Web site security needs a strategy

By Jeremiah Grossman, White Hat Security
Someone begins watching a basketball game and asks who is winning. You might helpfully answer, “Lakers up 76 to 64.” Imagine if instead you said, “The Lakers are 60% from the field, have 12 rebounds, are 8 of 10 from the line, and the average height of the starting lineup is 6’7.” Sure, these are important statistics, but they certainly do not answer the question. (Inspired by Richard Bejtlich) The person listening would probably think you were trying to be funny, a jerk, or perhaps both.
Yet, this is how the Web security industry responds when businesses ask about the security of their websites. “We identified 21 security defects including eight Cross-Site Scripting and four SQL Injection, we are improving our SDL processes, and most of our programmers have been through security training.” Again, important metrics, but still not answering the most important question — how well defended is a website from getting hacked.

Someone begins watching a basketball game and asks who is winning. You might helpfully answer, “Lakers up 76 to 64.” Imagine if instead you said, “The Lakers are 60% from the field, have 12 rebounds, are 8 of 10 from the line, and the average height of the starting lineup is 6’7.” Sure, these are important statistics, but they certainly do not answer the question. (Inspired by Richard Bejtlich) The person listening would probably think you were trying to be funny, a jerk, or perhaps both.

Yet, this is how the Web security industry responds when businesses ask about the security of their websites. “We identified 21 security defects including eight Cross-Site Scripting and four SQL Injection, we are improving our SDL processes, and most of our programmers have been through security training.” Again, important metrics, but still not answering the most important question — how well defended is a website from getting hacked.

The Web security industry supposedly advocates a strategy based upon risk reduction, but predominately practices defect reduction as the measuring stick. This is NOT the same and provides no assurance that a website is more secure against an attack of certain capability. Then in the next breath, as Pete Lindstrom points out, we ironically consider those with the most identified/patched vulnerabilities as the least secure. Simultaneously the community engages in endless ideological debates about black box testing versus source code reviews, the value of SDL pitted against Web Application Firewalls, certification as opposed to field experience, and vast collections of “best-practices” suggested as appropriate for everyone in every case. Confusion and frustration is a reader’s takeaway. It must be understood that each component can be seen as a piece of the puzzle, if only done so without losing sight of the bigger picture — which is…

How to conduct e-commerce securely and remain consistent with business goals

To be successful companies need a plan — a common sense approach to building an enterprise risk-based strategy. A system enabling solutions to be implemented in the time and place that maximizes return, demonstrates success, and by extension justifies the investment to the business in the language they understand. A strategy that perhaps begins by addressing the most common question, “Where do I start?” One simple answer is to locate, value, and prioritize an organization’s websites. Go further by assisting the business units in understanding the relevant issues such as “What do we really need to be concerned about first?” Describe the most likely threats (attackers), their capabilities, motives and which vulnerability classes are most likely to be targeted. Only when you know what you own, how much it’s worth, and what attack types must be defended against, according to business objectives, can security be applied in a risk-based fashion.

The problem CIOs and CSOs are facing is that the pseudo Web security standards available are completely inadequate for accomplishing the task. I am not the first to have called out this need. This is what Arian Evans has been talking at length about. As have Rafal Los, Ryan Barnett, Boaz Gelbord, Michael Dahn, Rich Mogull / Adrian Lane, Wade Woolwine, Nick Coblenz, Richard Bejtlich, Gunnar Peterson and likely many others. Many of the building blocks necessary for building a standard are scattered around the Internet including secure software programs, testing guides, and top X lists. These tactical documents could potentially be leveraged into a higher-level framework and serve as the basis for a mature risk-based enterprise website security strategy. The OCTAVE Method, FAIR, ISO 27001/2, among others, also contain well thought out and accepted concepts which we could use as a model.

It is imperative now more than ever that such a resource exists to satisfy a clearly unfulfilled need. CIOs and CSOs know there is a Web security problem. Now they seek guidance in how to develop a program that is flexible enough to meet their individual needs, which can also demonstrate success in manageable increments. I’ve been in contact with several industry thought leaders and enterprise security managers who have expressed personal interest, even excitement, in building out such a system. It is time to start helping ourselves answer the question, “Who is winning the game?”

I feel very strongly about the importance of this effort and I’ll be dedicating personal time to see the idea go forward. To move ahead quickly, the Web Application Security Consortium (WASC) and The SANS Institute are planning to initiating a joint open community project (to be named later). If you would like to get involved, please stay tuned for more details.

* Jeremiah Grossman is the founder and Chief Technology Officer of WhiteHat Security.

* Composite Header image from gesteves and Robbie1‘s Flickr feed (Creative Commons 2.0)

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