Give Secure Code a Chance

By Cameron Sturdevant  |  Posted 2006-03-07

Give Secure Code a Chance

New services and tools designed to help developers create secure software applications continue to emerge. At the same time, a long-recognized training gap has left some large organizations looking to outsiders for help in creating secure code.

But, is it enough?

Not according to experts including eWEEK Technology Editor Peter Coffee and secure code consultant Gary McGraw, both of whom agree that code review—while important—isnt sufficient to ensure secure code. What is needed to create applications that will act as expected despite deliberate or unintentional efforts to get them to act otherwise is an architectural review that designs security into software.

McGraw, chief technology officer of Cigital, in Dulles, Va., and the author of "Software Security: Building Security In" (Addison-Wesley, 2006), sees software bugs falling into two basic categories: implementation, including such classics as a weakness that allows a buffer overflow, and architectural, vulnerabilities that arent found in individual lines of code but are the result of poor design decisions.

eWEEK Labs spoke with IT executives from two large, well-known corporations about how they use outside services to architect security into software applications: MasterCard International and Qualcomm.

What does MasterCard have to do with recent CitiBank ATM fraud? Click here to read more.

Terry Stanley, MasterCards vice president of infrastructure and standards in Purchase, N.Y., said that getting support for secure development is not a problem; the issue is getting it done.

"I have no problem getting executive sign-on [for software security projects]," said Stanley. "I also have no problem getting the budget to do what I want it to do. The developers and manufacturers out there say theyre on board. The problem is getting it done. [Secure development] is not as easy as it sounds."

One of the biggest challenges companies face is a constantly shifting technology landscape that makes it difficult for developers to keep up.

Qualcomm uses nearly 3,000 developers to create the software that runs with the companys chips in mobile phones. The company has used software consulting company Cigital on eight engagements during the last 18 months.

"One of the things we didnt have skills with was automated tools for checking our code," said Greg Rose, vice president of technology at Qualcomm, in San Diego. "So, one of the first things that we did with our secure software service was running automated tools against our code base and discovering potential problems."

At the February RSA Conference, in San Jose, Calif., Coca-Colas director of application security spoke about the need to establish well-defined security goals.

Coca-Cola started almost 18 months ago on its security assurance implementation, according to Mark Mehlberg, director of application security at Coca-Cola. "The first step was to find where we were at [regarding secure software] because that is one of the first questions the executives ask. [The next step,] of course, is establishing goals for this capability coupled with the risk you are trying to get the executives to understand. When you start asking for funding, it becomes a barrier unless youve done this first." Mehlberg made these remarks during a presentation on building secure software at the RSA Conference.

Understanding risk is crucial to architecting secure software. eWEEKs Coffee put it this way: "Security assessment is not about the elimination of risk; it is about the appropriate balance of necessary and useful risk with relevant business benefits. Further, security is an area in which you need a relatively narrow but extremely deep and expensively maintained current knowledge to do the job well."

Next Page: Risk assessment from the outside in.

Risk Assessment From the

Outside In">

Indeed, a risk assessment should factor in the potential damage of information disclosure either in the form of fines or the loss of customer confidence. And this assessment should be shared with executives, project managers and developers in ways that each group can understand and act on.

MasterCards Stanley is a proponent of using outside labs to test the security of the devices—hardware and software—used around the globe to authenticate credit card holders. "We are dealing with 23,000 banks, thousands of processors and 30 to 40 million different merchants on a wide range of platforms," he said. "We need people who can test the hardware and software."

But who tests the code testers? Click here to read more.

Coffee added that many companies would do well to seek the services of a consultancy focused on security, spreading the development load. "There is no reason to bear the burden of developing and maintaining the skill set for your company when it can be more efficiently leveraged across multiple clients of a security assessment firm," he said.

While Stanley wouldnt say how much the organizations secure software assessment program costs, he did offer a cost guideline. The process of gaining formal software security assurance for an application—such as the Common Criteria assurance, a set of IT requirements distilled from U.S., Canadian and European agencies—will likely cost as much as the development of the application and will likely double the time frame for application delivery. According to Stanley, it takes three to five years to put an effective software security assurance program in place.

The trick is to balance resources and risk—no easy task, according to Cigitals McGraw. "We need to figure out how to still produce code and still earn revenue while also balancing out the security equation," he said. "Its a question of risk management."

Qualcomms Rose is looking to automation to help his company achieve this balance. "The idea is to improve our software development process to the point where its just automatic that security issues are taken care of, and wed like to meet that goal in the next couple of years," he said.

There are several automated code checking tools available to aid developers in their security quest, and many are now available as services. Compuware, for example, offers two days of on-site code checking services using its DevPartner SecurityChecker 2.0 for $6,000—a price that allows even smaller, resource-strapped companies to avail themselves of this type of service.

Read more here about DevPartner SecurityChecker 2.0.

Part of improving the software development process is opening it up to all vested parties. Company executives will require a well-documented impact report that details the costs associated with a software breach. Development project managers and other middle-management groups—acknowledged by all the experts we spoke to as the hardest group to reach—will be swayed by peer comparisons such as reports that show the number and cost of security errors compared by project.

Regardless of which tools or services are selected, all the experts we spoke with agreed that awareness and commitment are needed at all levels of the organization to ensure that security is a core component of any new application.

E-mail Technical Director Cameron Sturdevant at

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