CEO, Hdiv Security
One of the most prevalent misconceptions about cybersecurity, especially in the mainstream media and also among our clients, is that to conduct a successful attack against an IT system it is necessary to ‘investigate’ and find a new defect in the target’s system.
However, for most security incidents involving internet applications, it is enough to simply exploit existing and known programming errors.
For instance, the dramatic Equifax breach could have been prevented by following basic software security best-practices, such as patching the system to prevent known vulnerabilities. That was, in fact, one of the main takeaways from the forensic investigation led by the US federal government.
One of the most important ways to reduce security risks is to ensure that all known programming errors are corrected before the system is exposed to internet traffic. Research bodies such as the US NIST found that correcting security bugs early on is orders of magnitude cheaper than doing so when the development has been completed.
When composing a text in a text editor, the spelling and grammar corrector highlights the mistakes in the text. Similarly, there are security tools known as AST (Application Security Testing) that find programming errors that introduce security weaknesses. ASTs report the file and line where the vulnerability is located, in the same way, that a text editor reports the page and the line that contains a typo.
In other words, these tools allow developers to build software that is largely free of security-related programming errors, resulting in more secure applications.
Just like it is almost impossible to catch all errors in a long piece of text, most software contains many serious security vulnerabilities. The fact that some teams do not use any automated help at all, makes these security weaknesses all the most prevalent and easy to exploit.
Let’s take a look at the different types of security issue detection tools also known as ASTs, or vulnerability assessment tools, available in the market.
The Traditional Approach
Two mature technologies capture most of the market: static code analysis (SAST) and web scanners (dynamic analysis or DAST). Each of these two families of tools is focused on a different execution environment.
The SAST static analysis, also known as white-box analysis because the tool has access to the source code of the application, scans the source code looking for known patterns that indicate insecure programming that could lead to a vulnerability.
The DAST dynamic analysis replicates the view of an attacker. At this point, the tool executes hundreds or thousands of queries against the application designed to replicate the activity of an attacker to find security vulnerabilities. This is a black-box analysis because the point of view is purely external, with no knowledge of the application’s internal architecture.
The level of detail provided by the two types of tools is different. SAST tools provide file and line where the vulnerability is located, but no URL, while DAST tools provide the external URL, but no details on the location of the problem within the code base of the application. Some teams use both tools to improve visibility, but this requires long and complex triaging to manage the vulnerabilities.
The Interactive AST Approach
The Interactive Application Security Testing (IAST) tools combine the static approach and the dynamic approach. They have access to the internal structure of the application, and to the way it behaves with actual traffic. This privileged point of view is ideal to conduct security analysis.
From an architecture point of view, the IAST tools become part of the infrastructure that hosts the web applications, because an IAST runs together with the application server. This approach is called instrumentation, and it is implemented by a component known as an agent. Other platforms such as Application Performance Monitoring tools (APMs) share this proven approach.
Once the agent has been installed, it incorporates automatic security sensors in the critical execution points of the application. These sensors monitor the dataflow between requests and responses, the external components that the application includes, and data operations such as database access. This broad-spectrum coverage is much better than the visibility that SAST and DAST rely on.
In terms of specific results, we can look at two important metrics – how many types of vulnerabilities the tool finds, and how many of the identified vulnerabilities are false positives. Well, the best DAST is able to find only 18% of the existing vulnerabilities on a test application. And even worse, around 50% of the vulnerabilities reported by the best SAST static analysis tool are not true problems!
Source: Hdiv Security via OWASP Benchmark public result data
The IAST approach provides these tangible benefits:
- Complete coverage, because the entire application is reviewed, both the custom code and the external code, such as open-source components and legacy dependencies.
- Flexibility, because it can be used in all environments; development, quality assurance (QA), and production.
- High accuracy, because the combination of static and dynamic point of views allow us to find more vulnerabilities with no false positives.
- Complete vulnerability information, including the static aspects (source code details) and dynamic aspects (execution details).
- Reduction of the duration of the security verification phase, so that the time-to-market of the secure applications is shorter.
- Compatible with agile development methodologies, such as DevSecOps, because it can be easily automated, and reduces the manual verification activities
IAST tool can add tons of value to the security tooling of any organization concerned with the security of the software.
In the same way that everyone uses an automated spell checker to find typos in a document, we believe that any team would benefit from an automated validation of the security of an application.
However, the AST does not represent a security utopia, since they can only detect security problems that follow a common pattern.
About the Author –
Roberto Velasco is the CEO of Hdiv Security. He has been involved with the IT and security industry for the past 16 years and is experienced in software development, software architecture and application security across different sectors such as banking, government and energy. Prior to founding Hdiv Security, Roberto worked for 8 years as a software architect and co-founded ARIMA, a company specialized in software architecture. He regularly speaks at Software Architecture and cybersecurity conferences such as Spring I/O and APWG.eu.