Security by Design: Advocating for a Security-first Software Paradigm

By Published On: February 9th, 2021Categories: Cyber Hygiene, Cybersecurity, Technology

In 2020, advanced persistent threat (APT) actors and common cybercriminals displayed innovative capabilities in the exploitation of critical software systems; most of which focused on attacking open-source software that lacked a security by design approach within its developmental architecture.

For several years, software developers viewed security as an after-thought – a functionality that was merely added on at the tail-end of the software development lifecycle. However, as the threat landscape evolved, threat actors understood the potency of targeting software tools that already existed in the trusted network landscape of an organization. Therefore, establishing backdoors and corrupting software codes of native software solutions became the primary step in supply chain attacks.

Balancing data privacy and security with user experience happens to be one of the most difficult tasks for software developers. However, with the sophisticated supply chain security incidents in 2020, which is still having unquantifiable impacts on corporate and government critical infrastructures in the United States, it would be a reckless business decision in 2021 to introduce a software tool into your computing environment without confirming its security posture.

What is Security by Design, and How Does It Impact Your Security Posture?

Security by design (SbD) is a modern industrial concept based on one basic idea—that security must be baked into the product design and development stages, rather than being applied at a later stage. While security awareness continues to be championed amongst software developers, several organizations solely concentrate on the introduction of security mechanisms at the final stages of the software development phase. This cheap attempt to push security into an otherwise finished product inevitably jeopardizes an organization’s entire supply chain.

Although most enterprises understand that security is indeed an essential element in the implementation of business operations, concerns about financial resources and implementation expertise frequently take priority over security requirements. In reality, SbD focuses on encoding uniform and replicable protocols to ensure standardization of security processes throughout an IT infrastructure.

The security by design methodology is often enforced via frequent code reviews and architectural design reviews, to ensure quality control – during the code review process, a software security probe searches for software-related threats and vulnerabilities that could be exploited by threat actors. For example, if a software application’s code tree is riddled with potential backdoors and malicious code injections, an automated and/or manual code review catches such loopholes before the tool is introduced into the corporate network.

Introducing Zero-Trust to the Software Design Process

Zero-trust is a technical initiative that helps to eliminate unauthorized system processes. A zero-trust framework integrates perfectly with a security by design approach to software security because both technical ideologies are centered on the philosophy of “never trust, always verify,” thus maintaining a dynamic defense against the exploitation of data privacy and security.

Although threat actors continue to deploy sophisticated and far-reaching attacks, one method to resolve these threats is to extend the zero-trust concept to the fundamental software development processes. This means, however, that protection is embedded within the fabric of every digital product and/or service that interacts with critical business data. This ensures that the trust bubble is only extended to tools and services that are able to pass automated security trust tests.

Overcoming Concerns with a Security-first Software Paradigm

For some businesses, the security-first framework tends to result in operational friction amongst users who fail to understand the vitality of baking security throughout every business operation. The balance between an excellent user experience and a healthy security posture can be achieved by engaging automation in the software development life cycle – this includes automating key security processes, such as patch management cycles, IT policy updates, network risks assessments, etc.

In many companies today, IT teams continue to experience budgetary cuts and loss of human talent. As this resource deprivation continues to occur, it is imperative that IT security leaders consider software tools with verifiable security-first protocols or leverage security orchestration and automation throughout the development and design of in-house software tools and services.

Because many IT software tools and services are developed with security as an after-thought, threat actors can circumvent certain parts of a software architecture to gain a foothold into critical functionalities within said software. Therefore, IT Security leaders can implement a security-first paradigm in 2021 by enforcing the following steps:

  1. Identify the software tools and services operating within your computing environment.
  2. Build zero-test architecture for critical software processes (“trust none, verify all”).
  3. Develop new IT policies with a security-first approach.
  4. Monitor and log data movements within your software ecosystem.

Risks Associated with Poor Software Security Hygiene

Software plays an integral role in the facilitation of business processes, such as data categorization, communication, and process automation. As such, software security hygiene is pivotal to the continuous health and safety of an organization. As well all know, humans are the weakest link in the security chain, meaning that a misstep in the design of a software architecture could cause an organization’s critical data to become vulnerable to threat actors.

Cyber hygiene involves the procedures and measures that consumers take intending to maintain confidential data structured, healthy and stable from intrusion and external threats. The goal for all organizations ought to be to defend an organization with strong cyber hygiene and simple lines of protection, as well as to enhance the solution with more sophisticated resources and techniques. Know that data security helps to defend the company, but it should not be a barrier to creativity and progress.

Cybersecurity risks associated with poor software security hygiene include:

  1. Code Corruption

Poor software security hygiene creates a loophole that allows threat actors to infiltrate legitimate software using a backdoor. When a backdoor is created, lateral movement techniques are leveraged to attain authorized access to software architectural codes that control functionalities such as read, write, storage, transmission, processing, etc. Therefore, code corruption risk introduces unintended changes to the original architecture and functionality of a trusted software, thus producing unexpected results and the poisoning of an entire supply chain ecosystem.

  1. Sensitive Data Exposure

Sensitive data exposure often leads to data spillage, thus allowing threat actors to steal, corrupt, and/or manipulate sensitive data. Additionally, sensitive data exposure sets the tone for other well-known security incidents, including ransomware and social engineering attacks.  These nefarious results of poor software security hygiene result in catastrophic impacts to business continuity that usually requires depletion of already scanty IT resources.

  1. Security Misconfiguration

Security misconfiguration is directly correlated to human error. It sometimes persists where there is a poor security awareness training program. For organizations that are unwilling to integrate security by design into every stage of their software development lifecycle, security misconfiguration could result in bad error handling parameters; insecure deserialization; broken authorization and authentication controls; improper access and privilege management; and unreliable system patching cadence.

  1. Malware Injection

The security by design approach is set up to maintain a proactive security posture throughout the lifespan of a software tool. However, whenever the security-first paradigm is sidestepped, malware injection becomes a major threat to a software and an entire corporate network. Malware injection is used by threat actors to introduce malicious code sequences into vulnerable systems with the goal of manipulating process logic execution. Therefore, the outcome of a successful malware injection can be extremely catastrophic to business operations. Examples of malware injections include SQL injection, XSS injection, XML rewriting, OS command poisoning, etc.

Conclusion

Advocating for a security-first paradigm for software development is no longer an IT concern, it is equally a business concern because of the integrative role that software plays across every facet of an organization. The modern cyber-threat landscape continues to evolve at an unprecedented rate, as novel attack methodologies become obsolete within weeks. As such, attack surfaces expand in response to such rapid evolution. Therefore, categorizing the pertinent risks associated with specific attack surfaces, such as software infrastructures, helps an organization to determine the proper mitigation strategies to enforce.

While human error remains the top cause of cybersecurity incidents, a robust security awareness training program is essential to the prevention and mitigation of security incidents. Because humans are the weakest link in the security chain, baking security into the software development and design process implemented via automation parameters aimed at introducing detective, preventive, and corrective controls into the software computing ecosystem of an organization.

Automating cybersecurity hygiene is the key to the precise and scalable risk mitigation strategies that are ripe for today’s dynamic cyber-threat landscape. In an upcoming blog, we will dive deeper into the top 5 methods of maintaining a security by design approach, without jeopardizing user experiences.

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