Financial institutions are known to have in place some of the most advanced application security practices and tools. Even so, a new benchmarking study out this week shows that even among these well-funded security programs there are still big gaps in their application security practices - a finding that should offer a clue as to the state of appsec at large.
The study found that while financial organizations almost universally have internal secure coding standards in place, most are hard-pressed to validate them. Additionally, fewer than half require their third-party vendors to have similar policies and standards.
Conducted among CISOs, the survey took a deep dive into common attitudes and practices across dozens of leading global financial institutions. The good news is that three out of four respondents reporte that application security is a critical- or high priority. And nearly all of them employ at least one kind of framework, standard, or maturity model to structure their application security program, with Building Security In Maturity Model (BSIMM) as the most popular, with an adoption rate of 89%.
However, digging further, the types of metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs) used to track the effectiveness of policies laid out by these standards betray a lack of sophistication in their appsec programs. The most common KPI used by the respondents was a simple vulnerability count, typically totaled up based on statistic analysis security testing and dynamic analysis security testing, a metric used by 77% of programs.
Meanwhile, only about 46% of organizations measure how long it takes to remediate vulnerabilities, just 38% of organizations track whether developer teams are even using the security tools mandated by policies, and only 15% measure completion of security requirements. Scarily enough, 15% of organizations don't track via metrics the effectiveness of their appsec programs.
The report noted that the overreliance on vulnerability counts could potentially be giving these organizations a false sense of security. According to Security Compass analysis, scanning by SAST and DAST tools alone probably miss about 46% of application-level risks. Though that number may be up for debate, other application security experts concur that there's a risk visibility gap left by relying on scanning alone.
"When thinking about vulnerability management, most security practitioners think about it is terms of a what a scanner will find for them," says Jake Kouns, chief information security officer for Risk Based Security. "Most scanners are not looking for all vulnerabilities as they don't have the signatures to cover them, and they are also not comprehensive as they don't look for third-party library vulnerabilities."
For the financial organizations queried for the report, third-party library vulnerabilities are just the start of third-party application risks left unaddressed. The study showed that 58% of respondents use at least some third-party software and 17% say they primarily rely on it. However, less than half of organizations require that their vendors have a secure software development lifecycle or application security policy. Additionally, only 38% of organizations were able to perform static or dynamic testing, and a measly 15% performed threat modeling or design reviews on third-party software.
As financial organizations grapple with the demands placed upon them to increase their customer-facing application portfolio for competitive demands, the weaknesses evidenced by this report shows that there's a lot of work ahead for them on the application security front.
"Application security teams within financial institutions need to design their security programs with the appropriate goals, governance and metrics," the report warned. "Firms should select security activities that meet their risk reduction and scalability goals. Simply selecting a set of best practices from a secure SDLC framework may not result in an ability to execute."