Review Network

Wanted: Reviewed Source Code

As discussed in the previous chapter, the source code of a project is the single point of truth. Reproducible Builds definitively connect the source code to a build artifact. This allows users to verify and review the code of a given artifact. This information lets users determine whether a software package is safe to use. The author’s and the project’s reputation consequently becomes less significant in this decision.

However, reviewing each piece of software is even more tedious and resource-intensive than verifying each build. While builds can be automatically verified, reviewing code is, for the most part, still a task that requires human work. Tools incorporating static analysis or even AI might support users in this endeavor but provide incomplete results if used alone. This holds especially true when analyzing a software’s logic or larger context, as its intent is often not apparent to such tools. The problem becomes exponentially more complex when transitive software dependencies must also be reviewed.

Current Review Ecosystem

Professional review and source code auditing is currently a growing industry as security becomes an ever more important topic. In addition, the rising number of ransomware and phishing attacks force non-IT companies and even individuals to ramp up their security game.

Within the open-source software community, users and contributors implicitly review large projects like react or the Linux Kernel. Many people monitor all changes to these code bases. This is not a proper, complete review compared to a paid audit. However, due to the committed and engaged user base, errors and especially malicious code have a high chance of being detected early. Smaller open-source projects and closed-source projects with a few or even only a single contributor do not enjoy this kind of community oversight. Thus, the chance of rolling out flawed or even malicious changes increases. This problem becomes significant if many users and other software depend on this given project. History has shown that some of the most used software packages are maintained by a single person.1

Besides paid and voluntary audits, bug bounties have become increasingly popular over the past years. They offer white hat hackers the opportunity to find vulnerabilities and to get paid for reporting them. Furthermore, this concept incentivizes a constant stream of code and penetration testing which helps secure applications against new attack vectors and might discover flaws that were simply overlooked previously.

Community Reviews


Like the Build Verification Network, a system is needed to coordinate and manage code reviews throughout the software ecosystem. It has to aggregate reviews and present them to users, so they can decide whether or not a piece of software might be dangerous. As code reviews are tasks that have to be performed by humans, possible automation is only limited. Consequently, the system has to incentivize and oversee the work that has to be done.

Furthermore, transitive dependencies must be accounted for as the goal is to eventually only use fully reviewed applications. This transitive relationship means that a review of a top-level application requires reviews of all of its dependencies. Software packages used by many other libraries or applications consequently call for more attention as flaws could potentially harm a more extensive set of the ecosystem.


Generally, reviews or issue reports concerning a piece of software are either provided by volunteers who encounter a problem by chance or by reviewers and auditors who were instructed or encouraged to analyze the code. The latter ones are most likely specifically paid or otherwise incentivized to do this work. Therefore, we will further address them as voluntary reviews and assigned reviews.

Within a new Review Network, both of these types of reviews essentially need to be incentivized to encourage people to examine projects. This increases the chances of finding all valid issues. Specifically, the concept of bug bounties should be a driving factor. The next chapter will address the question of where these incentives should come from.

As stated before, the amount of attention a project receives from community members varies. At the same time, this attention might diverge from its utilization within the community. Therefore, this kind project is especially needs more and constant reviews.

Project Attention

Project Attention: Popular top-level projects are used directly by many developers. They track the latest changes and contribute bug fixes and new features. Smaller projects that are often dependencies of other systems often have a lower number of contributors. The software community as a whole pays less attention to them even though many projects are built on top of them.

One of the missions of the new system is to delegate code reviews towards critical software which is not sufficiently verified. This could be achieved by introducing or increasing bug bounties, which drive volunteers towards a project, and by automatically contracting suitable reviewers to analyze the code in an assigned review.

As the network should consist of independent and anonymous participants, a trust relationship cannot be established, as found in traditional auditing. Furthermore, the work put into reviewing software is hard to verify and quantify, especially in the described environment. Thus, only submitted review results can be considered to measure a participant’s work. This is a problem as the absence of issues is also a valid work result that should be rewarded.

Multiple additional reviews have to be conducted to check the reviewers' results. Reported issues must be verified by various other community members and possibly the authors. Several assigned reviews must be completed in parallel. This reduces the risk of copying the results and keeps participants honest, as a stark difference in valid findings might suggest some sort of manipulation or lacking work engagement. In general, any found issues and created reports must be reviewed by a random set of other participants before a decision can be made to accept them. On top of this, even these reviews of reviews have to be re-examined. This creates a layered web of verification and community oversight which eventually finds all valid flaws in a given project, reducing the number of issues with each iteration.

Layered Reviews

Layered Reviews: Several reviews are conducted in parallel to reduce the amount of cheating. The results must again be reviewed to verify the detected flaws and to find issues that were missed in previous iterations. This process has mutliple iterations and must be regularly repeated to ensure high quality results. All valid results are eventually aggregated and presented to the users for them to decide if a software is safe.

A concrete system must be defined and tested by the community. As such a system tries to delegate human work, a 100% certainty can never be achieved. The goal is to steer attention to where it is needed and represent the findings in the open for all to see.

Expanded Focus

Initiatives like the CVE Program and the GitHub Advisory Database are great systems that should be incorporated into a new Review Network. Even though they are public databases, tracked, viewed, and mirrored by millions of users, they are still centralized-hosted and managed. Especially the CVE might be under pressure in certain circumstances as the non-profit behind it is at least partially state-sponsored by the US government. Automating and decentralizing this information in a trustless way is an integral part of the new system.

Furthermore, the abovementioned initiatives concentrate on propagating security issues within software packages. The new Review Network, however, has an expanded focus. Besides pressing security issues, potential non-code issues, malicious and non-community-friendly behavior, and general correctness are in the spotlight of reviews. For example, storing more personal information than absolutely necessary for an application, storing data that is insufficiently encrypted or viewable by third parties, gathering additional data without consent or an opt-out feature, or prohibiting interoperability are issues that should be flagged.

The severity of issues should play a factor in the denomination of incentives to be paid out.

  1. The OpenSSL library was a good example; read more↩︎

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