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Thinking like a hacker

Jeff Feinman recently published a great article in SD Times titled “Think like a hacker.” The article collects statements about security testing from several vendors and ties them together around this basic theme:

From a technology standpoint, there are two main approaches for testing software for security, and they are well known to developers and testers. One is exercising the software from what many call the outside-in approach: testing to see how the application responds to a simulated attack. The second is more of an inside-out approach, which looks for coding patterns that would highlight vulnerabilities in the code.

In the limited security testing I’ve done, I’ve had luck with both approaches. It can be downright scary how poor application security really is. I’m not even a full-time security tester, and I can find my share of security bugs with little effort. And don’t get me wrong, that’s not a testament to my skill. That’s a testament to the state of software security — it’s bad.

As one example, I remember a number of years ago I was asked to evaluate a new Web store implementation for a company that sold products around potentially sensitive customer information (think credit reports, but not quite). As I evaluated the website, I looked at the code for the e-commerce portion of the site. As I reviewed the code, I got the feeling that whoever programmed this section of the site really knew what they were doing. They were pros, and I didn’t feel it was very likely that I’d be able to find any issues in that code without a lot of hard work.

Stepping back from the website a bit, I stopped thinking of security tests I could run, and instead thought about the company and how they would likely have run this project. I didn’t know, I wasn’t involved, but I’ve worked in similar situations in the past. They had likely outsourced this portion of the site to a company that’s done countless e-commerce implementations.

But then I asked, “What would this company be too cheap to outsource? What would they do themselves because they think it’s easy and there’s no risk?” I reviewed the site a second time, this time with those questions in mind. Instead of focusing on products, I looked at the supporting features. There was an Advanced Search function (everyone thinks they can do search), so I checked that out. Within seconds (really, my first test) I had information from the search function that I could use to access other parts of the site.

That’s why I really like that quote above from the article. In my one simple example of security testing, I took two approaches. First I tested to see how the application responded to simulated attacks (SQL injection, URL hacking, etc.). When that didn’t work, I switched gears and thought about coding and project patterns that would highlight vulnerabilities in the code.

Again from the article:

“You don’t want to be starting to think about testing security as you’re coming into a release candidate,” DeMarines said. “You want to be looking at this fairly upfront when most of the functionality has been implemented in a way that you can test it, and then figure out how to make it resistant to the kinds of threats the enterprise is worried about.”

Upfront indeed … the article provides some great places to start looking at integrating application security into your development process.

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