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Hackers rip into heart of open-source software

| Friday, Oct. 17, 2014, 9:18 p.m.

Hackers have shaken the free-software movement that once symbolized the Web's idealism.

Several high-profile attacks in recent months exploited security flaws found in the “open-source” software made by volunteers collaborating online, building off each other's work.

First developed in the 1980s, open-source software has become so pervasive that it powers global stock exchanges, the International Space Station and, according to researcher International Data Corp., appears on about 95 percent of computers and servers.

Attacks this year using flaws nicknamed Heartbleed and Shellshock have some programmers suggesting that corporations or even the government should provide more money or programing help. That idea doesn't go over easily among grass-roots developers who want to remain true to the ideals of a do-it-yourself movement.

“It's going to be a wake-up call for a lot of people to understand why we aren't auditing this software better,” said Greg Martin, founder and chief technology officer of Threat Stream Inc., a cybersecurity company based in Redwood City, Calif. “Everybody's been scratching their heads and saying, ‘How could we miss this?' ”

Yahoo, Facebook

Open-source advocates say their programming code is more secure than proprietary software because developers are constantly fixing flaws found by users. Critics say the open nature of the software leaves it vulnerable to hackers because the programing flaws are out in the open for all to see.

In either case, some say the fix should come from the companies that build products off the free software.

Technology companies such as Yahoo! Inc., Facebook Inc. and Google Inc. “are saving huge amounts of money using open-source, and they should invest much more money in trying to secure these systems,” said Jaime Blasco, director of labs for AlienVault, a San Mateo, Calif.-based security company.

Facebook, based in Menlo Park, Calif., said in a statement it “is a leading and committed contributor to the open-source community,” having started projects to secure Google Android and Apple Inc. devices.

It pledged $300,000 during three years to an initiative of the Linux Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that supports open-source use.

Linux initiative

Linux, a popular open-source operating system developed in the 1990's, is used in millions of smartphones, global stock exchanges such as the Nasdaq and 92 percent of the world's supercomputers, said Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation.

“Open source is the coal and steel of the Internet, but it ain't owned by the Carnegies,” he said. “It's owned by all of us.”

Twenty companies have pledged $6 million over three years to the Linux Foundation effort, including Bloomberg LP, the owner of Bloomberg News.

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