“Application Security” needs a good story!

This is part I of the Application Security story. Follow this link to part II in case you would like to directly access the poster.

What is the problem?

Most attacks happen on the application layer and are often precipitated by social engineering attacks. The usual network or infrastructure security solutions are less or not effective on these layers. Unfortunately, the majority of cyber security effort does not happen in application development.

There are several factors at work which prevent a better focus on Application Security.

Factor 1: Mindset issue “Security as an afterthought”

An important factor is the classical “security as an afterthought” mindset in IT that hunts also Application Security. It certainly is a mindset which is deeply ingrained in the IT community and IT business.

In the best case, additional Security can still be bolted on somehow after the release. In the worst case, it would not be possible to add such a patch because it is too late and too costly to make the necessary changes.

Maybe it should rather be called “approach” than just “mindset” because it goes deeper than a couple of IT stakeholders having some personal preferences. If it were only a mindset issue then it should be possible to change things radically and with ease if it turns out to be necessary.

Factor 2: “Security as an afterthought” because it makes economical sense (right now)

Nevertheless, it often makes economic sense to simply run the risk and limit IT Security investment to what is perceived as inevitable at the very moment. Look at the figure below showing the cost curve of two different IT Security paradigms (reactive vs. proactive approach).

Underinvestment in IT Security can become costly in the long run, however, it even makes economical sense on the first half of the cost curve (inversion part) if the time frame preference is leaning more towards the short run. Short term business preferences and a reactive approach towards IT Security have a lot in common.

The point is that it takes time and effort to switch to a more sustainable proactive approach with Security or Privacy by Design. The long term goal should be to have falling marginal IT Security costs in the future, which means efficiency and effectiveness of security investments. However, this requires to prepare the ground ahead of time and invest with long term focus in order to profit from falling marginal cost in the future. Yes, this is about TCO (Total Cost of Ownership).

I am confident that this shift will happen once the point is reached when the cumulated cost from Security investments and incident fallouts start to grow out of proportion. Senior management will then begin to ask serious questions about return on IT Security investment and TCO.

Factor 3: Application Security considered as too complex

IT Security gets more attention nowadays because of spectacular security incidents which are widely published in the media. However, the old thinking is still alive and the mood still is better not to tamper with the Application Security layer when it can be avoided because Application Security can be rather complex and risk to become expensive if not managed properly.

This is especially important from the perspective of IT operations and IT infrastructure as the tendency is to choose cyber security solutions with the aim not to interfere with the working of applications. Going for low hanging fruits might be a good thing from this perspective, however, many cyber solutions are also rather reactive in nature and transparent to the application as result.

Factor 4: Separation between Development (Dev) and Operations (Ops)

This tendency is amplified with the classical separation between application development and IT operations. The good thing is that those who are responsible for IT infrastructure and its operations have a budget in which cyber security needs can be addressed. However, these stakeholders will choose solutions from their infrastructure perspective and not from Application Security perspective. On the side of Application Security, budgeting is far more difficult as it happens within individual development projects. This is so, because Application Security is perceived as project risk issue and not as security contribution for protecting also the rest of the enterprise.

Furthermore, an application developer would rather not use (and experiment) with infrastructure security features and IT Ops people try not to get involved and exposed to application complexities. IT operations and IT application development are completely different worlds and current IT governance/management frameworks support this separation of concerns. There are many valid reasons for this separation, however, some topics like IT Security often require a more holistic approach across such silo borders.

The recent DevOps movement tries to overcome this gap in order to reduce development and maintenance cost and speed up time to market (TTM). This is beneficial for both parties but adding even more risk if it happens without IT Security mindset, appropriate architecture and tooling.

Shift towards a more preventive and proactive approach required

A more preventive and proactive security approach would make sense in application development because it is the application which exposes internal APIs and interfaces to the external world of cyber risks. Ideally starting the security process with “Security by Design” at the very beginning of a development project by thinking about threat scenarios and security requirements.

“DevSecOps” provides the security mindset and adequate tools and processes for continuous security hardening during development, testing and operations. However, such a preventive approach is still rare in IT.

Shifting the focus towards Application Security is the logical next step (and a necessity) in cyber security – but it will require a substantial shift of mindset and management attention.

Application Security needs a good story in order to make this happen. Some buzzwords as “Shift Left”, “Security by Design” and “DevSecOps” are quite useful in order to promote this change towards proactive security and continuous hardening on the application layer.

Compare this with “Safety by Design” in the automotive industry

Compare the current security mindset in IT with the safety mindset in the automotive industry. It would be like delivering new vehicles without safety features and leaving it to the customer how to deal with missing safety items, e.g. by adding them (safety steering wheel, bumpers, safety glass, safety belts or anti-lock braking systems) after the purchase. Some safety measures as crumple zones or airbags are difficult to add afterwards as they require substantial changes on the car structure or interior design – which simply would be too expensive.

Fortunately, we don’t need to care much about the safety basics when ordering a car because the automotive industry went through decades of learning curves regarding active and passive vehicle safety. It would be unacceptable nowadays that a producer gets away with unsafe vehicles and for that, it would not be economical to design them without applying the “Safety by Design” approach.

Side note on Safety and Security: A quality issue after all

It is somehow ironic that the automotive industry with its long history of “Safety by Design” is now unconsciously embracing the conflicting paradigm of “security as an afterthought” from the IT industry with the advent of the interconnected car. This is not supposed to be an article about the dangers of IoT and vehicle IT Security, however as a side note here, it is clear that the product safety paradigm of the car industry and the security paradigm of the IT industry are not compatible right now, which will need to be reconciled on both sides in order to make sense.

The automotive industry needs to consider continuous hardening as update service far beyond vehicle end-of-production date as more and more cyber risk are introduced with interconnected functionality. The IT industry on the other hand should shift towards “Security by Design” in order to improve the quality of typical IT products when they are shipped. Preventing future quality and safety issues of costly IoT assets is impossible without addressing IT Security during the whole product life-cycle and even for years ahead. Obviously, a tremendous economic challenge.

Two paradigms, different cost curves

The current cyber security boom will need to evolve towards a more proactive and preventive security approach as this is also an issue of product quality. However, quality comes with additional cost first but it should become a benefit in the long run.

Figure: Security cost curve for different paradigms. IT Security done the old way can become costly in the long run. However, if you look at the figure, underinvestment in IT Security makes economical sense on the first half of the curve – especially if business is driven by quarterly revenues.

Making this perspective visible might hopefully spark a discussion about effectiveness and efficiency of IT Security measures. If cyber security is supposed to be more than just a momentous boom, then we have to re-balance the effort regarding Infrastructure Security vs. Application Security in order to get a better and more sustainable cost/benefit balance from security investments. It surely will happen – as it happened with safety in the automotive industry – the only question is when.

Nevertheless, it is not that simple. Re-balancing this effort means more Application Security which could need a good story to start with. Most people are not aware about the meager state of Application Security and how difficult it is to apply a proactive and preventive approach – even if security best practice is known and understood by all stakeholders involved.

The poster (on the right) is an attempt to compose such a story in order to promote Application Security. The idea is to visualize the relationship between application development and IT Security with the help of three useful concepts; one works on management layer for getting attention and support of senior management (“Shift Left”) and the other two (“Security by Design” and “DevSecOps”) for the IT people on the ground in the trenches (developers, tester, project manager, IT operations).

Follow this link to part II of this blog or click on the poster on the right.

Shift-Left, Security by Design and DevSecOps
A poster for discussing the three important elements of Application Security.

Author: Roberto Di Paolo
Version 1.2 2017/08/31, last update 2018/7/25, © ACROSEC Inc., All Rights Reserved