Security-patching Common Web Development Frameworks

A few weeks ago at OWASP AppSec DC we made progress on an idea that several of us (@RafalLos, @secureideas, @securityninja, @TheCustOS) have been talking about on twitter for a while. The idea is based on trying to determine a good solution to what we see as the general brokenness of the Internet’s web applications. Not only do we see current applications as badly broken but the velocity at which developers are building new insecure web application is increasing. The panel that we hosted at OWASP AppSec DC discussed one method which we can contribute to reduce the rate at which new, insecure web applications are being developed.

Our idea is based on improving the security of existing web application development frameworks; adding security components into their core, thus making security more transparent to the developer and potentially having the effect of producing more secure web applications.

While there are certain elements of WebAppSec which will help to reduce the volume and impact of vulnerabilities such as training; training simply hasn’t proven to be a solution which scales well. The root of the problem with training is that the number of developers in the world is many orders of magnitude more than the number of WebAppSec trainers. The trainers are also limited due to several factors such as the need to understand language-specific constructs and limitations and the need to constantly keep up with changing development methodologies. This drastically impacts the pool of qualified, available trainers.

There are two factors which we need to address so that everyone is clear the types of vulnerabilities we want to cover and how we will improve existing frameworks. Trying to fix all WebAppSec vulnerabilities programmatically is an arduous and complex task. Therefore, we have decided to focus on form-based attacks (SQLi, XSS etc). Our approach will focus strictly on the types of flaws which can be readily addressed with minimal impact to the framework structure, and coding principles of the framework.

Next we have to cover which frameworks, and the versions we will try to improve. From the panel discussion, the consensus is that it is important for us not to focus on adding security to legacy versions of the frameworks since this would be a losing battle which isn’t really worth fighting since developers will over time likely be moving to newer versions of the frameworks with the applied fixes.

The core idea is to improve existing development frameworks by adding security controls into the upstream version of the framework. This means that as the framework is improved with additional features which developers will want, they will have the added benefit of getting a more secure framework “right out of the box”. We understand that developers have little incentive to produce more secure code over meeting their often aggressive release deadlines. Making the frameworks incorporate security is very important, and I think the ideal way to reduce the rate at which vulnerable web applications are being developed by making it more difficult for developers to write insecure code. This change means that from a business perspective the negative time and productivity impact to write “more secure code” is reduced… Our goal is to make the applications being developed more secure, by making security less visible and requiring less effort. We feel this will be the most effective and impactful method of raising overall web application security – by making it simple and (nearly) transparent for developers. We know developers don’t write poorly secured code on purpose, so by making security easier on them, there is a greater chance of the final product having a higher level of software security. It may not be possible to make the entire Internet secure but if we can change the velocity at which new, vulnerable web applications are being developed then we are really making huge strides toward a more secure Internet.

Perhaps the most important question is now that we have an acceptance of our idea – what do we do first? Clearly, step one is gaining community support. I’m not 100 % sure that creating a new OWASP project is the best method… The alternative to this is to use another site like Google groups and/or something similar for managing our efforts.

We welcome community input! Please feel free to leave comments. We are looking forward to see what other people in the community have say about these ideas.

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