Monday, 8 November 2010

Why web security is simply not good enough

The Royal Navy with egg on their face today as some hacker grabs private information from one of their sites and releases it to the public. The trouble here is that what will happen is the site will be secured more tightly and we will "ensure it doesn't happen again" but these things never address the underlying issue.
There are organisations like OWASP who are trying to push for a common framework for web application security but everyone needs to be onboard if it is to implemented. We are talking about service providers, software vendors, the public and governments, if only a small measure of these are involved, it won't happen.
Do people really understand the problems though? Although the common weaknesses in web sites are well known, it would appear that many people are either unaware of these weaknesses or otherwise they are unable or unwilling to do anything about it. Just to give you a heads up, here are lots of common problems which lead to insecure web application processes:

  1. There are simply not enough skilled people for the volume of web sites

  2. The web allows people to experiment and build their own sites which are not easy to distinguish from good sites. The end-user trusts each of these to more-or-less the same degree even though the amateur sites are unlikely to follow any good practices.

  3. You can buy or obtain off-the-shelf products to build your own sites and simply assume they are secure by default. These systems are not necessarily built well but you have to rely on experience and a wide user base to find and/or fix any insecure areas.

  4. There is no way to physically stop people from either not implementing security or making a mistake when they code a site.

  5. Many sites are fixed and updated regularly so it is only likely that at some point, unless there is a secure deployment regime, that a security hole is going to be created.

  6. People tend to go with the easy approach rather than the secure approach. For instance, people use the database admin login to access the database meaning a hacked site is as good as an open door to all your data

  7. Even when using secure practices, it is possible to use them incorrectly (such as using a flawed regular expression when testing for valid user input). Some of these might have inherent bugs or incomplete functionality.

  8. People who write and deploy web applications do not require formal training of any sort to at least demonstrate they have been taught about secure practices, even if they cannot be forced to use them.

  9. Although frameworks like ASP.Net and PHP have various secure controls available, they are easy to ignore, whereas these frameworks could actually insist on secure programming even if some people don't like it. For instance, by default, a text box control should not allow unusual punctuation, you should have to manually allow it on a per-item basis if required. Safety by default

  10. Whoever has written the site, there is no worldwide accepted certification that ensures that a site is secure. There are mechanisms to prove who the site belongs to and various specific bodies like the Payment Card Industry who have their own audit procedures but nothing required for the general population.

  11. By default, once someone has connected their computer to the internet they are both a potential menace and a potential weakness, it is like a load of criminals being moved into a residential area without telling anyone and then being surprised that the crime rate has increased.

Obviously any discussion about what could be done would be met with disapproval and accusations of censorship or the like but in reality, the system does not need everybody's approval since it could be done as an "exclusive club". You would need a way to achieve and prove certification including proving that your certification is valid (which could use digital certificates) and this would involve an audit of procedures/processes and functionality - possibly against a specific release and possibly in general for your organisation or as an individual? This certificate then qualifies you for the 'green flag club' which indicates to end users that a site is about as good as it could be and which would then ultimately allow people to choose to run in ultra-protected mode (for their safety/benefit) which would then cause people who write sites to get their site certified so that they can then access the club (and provide the benefit of a more secure site). The un-certified sites can live in the badlands!
Right, when do we start?
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