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Secure Coding in an Agile World: If The Slipper Fits, Wear It

Combining agile software development concepts in an increasingly cyber-security conscious world is a challenging hurdle for many organisations. We initially touched upon this in a previous article — An Elephant in Ballet Slippers? Bringing Agility To Cyber Security — in which Hivint discussed the need to embrace agile concepts in cyber security through informal peer-to-peer sharing of knowledge with development and operations teams and the importance of creating a culture of security within the organisation.

One of the most common and possibly biggest challenges when incorporating agility into security is the ability to effectively integrate security practices such as the use of Static Application Security Testing (SAST) tools in an agile development environment. The ongoing and rapid evolution of technology has served as a catalyst for some fast-paced organisations — wishing to stay ahead of the game — to deploy software releases on a daily basis. A by-product of this approach has been the introduction of agile development processes that have little room for security.

Ideally, security reviews should happen as often as possible prior to final software deployment and release, including prior to the transition from the development to staging environment, during the quality assurance process and finally prior to live release into production. However, these reviews will often require the reworking of source code to remediate security issues that have been identified. This obviously results in time imposts, which is often seen as a ‘blocker’ to the deployment pipeline. Yet the increase in media coverage of security issues in recent years highlights the importance of organisations doing all that they can to mitigate the risks of insecure software releases. This presents a significant conundrum: how do we maintain agility and stay ahead of the game, but still incorporate security into the development process?

One way of achieving this is through the use of a ‘hybrid’ approach that ensures any new software libraries, platforms or components being introduced into an organisation are thoroughly tested for security issues prior to release into the ‘agile’ development environment. This includes internal and external frameworks such as the reuse of internally created libraries or externally purchased software packages. Testing of any new software code introduced into an IT environment — whether externally sourced or internally produced — is typically contemplated as part of a traditional information security management system (ISMS) that many organisations have in place. Once that initial testing has taken place and appropriate remediation occurs for any identified security issues, the relevant software components are released into the agile environment and are able to be used by developers to build applications without the need for any further extensive testing. For example, consider a .NET platform that implements a cryptographic function using a framework such as Bouncy Castle. Both the platform and framework are tested for security issues using various types of testing methodologies such as vulnerability assessments and penetration tests. The developers are then allowed to use them within the agile development environment for the purposes of building their applications.

When a new feature or software library / platform is required (or a major version upgrade to an existing software library / platform occurs), an evaluation will need to occur in conjunction with the organisation’s security team to determine the extent of the changes and the risks this will introduce to the organisation. If the changes / additions are deemed significant, then the testing and assurance processes contemplated by the overarching ISMS will need to be followed prior to their introduction into the agile development environment.

This hybrid approach provides the flexibility that’s required by many organisations seeking an agile approach to software development, while still ensuring there is an overarching security testing and assurance process that is in place. This approach facilitates fast-paced development cycles (organisations can perform daily or even hourly code releases without having to go through various types of security reviews and testing), yet still enables the deployment of software that uses secure coding principles.

It may be that fitting the ballet slippers (agility) onto the elephant (security) is not as an improbable concept as it once seemed.

Article by Craig Searle, Chief Apiarist, Hivint

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