Security Zone: Secure by design?

With nearly every aspect of our lives becoming reliant on computer technology, how do we know we can trust the systems we are using are secure and cannot be easily exploited?

Hardly a day goes by without a new threat or technique being identified to find and exploit vulnerabilities in software, writes Andrew Kays, head of development at Nexor.

With nearly every aspect of our lives becoming reliant on computer technology, how do we know we can trust the systems we are using are secure and cannot be easily exploited? This is important in an individual's day-to-day life and their use of technology, but can be absolutely paramount within the corporate and government worlds. Here, people's lives and the national interests can be at stake and it is imperative to know that systems are secure.

How can you know if you trust a system to be secure? This is a very difficult question to answer, but an appreciation of how the system or product was developed provides some confidence that the appropriate care has been given to the secure design and implementation of the software. In the constant changing threat landscape, the organisation needs to know that system developers are keeping up-to-date with the different threats and possible exploits that the software can be vulnerable to, and that they provide regular communication on how the issues affect their system.

Do you know how your system was developed and the methodologies employed? Was the appropriate emphasis placed on security in its design during production? Questions such as these have not be asked traditionally, but in today's world of easy internet communication the exposure of our organisations is greatly increased, making it easier for malicious individuals to have the opportunity to try to exploit these systems.

Good development practices can help minimise the security risks within systems. Approaches and techniques such as threat analysis, static and dynamic source code scanning and penetration testing can dramatically reduce the number of possible vulnerabilities. The understanding and use of such techniques and how they are employed in a system's production significantly decrease your chances of exposure.

Forms of accreditation, such as Common Criteria, provide assurance that systems meet their claims, but these processes are costly and time consuming. Although they have their place in high-assurance environments, they are not dynamic enough to deal with new threats that appear on a day to day basis.

The emerging secure development methodologies, which are based on good security practice, provide a possible way forward, giving consumers confidence that the basic security considerations have been designed into the system and that the suppliers are monitoring and providing continual communication on how these issues could affect their IT - systems and threats are not static, this is a continual process.

Many companies that develop software are acutely aware of the importance of the security demands and are taking the appropriate actions, such as implementing secure development lifecycles, but many are not. To drive the importance of security in the IT industry we need to start asking these questions of our system suppliers. Only then will providers ensure their products are as secure as possible.

Ask yourself, do you know how security was considered by your solution provider? What precautions have they taken in developing the system for you? If you are a software provider, have you really considered the security of your offering?

Security Zone: read more advice from (ISC)² qualified security professionals >>

This was last published in October 2009

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