March 14, 2024

The Risks of Using Open Source Document Generation Software

Document Generation

Open-source software has been a game-changer in the world of technology, allowing developers to collaborate and share their work with the world. However, despite its many benefits, some potential perils are associated with using open-source software. Identifying the risks and challenges of using open-source document generation software is crucial to determine whether such risks are compatible with organizational strategy.

Before discussing the perils of using open-source software, let's define it. “Open-source software is software that is distributed with its source code, allowing anyone to view, modify, and distribute it. This type of software is often developed by a community of developers who collaborate to improve and maintain it. In some cases, as with many document generation packages, software was written to perform a specific task for a particular person or organization without any initial plan to commercialize it. 

The Benefits of Open-Source Software

Open-source software has many benefits, including:

  1. Cost-effectiveness: One of the most significant advantages of using open-source software is that it is often free or low-cost, making it an attractive option for businesses and individuals on a tight budget.
  2. Flexibility: With open-source software, users can modify the code to meet their needs. This level of flexibility is not usually available with proprietary software.
  3. Community support: Open source software is often backed by a community of developers who work together to improve and maintain the software. In these cases, users can access a wealth of knowledge and support from others within the community.

Because of its relative ease of acquisition and implementation, open-source software can provide a great starting point for those with a single task to complete or who wish to use it for a proof of concept. It is also easy to move away from if that project ends or the proof of concept is unsuccessful.

49% of codebases including open-source  ode aren't being updated

Open-Source Software Presents Risks

While open-source software has many benefits, some potential perils are associated with it. These include:

  1. Security vulnerabilities: One of the biggest concerns with using open-source software is the potential for security vulnerabilities. Because the source code is publicly available, anyone with the skills and knowledge can find and exploit vulnerabilities in the software.
  2. Lack of support (updates and patches): Commercial software companies must respond to functional and security threats uncovered in their code or face massive potential liabilities. Many open-source developers disclaim liability for software made available to the public and may be unable to satisfy claims against them even if found liable. As such, they may share updates when issues arise.
  3. Lack of support (expertise): While open-source software sometimes engages a large community of developers, there is no guarantee that the software will be well-supported. If the community loses interest in the project or the lead developers move on to other projects, the software may become outdated and unsupported. 
  4. Compatibility issues: Open-source software may not always be compatible with other software or systems, which can lead to integration issues and other problems.
  5. Legal issues: Legal issues can arise from using open-source software, particularly if the software is not properly licensed. Understanding the license terms before using open-source software is essential to avoid legal complications.
  6. Lack of accountability: With open-source software, there is often no one to hold accountable if something goes wrong. If there is a problem with the software, users may have to hope that others within the community can help them fix it, which can be time-consuming and frustrating.

Some of these risks result in inconvenience. For example, being unable to get answers on functionality limitations or attempting to integrate open-source document generation software with unavailable destinations or incompatible document formats can waste hours and generate significant frustration. 

However, the potential security risks accompanying the use of software that is not being updated as necessary bring about an entirely different level of risk. It may be challenging to determine whether open-source code, especially unmaintained code, has been compromised. Worse yet, those seeking unauthorized access may only take advantage of security vulnerabilities later when compromised open-source code has been integrated into sensitive IT systems. If open-source code stops being maintained after an organization has implemented it and is no longer closely monitoring updates, bad actors may discover vulnerabilities when there are no resources to secure them.

Therefore, it is critical that all open-source code be thoroughly vetted and that a detailed cost/benefit analysis be done to determine whether the potential risks outweigh the costs saved by not paying for commercial software.

Because of the high risks associated with breach, the benefit of open source software tends to diminish as the environment in which such software is used:

  1. Increases in the number of users
  2. Increases the number of endpoints: workstations, but also sensors and IoT devices
  3. Increases in geographic scope
  4. Handles higher volumes of sensitive information
  5. Is managed by more extensive and more distributed IT teams

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How Open-Source Software Risks Can Impact Document Generation and Records Retention

The risk types listed above can have different consequences depending on the type of open-source softwaer

  • Unauthorized access to document repositories which can expose sensitive information about employees, customers, vendors, projects, or missions
  • Inaccurate integrations or formatting that can result in the creation of inaccurate documents, or documents that do not comply with current legal standards
  • Security leaks that allow records to be forwarded or otherwise shared with persons that were not the intended recipient
  • Use of security vulnerabilities to access broader system resources to facilitate ransomware or other hostile activities

Each of these outcomes can result in significant financial, legal, and public relations harm to an organization. Almost without exception, the costs associated with these risks far exceed the cost of using commercially available software. This does not mean that there is no viable use case for open-source software. However, when deciding between open-source and commercial software, it is important to consider the potentially massive consequences of even low-likelihood risks. 

Conclusion

Open-source software can be a powerful tool for developers and users alike, but it is not without its risks. 

By understanding the potential perils of using open-source software and taking steps to mitigate these risks, you can determine whether open-source software is the right choice for you. 

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