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Hackers at work: Security testing at STARWEST

by Jennifer Lent

Frank Kim opened his STARWEST Conference session Security Testing: Think Like an Attacker by asking attendees how many of them were familiar with the concept of a cross-site scripting error. Virtually every hand in the room of 60 to 70 test professionals shot up. But when he asked how many had actually come across this security vulnerability during the testing process, only a handful said they had. 

Kim, who is a curriculum lead for computer security training organization the SANS Institute, wasn’t surprised by the response. “Testers think about functionality. They focus on what an application should do,” he said. But hackers concentrate on getting an app to behave in ways that weren’t intended. These days, testers need to assume the hacker mindset as well, said Kim, founder of software security consultancy ThinkSec. “Make one big assumption,” he told attendees, “everyone using your website is evil.”

In the session, Kim demonstrated how a hacker uses cross-site scripting, SQL injections and cross-site request forgeries to steal user names and passwords, and even get an online bank customer to unknowingly transfer money of her account into the hacker’s. It was powerful to watch the demonstration, to see the actual code the hacker was sending to the application, and the data he was pulling out. One attendee asked whether virus protection software prevents these kinds of errors. Kim said no.

Kim noted the widespread availability of application security tools – open source and commercial – designed to scan code and flag these vulnerabilities. He likes the tools well enough, but he said when introducing people to the concept, it’s more effective to give a live demonstration of how a hacker works. “It easy for software and test professionals to dismiss the results from the tools.”

For me, this was one of most interesting sessions at the conference. And it raises a bunch of questions. Will application security testing become a key process for test organizations? Will it move into the mainstream? How do we make that happen? I am interested to see how this all shakes out.

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