Software Development

Where do Security Requirements come from?

One of the problems in building a secure application is that it’s not always clear what the security requirements are and where they are supposed to come from. Are security requirements supposed to come from the customer? Are they specified in the regulatory and compliance environment? Or are they implicit in the type of application that you are building – an online web store, real-time industrial control, a payroll system, a military weapons command system, an enterprise mobile app – and in the platform and technologies that you are using to build the system?

The answer is: all of the above.

In a recent post on how to manage security requirements in Agile projects, Rohit Sethi offers a useful way of looking at security requirements for any kind of software development work, Agile or not. He breaks security requirements down into 2 types:

Security Stories

A need to do, or not do, something in the system, which can be expressed in a story or a change request like other features. There’s no one way to get these requirements. Some requirements will come directly from the customer or operations or infosec or compliance or a partner, stated explicitly – if not always completely. You need to look harder for other security requirements, take time to understand the compliance and regulatory and legal requirements for the business and wade through the legalese to understand what your obligations are – both in the design of the system, and in how you design and build and operate it.

Other requirements come from the basic patterns of the system that you are building. Any team developing an online web store or an enterprise mobile app should have a good understanding of the basic security problems that they may need to take care of – different kinds of systems have well-understood general requirements for authentication, authorization, auditing and logging, data privacy and confidentiality.

Security stories are tracked and managed and prioritized like the rest your development work – the trick is to make sure that they are taken seriously by the team and by the customer, but at least they are visible to everyone on the project.

Technical Security Constraints

But there are other requirements that aren’t clear to the business and other stake holders – they’re hidden from outside of the development team, and sometimes hidden from the people on the development team as well. These are the things that developers have to do, or not do, to design and build software in a secure way given the architecture and the platform and technologies that they are using. Unlike requirements which are part of the problem space, these constraints are part of the solution space, part of the job of developing software properly.

Some technical constraints are obvious to good, experienced developers who know how to write good, safe software: defensive programming, logging and auditing, not hard-coding passwords or storing secrets in the clear, using prepared statements for relational database access, and so on.

Other technical constraints are much more obscure and specialised – developers may not understand or even be aware of these constraints unless they have training in secure software development and a good technical knowledge of the platform and language(s) and frameworks that they are working with, how to use them properly, what their security weak points are.

Understanding Security requirements is part of your job as a Developer

In Beautiful Security: Forcing Firms to Focus, Jim Routh explains that software security, like software quality, is generally implied in requirements for an application. In the same way that we expect a burger to be served hot and fresh, not stale and at room temperature, nobody should have to explicitly state that the software has to work, that you can’t deliver junk that is full of bugs and isn’t reliable, or code that isn’t secure. “… clearly, the omission of security from explicit requirements is no reason to believe that customers don’t care about it, or don’t understand its importance.” It’s up to us as developers to understand the business problems that we’re trying to solve and what our customers and partners need from a system – including understanding and confirming their security requirements. It’s up to us as developers to understand what kind of system we are building, and what the security and reliability and safety requirements for that kind of system should be. It’s up to us as developers to understand the platform and tools that we’re using, and how to use them properly. It’s up to us to find and understand security requirements and security constraints for a system. We can’t depend on other people to tell us these things, to make all of the steps explicit. This is our job, it’s what we get paid for.

Reference: Where do Security Requirements come from? from our JCG partner Jim Bird at the Building Real Software blog.

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.
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