Using Bugs as Leverage

Vulnerability research, scanning can give enterprises an edge, experts say

WASHINGTON -- Gartner IT Security Summit 2007 -- Enterprises need to make vulnerability research a part of their everyday security diet, experts said here today.

"Enterprises need to decide vulnerability research is 'good for us,'" said Thomas Ptacek, principal and founder of Matasano Security.

In a panel session here, Ptacek -- along with David Maynor, CTO of Errata Security, Chris Wysopal, CTO of Veracode, and moderator Rich Mogull, vice president of research for Gartner -- debated some of the best ways to use vulnerability research and security scans as leverage when purchasing products.

The panelists said vulnerability research is crucial to trying to stay one step ahead of the bad guys who want to hack you. "If you leave crumbs on the floor, the ants are going to show up," Wysopal said during the panel session. "It's a huge liability with [vulnerabilities] showing up in your company... It could mean brand damage if you let someone else find them [first]."

But sometimes it takes an incident to shake a company into reality. "Some people obviously don't see any danger or risk until something bad happens," said Maximilliano Caceres, director of product management for Core Security, in an interview after the panel discussion.

Caceres says the main takeaway from the vulnerability researcher panel here is that security is increasingly becoming an evaluation criterion for IT investments. "Organizations are starting to incorporate security testing into their own processes," he says. And it's no longer just about testing your internally developed apps, he says: "It's testing the security of products before you buy them."

The recent wave of bug discoveries in security tools, including antivirus products, demonstrates the danger of relying too heavily on such products. "There's a misconception that [companies that use security products] are inherently more secure. That's totally not true," Ptacek said during the session.

Errata's Maynor blamed the unnecessary complexity of applications. "The security industry happened because at some point, applications have gotten so complicated," he said. And the tools to secure them have been hit with exploits themselves in the past six months, he said.

"I've asked security vendors if their product goes through stringent testing and I get 'nudge, nudge, wink, wink,'" said Maynor.

Maynor noted that if an enterprise finds bugs when testing out a product, it can take that back to the vendor's sales rep as leverage.

Veracode's Wysopal agreed that security should be part of the acquisition process: "Security has to be part of the buying equation. It's part of your due diligence."

Still, doing your own security testing -- or hiring it out -- isn't cheap. Gartner estimates that for every 100 employees, an organization has at least one custom application, Mogull noted. "That's going to be extremely expensive if you do it for every app."

The reality is that some enterprise IT pros say they just don't have the resources, or upper-management support, to thoroughly scan their applications.

Wysopal and Ptacek said companies should allocate at least 5 percent of their development budget to testing. But Maynor said 25 percent -- including quality assurance -- is more like it: "At the end of the day, what are you developing your applications for? If you're in [financial] trading, it could potentially mean millions of dollars if you are down for a couple of minutes," he said. "It's easier to allocate resources on the front end."

But even if you have a vulnerability scanner for source code, binary code, and Web apps, there's no guarantee you'll catch all the bugs, Ptacek noted.

"We've worked with organizations that religiously run security scanners," Ptacek says. "And we come in on engagements and still find horrific vulnerabilities. There are no points for effort on this."

But not every app requires full-blown, software development lifecycle scrutiny, Wysopal said. "Some apps are not as risky as others. With an OS, you need to scan it with tools. If you're running a Web app and not protecting a lot of valuable data, maybe a Web scanner is good enough for you."

Even so, there will still be bugs. "You're never going to make a 100 percent secure app," Maynor said. "But there are things you can do to minimize [vulnerabilities]."

— Kelly Jackson Higgins, Senior Editor, Dark Reading

About the Author(s)

Kelly Jackson Higgins, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Editor-in-Chief of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise Magazine, Virginia Business magazine, and other major media properties. Jackson Higgins was recently selected as one of the Top 10 Cybersecurity Journalists in the US, and named as one of Folio's 2019 Top Women in Media. She began her career as a sports writer in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and earned her BA at William & Mary. Follow her on Twitter @kjhiggins.

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