How secure is your software?

When you are implementing an application, your first goal is to achieve a specific functionality. For instance, if you want to implement a specific algorithm that was given to you as an exercise from your informatics course professor, or you just want to create your personal website, the first thing that comes to mind is how to “make it work”. Then of course, you will follow some code conventions during implementation while simultaneously check your code quality. But how about security? How secure is your code? Is there a way for a malicious user to harm you or your application by taking advantage of potential bugs that exist in your code?

Unfortunately, most programmers have been trained in terms of writing code that implements the required functionality without considering its many security aspects. Most software vulnerabilities derive from a relatively small number of common programming errors that lead to security holes. For example, according to SANS (Security Leadership Essentials For Managers) two programming flaws alone were responsible for more than 1.5 million security breaches during 2008.

In 2001 when software security was first introduced as a field, information security was mainly associated with network security, operating systems security and viral software. Until then, there were hundreds of millions of applications implemented but not with security in mind. As a result, the vulnerabilities “hidden” in these (now legacy) applications can still be used as backdoors that lead to security breaches.

Although, nowadays computer security is standard fare in academic curricula around the globe, few courses emphasize on secure coding practices. For instance, during a standard introductory C course, students may not learn that using the gets function could make their code vulnerable to an exploit. Even if someone includes it in a program, while compiling he or she will get the following obscure warning: “the ‘gets’ function is dangerous and should not be used.”. Well, gets is dangerous because it is possible for the user to crash the program by typing too much into the command prompt. In addition, it cannot detect the end of available memory, so if you allocate an amount of memory too small for the purpose, it can cause a segmentation fault and crash.

The situation is similar in web programming. Programmers are not aware of security loopholes inherent to the code they write; in fact, knowing that they program using higher level languages than those prone to security exploits, they may assume that these render their application immune from exploits stemming from coding errors. Common traps into which programmers fall concerns user input validation, the sanitization of data that is sent to other systems, the lack of definition of security requirements, the encoding of data that comes from an untrusted source and others which we will have the opportunity to discuss later on this blog.

Today there are numerous books, papers and security bulletin providers that you can refer to about software security. Building Secure Software by Viega et al., Writing Secure Code by Howard et al. and Secure Coding: Principles & Practices by Graff et al. are three standard textbooks that you can refer to. Furthermore, there are some interesting lists that quote secure coding practices like OWASP’s (The Open Web Application Security Project), CERT’s (Carnegie Mellon’s Computer Emergency Response Team) and Microsoft’s. Also it is interesting to check from time to time the various lists that contain top software defects like CWE’s (Common Weakness Enumeretion) Top 25 and OWASP’s Top 10. But do not panic, you are not obliged to become an expert in secure coding. There are numerous tools that can help you either build secure applications or protect existing ones.

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