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Security by Design Principles

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Development Guide Table of Contents

Architects and solution providers need guidance to produce secure applications by design, and they can do this by not only implementing the basic controls documented in the main text, but also referring back to the underlying “Why?” in these principles. Security principles such as confidentiality, integrity, and availability – although important, broad, and vague – do not change. Your application will be the more robust the more you apply them.

For example, it is a fine thing when implementing data validation to include a centralized validation routine for all form input. However, it is a far finer thing to see validation at each tier for all user input, coupled with appropriate error handling and robust access control.

In the last year or so, there has been a significant push to standardize terminology and taxonomy. This version of the Development Guide has normalized its principles with those from major industry texts, while dropping a principle or two present in the first edition of the Development Guide. This is to prevent confusion and to increase compliance with a core set of principles. The principles that have been removed are adequately covered by controls within the text.

Asset classification

Selection of controls is only possible after classifying the data to be protected. For example, controls applicable to low value systems such as blogs and forums are different to the level and number of controls suitable for accounting, high value banking, and electronic trading systems.

About attackers

When designing controls to prevent misuse of your application, you must consider the most likely attackers (in order of likelihood and actualized loss from most to least):

  • Disgruntled staff or developers
  • “Drive by” attacks, such as side effects or direct consequences of a virus, worm, or Trojan attack
  • Motivated criminal attackers, such as organized crime
  • Criminal attackers without motive against your organization, such as defacers
  • Script kiddies

Notice there is no entry for the term “hacker.” This is due to the emotive and incorrect use of the word “hacker” by the media. However, it is far too late to reclaim the incorrect use of the word “hacker” and try to return the word to its correct roots. The Development Guide consistently uses the word “attacker” when denoting something or someone who is actively attempting to exploit a particular feature.

Core pillars of information security

Information security has relied upon the following pillars:

  • Confidentiality – only allow access to data for which the user is permitted
  • Integrity – ensure data is not tampered or altered by unauthorized users
  • Availability – ensure systems and data are available to authorized users when they need it

The following principles are all related to these three pillars. Indeed, when considering how to construct a control, considering each pillar in turn will assist in producing a robust security control.

Security architecture

Applications without security architecture are as bridges constructed without finite element analysis and wind tunnel testing. Sure, they look like bridges, but they will fall down at the first flutter of a butterfly’s wings. The need for application security in the form of security architecture is every bit as great as in building or bridge construction.

Application architects are responsible for constructing their design to adequately cover risks from both typical usage, and from extreme attack. Bridge designers need to cope with a certain amount of cars and foot traffic but also cyclonic winds, earthquake, fire, traffic incidents, and flooding. Application designers must cope with extreme events, such as brute force or injection attacks, and fraud. The risks for application designers are well known. The days of “we didn’t know” are long gone. Security is now expected, not an expensive add-on or simply left out.

Security architecture refers to the fundamental pillars: the application must provide controls to protect the confidentiality of information, integrity of data, and provide access to the data when it is required (availability) – and only to the right users. Security architecture is not “markitecture”, where a cornucopia of security products are tossed together and called a “solution”, but a carefully considered set of features, controls, safer processes, and default security posture.

When starting a new application or re-factoring an existing application, you should consider each functional feature, and consider:

  • Is the process surrounding this feature as safe as possible? In other words, is this a flawed process?
  • If I were evil, how would I abuse this feature?
  • Is the feature required to be on by default? If so, are there limits or options that could help reduce the risk from this feature?

Andrew van der Stock calls the above process “Thinking Evil™”, and recommends putting yourself in the shoes of the attacker and thinking through all the possible ways you can abuse each and every feature, by considering the three core pillars and using the STRIDE model in turn.

By following this guide, and using the STRIDE / DREAD threat risk modeling discussed here and in Howard and LeBlanc’s book, you will be well on your way to formally adopting a security architecture for your applications.

The best system architecture designs and detailed design documents contain security discussion in each and every feature, how the risks are going to be mitigated, and what was actually done during coding.

Security architecture starts on the day the business requirements are modeled, and never finishes until the last copy of your application is decommissioned. Security is a life-long process, not a one shot accident.

Security principles

These security principles have been taken from the previous edition of the OWASP Development Guide and normalized with the security principles outlined in Howard and LeBlanc’s excellent Writing Secure Code.

Minimize attack surface area

Every feature that is added to an application adds a certain amount of risk to the overall application. The aim for secure development is to reduce the overall risk by reducing the attack surface area.

For example, a web application implements online help with a search function. The search function may be vulnerable to SQL injection attacks. If the help feature was limited to authorized users, the attack likelihood is reduced. If the help feature’s search function was gated through centralized data validation routines, the ability to perform SQL injection is dramatically reduced. However, if the help feature was re-written to eliminate the search function (through better user interface, for example), this almost eliminates the attack surface area, even if the help feature was available to the Internet at large.

Establish secure defaults

There are many ways to deliver an “out of the box” experience for users. However, by default, the experience should be secure, and it should be up to the user to reduce their security – if they are allowed.

For example, by default, password aging and complexity should be enabled. Users might be allowed to turn these two features off to simplify their use of the application and increase their risk.

Principle of Least privilege

The principle of least privilege recommends that accounts have the least amount of privilege required to perform their business processes. This encompasses user rights, resource permissions such as CPU limits, memory, network, and file system permissions.

For example, if a middleware server only requires access to the network, read access to a database table, and the ability to write to a log, this describes all the permissions that should be granted. Under no circumstances should the middleware be granted administrative privileges.

Principle of Defense in depth

The principle of defense in depth suggests that where one control would be reasonable, more controls that approach risks in different fashions are better. Controls, when used in depth, can make severe vulnerabilities extraordinarily difficult to exploit and thus unlikely to occur.

With secure coding, this may take the form of tier-based validation, centralized auditing controls, and requiring users to be logged on all pages.

For example, a flawed administrative interface is unlikely to be vulnerable to anonymous attack if it correctly gates access to production management networks, checks for administrative user authorization, and logs all access.

Fail securely

Applications regularly fail to process transactions for many reasons. How they fail can determine if an application is secure or not.

For example:

isAdmin = true;
try {
  isAdmin = isUserInRole( “Administrator” );
catch (Exception ex) {

If either codeWhichMayFail() or isUserInRole fails or throws an exception, the user is an admin by default. This is obviously a security risk.

Don’t trust services

Many organizations utilize the processing capabilities of third party partners, who more than likely have differing security policies and posture than you. It is unlikely that you can influence or control any external third party, whether they are home users or major suppliers or partners.

Therefore, implicit trust of externally run systems is not warranted. All external systems should be treated in a similar fashion.

For example, a loyalty program provider provides data that is used by Internet Banking, providing the number of reward points and a small list of potential redemption items. However, the data should be checked to ensure that it is safe to display to end users, and that the reward points are a positive number, and not improbably large.

Separation of duties

A key fraud control is separation of duties. For example, someone who requests a computer cannot also sign for it, nor should they directly receive the computer. This prevents the user from requesting many computers, and claiming they never arrived.

Certain roles have different levels of trust than normal users. In particular, administrators are different to normal users. In general, administrators should not be users of the application.

For example, an administrator should be able to turn the system on or off, set password policy but shouldn’t be able to log on to the storefront as a super privileged user, such as being able to “buy” goods on behalf of other users.

Avoid security by obscurity

Security through obscurity is a weak security control, and nearly always fails when it is the only control. This is not to say that keeping secrets is a bad idea, it simply means that the security of key systems should not be reliant upon keeping details hidden.

For example, the security of an application should not rely upon knowledge of the source code being kept secret. The security should rely upon many other factors, including reasonable password policies, defense in depth, business transaction limits, solid network architecture, and fraud and audit controls.

A practical example is Linux. Linux’s source code is widely available, and yet when properly secured, Linux is a hardy, secure and robust operating system.

Keep security simple

Attack surface area and simplicity go hand in hand. Certain software engineering fads prefer overly complex approaches to what would otherwise be relatively straightforward and simple code.

Developers should avoid the use of double negatives and complex architectures when a simpler approach would be faster and simpler.

For example, although it might be fashionable to have a slew of singleton entity beans running on a separate middleware server, it is more secure and faster to simply use global variables with an appropriate mutex mechanism to protect against race conditions.

Fix security issues correctly

Once a security issue has been identified, it is important to develop a test for it, and to understand the root cause of the issue. When design patterns are used, it is likely that the security issue is widespread amongst all code bases, so developing the right fix without introducing regressions is essential.

For example, a user has found that they can see another user’s balance by adjusting their cookie. The fix seems to be relatively straightforward, but as the cookie handling code is shared among all applications, a change to just one application will trickle through to all other applications. The fix must therefore be tested on all affected applications.

Development Guide Table of Contents