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1/21/2010
12:31 PM
Alexander Wolfe
Alexander Wolfe
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Sloppy Software Dev Exposes Google Hacker Holes

I've ranted on the subject before, but it's worth sounding off again in light of the recent China hacker breaches of Gmail: Poor software development procedures are the big reason major firms are apparently running around scared witless that their products are vulnerable to cyberattacks. (The corollary, about which we haven't read anything, is that firms with buttoned-down dev rules are likely feeling, if not entirely safe, then at least free of the panic which plagues the cluelessly unprepared.

I've ranted on the subject before, but it's worth sounding off again in light of the recent China hacker breaches of Gmail: Poor software development procedures are the big reason major firms are apparently running around scared witless that their products are vulnerable to cyberattacks. (The corollary, about which we haven't read anything, is that firms with buttoned-down dev rules are likely feeling, if not entirely safe, then at least free of the panic which plagues the cluelessly unprepared.)The scary thing is, it's my belief that there aren't many PC-generation vendors (you know what I mean here; I'm not going to name names) who adhere to enforced best practices. Let's stipulate that this is not totally their fault; software developers who came of age without ever having to wield a soldering iron can't be expected to have a deep understand of the hardware upon which their poorly commented, non-error-trapping spaghetti code is running.

I do suspect that networking companies have an inherent advantage insofar as hacker exposure goes. That's because the higher complexity level of their software output -- as compared with, say, desktop PC apps -- means that they're more likely to enforce internal practices such as (real, as opposed to theatrical) code reviews and deep QA testing. This may not be driven by security concerns; at the top level, it's because without a proper process, the stuff just won't work. But the upshot is the same, and they're in a better place as a result.

Personally, I hadn't been planning on writing anything in the wake of the Google China attack. However, I was set off by Wednesday's New York Times article, Fearing Hackers Who Leave No Trace, by John Markoff and Ashlee Vance.

It's a worthy piece of work, taking note of the U.S. government-enforced back door, which vendors like Cisco must put into their products so the National Security Agency can do what it does. (Though of course the NSA would be able to do that even without the back door.)

However, as one would expect from a broad-audience article, it doesn't pick inside-baseball nits, such as my software dev complaint above.

User-Side Protection

The one other angle I'd like to mention involves not the vulnerabilities of the creators of source code, but rather of the users. The deal here is, if any company really wants to be secure, what they would have to do is ensure that they're not using any apps which might be vulnerable.

Sounds like a small deal, but it's not. In practice, this means that if Adobe Acrobat is perceived as being vulnerable to attack--something mentioned in the Times article--then what your organization would need to do to be secure is to not use (or to sandbox) Acrobat. [I can't believe I'm half-channeling Richard Stallman here, though not with the intention of making the same point.]

That's not really practical in the workaday world, but it is in organizations which have the resources to develop their own alternatives. What I'm getting at here is, I wonder if any of the "black ops" orgs are down with this? They're the people who are providing our attack-side resources in the below-the-radar cyberwar with China and Russia.

I don't know what the answer is, but it's certainly an interesting question.

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Alex Wolfe is editor-in-chief of InformationWeek.com.

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Christian Bryant
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Christian Bryant,
User Rank: Ninja
5/22/2014 | 6:09:24 AM
Right on the Money
I absolutely agree.  The recent Heartbleed article on Dark Reading got me ranting similarly about the need for security requirements in software projects and more care by the community in observing them: http://www.darkreading.com/messages.asp?piddl_msgthreadid=11947&piddl_msgid=219318#msg_219318
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