Infosec: Pressure on vendors can prevent security woes

Companies are having more success in pressuring software vendors into baking security into their products, a trend that vendors are resisting less, the director of research for the SANS Institute said Wednesday.


Companies are having more success in pressuring software vendors into baking security into their products, a trend that vendors are resisting less, the director of research for the SANS Institute said Wednesday.

Before granting a contract, companies now are requiring that vendors also test software patches on systems with the same configurations as users are running, said Alan Paller of SANS, an IT training organisation.

Another new trend is groups of companies agreeing on base security standards for applications and then passing those requirements onto vendors.

"It's using the contracts to shift the responsibility for security upstream to the vendor where the economies of scale make it [security] cost effective," Paller said.

Software makers have fought the initiatives "tooth and nail," but are coming around, Paller said. "They don't like the users to take control," he said. "They want to control the buying process, so they don't like this idea, but there isn't any other idea that's a good one for fixing these problems."

The requirement comes after companies have struggled with slow patching cycles and rising risks that come with deploying insecure Web-based applications.

Websites are rife with security problems: In 2006, the Web Application Security Consortium surveyed 31,373 sites and found that 85.57 percent were vulnerable to cross-site scripting attacks, 26.38 were vulnerable to SQL injection and 15.70 percent had faults that could let an attacker steal information from databases.

"This is a big problem," Paller said. "We've got to get it fixed in a hurry."

Vendors have typically only tested their software patches on machines in default configurations, which isn't representative of the real IT world, Paller said. Many businesses use custom applications with custom configurations, which require rigorous testing to ensure a patch won't break their applications.

The US Air Force was one of the first organisations that tried a new approach when contracting IT systems with Microsoft and other application vendors about two years ago to enable speedier patching, Paller said.

The Air Force's CIO at the time, John M. Gilligan, consolidated 38 different IT contracts into one and ordered all new systems to be delivered in the same, secure configuration. Then, he ordered that application vendors certify that their applications would work on the secure configurations, Paller said.

Then Gilligan took his case to Microsoft. At the time, it took the Air Force about 57 days between the time a patch was released until their 450,000 systems were up-to-date. Gilligan wanted Microsoft to test its patches on machines with the same configuration as the Air Force's, shifting the cumbersome testing process back to the vendor.

The negotiations, which didn't start off well, culminated with a meeting with CEO Steve Ballmer. "The story is that he [Gilligan] use a four-letter word in the meeting," Paller said. "You know what the four-letter word was? Unix."

Gilligan won. Now, the Air Force can patch in about 72 hours now, and they're looking to cut that to 24 hours, Paller said. The idea was so successful that as of 1 Feb., the US government implemented the same conditions for all of its agencies.

"It's a fascinating time in security in Washington, [D.C.], Paller said.

Another sea-change is under way in security: Training application developers in security. Traditionally, security has never been a part of computer programming courses. Paller said he's been making the case for stronger security training, but in many times received a cold shoulder from universities, who have little incentive to change their ways - until now.

Heavyweight IT companies are warning universities that they don't want to have to send new hires to remedial security training. Mary Ann Davidson, chief security officer at Oracle, wrote earlier this month that she contacted the top 10 universities the company recruits from, saying only those with security training would get preference in hiring.

That's an embarrassment to universities, which will now likely modify their curriculum accordingly. Interestingly, developers want security training. "The programmers want to know what they don't know," Paller said.

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