Jim Bird

About Jim Bird

Jim is an experienced CTO, software development manager and project manager, who has worked on high-performance, high-reliability mission-critical systems for many years, as well as building software development tools. His current interests include scaling Lean and Agile software development methodologies, software security and software assurance.

Appsec at RSA 2013

This was my second time at the RSA conference on IT security. Like last year, I focused on the appsec track, starting with a half-day mini-course on how to write secure applications for developers, presented by Jim Manico and Eoin Keary representing OWASP. It was a well-attended session. Solid, clear guidance from people who really do understand what it takes to write secure code. They explained why relying on pen testing is never going to be enough (your white hat pen tester gets 2 weeks a year to hack your app, the black hats get 52 weeks a year), and covered all of the main problems, including password management (secure storage and forgot password features), how to protect the app from click jacking, proper session management, access control design. They showed code samples (good and bad) and pointed developers to OWASP libraries and Cheat Sheets, as well as other free tools.

We have to solve XSS and SQL Injection

They spent a lot of time on XSS (the most common vulnerability in web apps) and SQL injection (the most dangerous). Keary recommended that a good first step for securing an app is to find and fix all of the SQL injection problems: SQL injection is easy to see and easy to fix (change the code to use prepared statements with bind variables), and getting this done will not only make your app more secure, it also proves your organization’s ability to find security problems and fix them successfully.

SQL injection and XSS kept coming up throughout the conference. In a later session, Nick Galbreath looked deeper into SQL injection attacks and what developers can do to detect and block them. By researching thousands of SQL injection attacks, he found that attackers use constructs in SQL that web application developers rarely use: unions, comments, string and character functions, hex number literals and so on. By looking for these constructs in SQL statements you can easily identify if the system is being attacked, and possibly block the attacks. This is the core idea behind database firewalls like Green SQL and DB Networks, both companies that exhibited their solutions at RSA.

On the last day of the conference, Romain Gaucher from Coverity Research asked “Why haven’t we stamped out SQL Injection and XSS yet?”. He found through a static analysis review of several code bases that while many developers are trying to stop SQL injection by using parameterized queries, it’s not possible to do this in all cases. About 15% of SQL code could not be parameterized properly – or at least it wasn’t convenient for the developers to come up with a different approach. Gaucher also reinforced how much of a pain in the butt it is trying to protect an app from XSS:

“XSS is not a single vulnerability”. XSS is a group of vulnerabilities that mostly involve injection of tainted data into various HTML contexts”.
It’s the same problem that Jim Manico explained in the secure development class: in order to prevent XSS you have to understand the context and do context-sensitive encoding, and hope that you don’t make a mistake. To help make this problem manageable, in addition to libraries available from OWASP, Coverity has
open sourced a library to protect Java apps from XSS and SQL injection.

The Good

While most of the keynotes offered a chance to catch up on email, the Crypto Panel was interesting. Chinese research into crypto is skyrocketing. Which could be a good thing. Or not. I was interested to hear Dan Boneh at Stanford talk more about the research that he has done into digital certificate handling and SSL outside of browsers. His team found that in almost all cases, people who try to do SSL certificate validation in their own apps do it wrong.

Katie Moussouris at Microsoft presented an update on ISO standards work for vulnerability handling. ISO 30111 lays out a structured process for investigating, triaging and resolving software security vulnerabilities. There were no surprises in the model – the only surprise is that the industry actually needs an ISO standard for the blindingly obvious, but it should set a good bar for people who don’t know where to start.

Jeremiah Grossman explained that there are two sides to the web application security problem. One half is weaknesses in web sites like SQL injection and lousy password handling and mistakes in access control. The other half is attacks that exploit fundamental problems in browsers. Attacks that try to break out of the browser – which browser vendors put a lot of attention to containing through sandboxing and anti-phishing and anti-malware protection – and attacks that stay inside the browser but compromise data inside the browser like XSS and CSRF, which get no attention from browser vendors so it’s up to application developers to deal with.

Grossman also presented some statistics on the state of web application security, using data that White Hat Security is collecting from its customer base. Recognizing that their customers are representative of more mature organizations that already do regular security testing of their apps, the results are still encouraging. The average number of vulnerabilities per app is continuing to decline year on year. SQL injection is now the 14th most common vulnerability, found in only 7% of tested apps – although more than 50% of web apps are vulnerable to XSS, for the reasons discussed above.

Gary McGraw from Cigital agreed that as an industry, software is getting better. Defect density is going down (not as fast as it should be, but real progress is being made), but the software security problem isn’t going away because we are writing a lot more code, and more code inevitably means more bugs. He reiterated that we need to stay focused on the fundamentals – we already know what to do, we just have to do it.

“The time has come to stop looking for new bugs to add to the list. Just fix the bugs”.

Another highlight was the panel on Rugged Devops, which continued a discussion that started at OWASP Appsec late last year, and covered pretty much the same ground: how important it is to get developers and operations working together to make software run in production safely, that we need more automation (testing, deployment, monitoring), and how devops provides an opportunity to improve system security in many ways and should be embraced, not resisted by the IT security community.

The ideas are based heavily on what Etsy and Netflix and Twitter have done to build security into their rapid development/deployment practices. I agreed with ½ of the panel (Nick Galbreath and David Mortman, who have real experience in software security in Devops shops) almost all of the time, and disagreed with the other ½ of the panel most of the rest of the time. There’s still too much hype over continuously deploying changes 10 or 100 or 1000 times a day, and over the Chaos Monkey. Etsy moved to Continuous Deployment multiple times per day because they couldn’t properly manage their release cycles – that doesn’t mean that everyone has to do the same thing or should even try. And you probably do need something like Chaos Monkey if you’re going to trust your business to infrastructure as unreliable as AWS, but again, that’s not a choice that you have to make. There’s a lot more to devops, it’s unfortunate that these ideas get so much attention.

The Bad and the Ugly

There was only one low point for me – a panel with John Viega formerly of McAfee and Brad Arkin from Adobe called “Software Security: a Waste of Time”.

Viega started off playing the devil’s advocate, asserting that most people should do nothing for appsec, it’s better and cheaper to spend their time and money on writing software that works and deal with security issues later. Arkin disagreed, but unfortunately it wasn’t clear from the panel what he felt an organization should do instead. Both panellists questioned the value of most of the tools and methods that appsec relies on. Neither believed that static analysis tools scale, or that manual security code audits are worth doing. Viega also felt that “peer reviews for security are a waste of time”. Arkin went on to say:

“I haven’t seen a Web Application Firewall that’s worth buying, and I’ve stopped looking”

“The best way to make somebody quit is to put them in a threat modelling exercise”

“You can never fuzz and fix every bug”

Arkin also argued against regulation, citing the failure of PCI to shore up security for the retail space – ignoring that the primary reason that many companies even attempt to secure their software is because PCI requires them to take some responsible steps. But Arkin at least does believe that secure development training is important and that every developer should receive some security training. Viega disagreed, and felt that training only matters for a small number of developers who really care.

This panel was like a Saturday Night Live skit that went off the rails. I couldn’t tell when the panellists were being honest or when they were ironically playing for effect. This session lived up to its name, and really was a waste of time.

The Toys

This year’s trade show was even bigger than last year, with overflow space across the hall. There were no race cars or sumo wrestlers at the booths this year, and fewer strippers (ahem models) moonlighting (can you call it ‘moonlighting’ if you’re doing it during the day?) as booth bunnies although there was a guy dressed like Iron Man and way too many carnival games.

This year’s theme was something to do with Big Data in security so there were lots of expensive analytics tools for sale. For appsec, the most interesting thing that I saw was Cigital Secure Assist a plug-in for different IDEs that provides fast feedback on security problems in code (Java, .NET or PHP) every time you open or close a file. The Cigital staff were careful not to call this a static analysis tool (they’re not trying to compete with Fortify or Coverity or Klocwork), but what excited me was the quality of the feedback, the small client-side footprint, and that they intend to make it available for direct purchase over the web for developers at a very reasonable price point, which means that this could finally be a viable option for smaller development shops that want to take care of security issues in code.

All in all, a good conference and a rare opportunity to meet so many smart people focused on IT security. I still think for pure appsec that OWASP’s annual conference is better, but there’s nothing quite like RSA.

Reference: Appsec at RSA 2013 from our JCG partner Jim Bird at the Building Real Software blog.

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