It's our own fault

Security practitioners are actually a large part of the reason developers aren't truly getting better at security. As security practitioners, we've told developers to actually think about security, but because we don't know enough about development, we've actually lessened the degree of the problem. Let me give a few examples, then the results of that...

  • Cross-site Scripting - is actually just an extension of the old < or > problem. This is also partially browsers' faults for allowing malformed HTML, but I digress.
  • SQL Injection - just an extension of the question "what happens when somebody sends something that mucks up the statement?"
  • XSRF - just an extension of the thing we used to solve by adding "Please only submit the form once"

It's not that those threats aren't threats against security. But the real solutions to those problems are solutions to other problems. But as security practitioners, we don't seem to understand that all HTML output should be encoded in case something would mess up the validity of the HTML.

The end result is that we're able to identify the things we deem to be security flaws, and developers "fix" those specific findings to make us go away, but they never really learn to write better code. They don't see the correlation between security findings and the real solutions to the problem.

Now, security practitioners aren't the only ones at fault:
  • All programming books are at fault because they tell you how to write the language, and in being focused on getting functionality right, they completely abandon writing good code.
  • Classrooms are at fault because rarely do students take a class on dealing with the unexpected. Most entry-level programmers assume people will use the application just as expected, with no keystroke errors.
  • It's the fault of QA testers, because they test the application for functionality and load, but not for dealing with erroneous behavior.
  • It's the fault of timelines (not sure who to really blame that on - customers? managers? CEO's?) because the entire development lifecycle is geared around functionality, not necessarily quality of said functionality.

So the short part of the story here is that when a "security problem" exists, see if you can determine the real cause, so that developers can get into good habits. Good habits that will be covered in more detail in later posts....


  1. Anonymous20:16

    The primary fault is with the education of programmers, especially with the cut and paste free for all, and the myriad examples which fail to include references to security practices.

    Programmers are passing on their bad habits to others who do not know better or even take time to go beyond the raw tools and think about what they are creating.

    The timelines given for projects can be a significant issue, but do not necessarily have to be if good security practices and libraies are already in place in the work environment...so better to place the blame on clueless managers.

    That combination, I feel is what has led us down a path of government interference in the form of onerous legislation which would largely be unneccessary were the proper educational foundation made.

    Add the documentation and compliance verification to the short timelines and throw in a fair share of poorly taught developers and the problem only becomes exacerbated.

  2. You're partly right. Many, many of the flaws are because of a disregard of those who educate programmers. Except it's not necessarily a disregard for security, it's a disregard for good programming habits, like input validation and output filtering. Security professionals only exacerbate the problem by citing those things as security requirements, not just good programming practice.

  3. "Cross-site Scripting - is actually just an extension of the old < or > problem. This is also partially browsers' faults for allowing malformed HTML, but I digress."

    Actually to the browser, it is usually perfectly formed HTML that appears to originate from the vulnerable web application.

  4. david: it's not that XSS is malformed HTML, but the way to be completely rid of it is precisely the same solution as dealing with the malformed HTML from dynamic sources issue - output encode everything.