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Everything you want to know about software provenance

Imagine that you and a group of friends are all baking a birthday cake, with each person responsible for a different part of the process. In most cases, this will result in a delicious end product without too much difficulty. However, it can also go terribly wrong — for example, the cake smells of fish. Or salty instead of sweet. When this happens, you'd want to know who was responsible and what went wrong when. Maybe Friend 3 added salt instead of sugar in a hurry. Perhaps you inadvertently added anchovies instead of berries. Congratulations! You just learned the fundamentals of software provenance. 

Software provenance gives a clear record of the software's development and deployment and helps hunt down any issues so they can be resolved more quickly.

What is software provenance

Software provenance refers to the history of a software application, including its origins, development, and distribution. You can think of software provenance as answering the question of "where software comes from": who wrote it, when, how, and why. Specifically, software provenance keeps track of the essential processes and events during the development lifecycle. This information includes who created and modified the software and the dates and times of these actions.

How to

There are several ways to capture software provenance for an application or project. These options include version control systems such as GitHub and code signing certificates that attest to a software application's authenticity and integrity.

In 2021, Google introduced its software provenance framework -  SLSA (Supply-chain Levels for Software Artifacts). SLSA is an end-to-end framework that verifies the integrity of software artifacts across the supply chain. The framework is intended to protect applications against some of the most common software supply chain attacks, such as compromised build platforms or the insertion of malicious code.

Why is software provenance important

Software provenance should be critical for any business that develops or deploys software. The potential use cases of software provenance include:

  • Verifying a software application's authenticity and integrity (i.e., that the developers are who they claim to be and that the software has not been tampered with after release).
  • Understanding the history of a software application's development and how the application has evolved (e.g., to add features or security fixes).
  • Identifying the source of defects or vulnerabilities in the software (e.g., to understand how a flaw was introduced after a cyber attack exploiting that flaw).

Above all, software provenance makes software artifacts traceable across the development lifecycle. Businesses can ensure that the software they use is legitimate and safe. It also establishes trust with the customers of a software development company, giving them confidence that the applications they use have been properly vetted and are not malicious or flawed.

Software provenance is particularly important for tracking bugs, vulnerabilities, and dependencies. This is especially true in healthcare and finance, which have strict regulations and industry standards surrounding information technology.

(Image courtesy: kreatikar)

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