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Are Low-Code Apps a Ticking Access Control Time Bomb?

Getting a handle on the new risks facing AppSec by low-code/no-code development patterns

Red tiles with white lettering spells out the words "No code" against a green circuit board.
meteleven via AdobeStock

As low-code and no-code application development platforms gain more currency among business groups seeking speedy workarounds to long development backlogs, concerns about application security loom.

The low-code movement increases software engineering agility by speeding up the work of developers and enabling nontechnical business users to create their own applications and add new features to existing tools without needing to engage the engineering team. Low-code development offers the kind of elegant simplicity that’s irresistible to executives with big digital transformation aspirations.

But that kind of "it just works" opacity sends shudders down the spines of cybersecurity veterans. Any security professional with experience with emerging tech cycles instinctually understands that there be dragons in the waters that lie ahead for low-code/no-code — even if they’ve not yet mapped out exactly what kind of monsters they’re dealing with or where they are just yet.

Michael Bargury, author of the Low-Code/No-Code OWASP Top 10, will explain the exact nature of some of low-code/no-code's biggest security risks at the RSA Conference in San Francisco. Chief among them are patterns of permissioning that could throw many of the investments that organizations have made in role-based access control and identity management right out the window.

Low-Code's Expected Explosion

Low-code and no-code technologies provide graphical user interface (GUI) environments that make it possible to design and deploy applications and new features for fast-evolving business use cases without intensive hand-coding. These technologies include low-code application platforms (LCAP), robotic process automation (RPA), and business process automation (BPA), among others. Recent forecasting by Gartner shows that by next year the LCAP market will have doubled its revenue from 2021 and the broader low-code segment will reach nearly $32 billion.

These low-code technologies are being used by development teams to speed up and scale their work, by teams of developers and business stakeholders to improve collaboration on fast-moving digital initiatives, and by a new class of citizen developers who create their own apps without waiting for development resources.

It's that last group that’s fueling the explosion of low-code and no-code platforms and the use of low-code functionality within broader software-as-a-service (SaaS) application ecosystems. Gartner predicts that the overall low-code market will increase by 19.6% in 2023, with the fastest-growing segment being citizen automation development platforms, which are set to increase by over 30%. Analysts with the firm say that developers outside of formal IT departments already make up well over 60% of the low-code user base, and by 2026 citizen developers and other nontraditional application designers are going to make up 80% low-code users.

"Business technologists and citizen technologist personas are developing lightweight solutions to meet business unit needs for enhanced productivity, efficiency, and agility — often as fusion teams," said Jason Wong, distinguished VP analyst for Gartner in a recent low-code forecast by the firm.

Low-Code's IAM Bombshell

In the face of all this growth in low-code technology, Bargury is on a mission to warn security executives of the risks it poses to application security and cybersecurity postures in the near- and long-term. One of the biggest risks is the fact that these platforms are rampantly sharing credentials in order to work around strict access controls built by organizations over the years, says Bargury, co-founder and CTO of Zenity, a startup focused on low-code/no-code security.

"Let's say that you already have a SaaS platform and you've built this low-code platform on top of SaaS. Now business users can create their own applications and share those applications with their teams and other employees to use as well. So what would be the number one thing that would stop them from being able to do that in the enterprise?" Bargury says. "The answer is permissions."

As he explains, if a business user wants to create their own app, they need to get permissions granted to that app to give it access to data stores and to get it to integrate with other systems. And to get that, these citizen developers would traditionally need to wait for somebody from IT to grant that. Not only would these app designers probably hear a lot of "nos" from these teams, but just waiting for the provisioning process to run its course would essentially neutralize the whole agility value proposition of using low-code in the first place.

So, to get around this problem, many low-code/no-code platforms allow business users to build applications using their own credentials and identities. When they share those applications to other users for broader use, those credentials are shared by everyone.

"Let's say I work in finance. I build an application, and I implicitly embed my own identity within that application, and now I'm sharing that application with you," Bargury says. "You are using the app and everything works, and it's fine, you have access to data. But the underlying application is actually still using my identity to provide that access. I call this credential-sharing-as-a-service."

And as he puts it, this is a feature that low-code development platforms are proud of and actively marketing because they enable productivity. But obviously from a security perspective it can quickly turn into a nightmare. It could undermine the integrity of role-based access controls, throw off user and entity behavioral analytics, and create huge compliance risks in the future, says Morey Haber, CSO for privileged access management firm BeyondTrust

"Credential-sharing-as-a-service would impact an organization's ability to accurately provide attestation reporting for all identities utilizing the service," Haber says. "Accounts present from a low-code development platform environment would provide an unknown for accurately who has access, including foreign identities."

Chris Hughes, CISO and co-founder of Aquia, says he has a hard time seeing how low-code platforms that handle permissions in this way could possibly be used in secure coding environments.

"They are just not compatible," he says. "In fairness, this is a new risk that is now being exposed for these solutions, and now that this information is public, it needs to be amplified for all organizations to measure the risk and determine if they are violating any laws by using this type of software."

Yet Another BYOD Scenario

For his part, Bargury doesn't believe that blocking low-code development is the answer to these risks.

Security professionals who were around during the advent of the iPhone and other consumer-class devices and cloud services will understand that this wave of low-code development will mirror the same challenges they faced in the first days of bring-your-own-device hype. While AppSec pros have to seek ways to effectively manage these risks, there is no way that they're going to do that by stopping the low-code freight train.

"It's like when people started using mobile, and security teams were like, 'Yeah, nobody will ever use mobile with our company data.' We tried to block it, but it didn't work," says Bargury.

Low-code/no-code technology is already more pervasive in the enterprise than many security professionals even realize, he adds

"There are multiple vendors that are pushing this space forward, but some of them are the SaaS vendors, which are building low-code/no-code into their existing offerings," explains Bargury, pointing to vendors like ServiceNow, Salesforce, Microsoft, and many others that have already pushed these features into their enterprise offerings. "This is a crucial point because it means that nobody gets to choose if they will have low-code/no-code or not because it's already there."

Not to mention the fact that business users and executive sponsors love low-code technologies. Low-code platforms are helping them overcome lengthy application feature request backlogs that have plagued their digital transformation efforts for years. The agility and ROI of low-code is something that security practitioners cannot discount. Just like with BYOD, this is a political battle they can't win, Bargury says.

Much of Bargury's talk at RSA Conference will focus on helping AppSec practitioners understand the kinds of security guardrails they can institute around low-code platforms to make them more compatible with broader security and compliance needs of the business.

This includes better vetting of which low-code technologies are in use within the organization, more scrupulous development of policies and configuration around how low-code platforms orchestrate the provisioning of access within the applications they produce, and more robust black-box testing of applications produced by low-code technology.

"I think the worst approach would be to try and block low code because people will just use something else," he says. "The best approach would be to say, 'Here's a few approved platforms. You can do whatever you want in them. There are automated guidelines to help protect you. We got your back. Don't think about security. You are in finance, you are in sales, do your thing.' That's something that we as security practitioners need to be proactive about."

About the Author(s)

Ericka Chickowski, Contributing Writer

Ericka Chickowski specializes in coverage of information technology and business innovation. She has focused on information security for the better part of a decade and regularly writes about the security industry as a contributor to Dark Reading.

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