible in managed languages – which C is not. C gives programmers more power — and more room to go wrong, making these types of errors typical to C.
This is yet another example of how if you dig deep enough, the numbers can tell a very interesting story. A lot of the Crypto and Path Traversal issues can be traced to a relatively small number of researchers, who found them in unpopular or even dead packages.
In order to understand more about these unnatural CVEs, we looked into the NPM packages, and learned that while well over half (61%) of the JS vulnerabilities there are Path Traversal and Crypto, 70% of those packages have less than 2000 downloads in 2018, and are hardly ever used, maintained or supported.
The simple answer is yes. And no. And it depends. Obviously, developers won’t choose a language based on our study, and that’s a good thing. Each language is its own beast and needs to be treated as such, with respect, a lot of love, and a bit of humility.
Simply looking at the total number of known open source vulnerabilities will teach us very little, if at all. As this study shows, some of the languages with the most vulnerabilities are also those that are the most integral to how we build our products. It’s not like we are going to stop using the Linux Kernel just because it is written in C. On the other hand, looking at the data to learn about the languages strong and weak points, what to look out for, and where to double down on security is a great practice.
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