How Long Do Vulnerabilities Live in the Code? A Large-Scale Empirical Measurement Study on FOSS Vulnerability Lifetimes

AuthorAlexopoulos, Nikolaos; Brack, Manuel; Wagner, Jan Philipp; Grube, Tim; Mühlhäuser, Max
TypeConference Proceedings
AbstractHow long do vulnerabilities live in the repositories of large, evolving projects? Although the question has been identified as an interesting problem by the software community in online forums, it has not been investigated yet in adequate depth and scale, since the process of identifying the exact point in time when a vulnerability was introduced is particularly cumbersome. In this paper, we provide an automatic approach for accurately estimating how long vulnerabilities remain in the code (their lifetimes). Our method relies on the observation that while it is difficult to pinpoint the exact point of introduction for one vulnerability, it is possible to accurately estimate the average lifetime of a large enough sample of vulnerabilities, via a heuristic approach. With our approach, we perform the first large-scale measurement of Free and Open Source Software vulnerability lifetimes, going beyond approaches estimating lower bounds prevalent in previous research. We find that the average lifetime of a vulnerability is around 4 years, varying significantly between projects (~2 years for Chromium, ~7 years for OpenSSL). The distribution of lifetimes can be approximately described by an exponential distribution. There are no statistically significant differences between the lifetimes of different vulnerability types when considering specific projects. Vulnerabilities are getting older, as the average lifetime of fixed vulnerabilities in a given year increases over time, influenced by the overall increase of code age. However, they live less than non-vulnerable code, with an increasing spread over time for some projects, suggesting a notion of maturity that can be considered an indicator of quality. While the introduction of fuzzers does not significantly reduce the lifetimes of memory-related vulnerabilities, further research is needed to better understand and quantify the impact of fuzzers and other tools on vulnerability lifetimes and on the security of codebases.
Conference31st USENIX Security Symposium (USENIX Security 22)
InProceedings of the 31st USENIX Security Symposium, p.359-376
PublisherUSENIX Association