If I told you to adjust your seat before adjusting your mirror in your car, would you just do it? Just because I said so, or do you understand why there is a specific order? Most of us retain concepts better when we can understand them logically.
Developing applications requires a lot of moving pieces. An important piece in that process is implementing security controls to help protect the application, the company, and the users. In many organizations, security is heavily guided by an outside group, i.e.. the security group or 3rd party testers.
Looking at an external test, or even a test by an internal security team, often the result is a report containing findings. These findings typically include a recommendation to guide the application team in a direction to help reduce or mitigate the finding. In my experience, the recommendations tend to be pretty generic. For example, a username harvesting flaw may come with a recommendation to return the same message for both valid and invalid user names. In most cases, this is a valid recommendation as it is the reason for the flaw.
But Why? Why does it matter?
Working with application teams, it quickly becomes clear the level of understanding regarding security topics. The part that is often missing is the Why. Sure, the team can implement a generic message (using the username harvesting flaw above) and it may solve the finding. But does it solve the real issue? What are the chances that when you come back and test another app for this same development team that the flaw may exist somewhere else? When we take the time to really explain why this finding is a concern, how it can be abused, and start discussing ways to mitigate it, the team gets better. Push aside the “sky is falling” and take the time to understand the application and context.
As security professionals we focus too much on fixing a vulnerability. Don’t get me wrong, the vulnerability should be fixed, but we are too focused. Taking a step back allows us to see a better approach. It is much more than just identifying flaws. It is about getting the application teams to understand why they are flaws (not just because security said so) so they become a consideration in future development. This includes the entire application team, not just developers. Lets look at another example.
Let’s say that you have a change password form that doesn’t require the current password. As a security professional, your wheels are probably spinning. Thinking about issues like CSRF. From a development side, the typical response “Why do I need to input my password when I just did that to login to change my password?” While the change will most likely get made, because security said it had too, there is still a lack of understanding from the application team. If CSRF was your first reason, what if they have CSRF protections already in place? Do you have another reason? What about if the account is hijacked somehow, or a person sits at the user’s desk and they forgot to lock their PC? By explaining the reasoning behind the requirement, it starts to make sense and is better received. It dominos into a chance that the next project that is developed will take this into consideration.
When the business analysts sits down to write the next change password user story, it will be a part of it. Not because security said so, but because they understand the use case better and how to protect it.
If you are receiving test results, take the time to make sure you understand the findings and the WHY. It will help providing a learning objective as well as reduce the risk of not correcting the problem. Understand how the issue and remediation effects your application and users.
James Jardine is the CEO and Principal Consultant at Jardine Software Inc. He has over 15 years of combined development and security experience. If you are interested in learning more about Jardine Software, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jardinesoftware on twitter.