Security is a big deal, and businesses are the ones to bear the cost.
Every day, it seems like we read another headline about a large data breach affecting major organizations and the many people they serve. As a result of these breaches, websites such as haveibeenpwned.com provide searchable information on many of the Internet’s largest breaches. When a big data breach happens, organizations suffer great losses, both financially and in reputation.
Current state—the security sandwich
In spite of the known risks of security breaches, the current standard for security across our industry is suboptimal, in particular during the process of upgrading or delivering a new technology feature. Teams often do a lot of planning and analysis before development and after a feature Is delivered. In some cases, penetration testers check for vulnerabilities during the process; however, it is less common for security processes to be in place throughout the actual development process.
We call this the “security sandwich”—lots of up front planning and discussion around security, and post-development testing and fixes, but no security in between.
The security sandwich is risky for a number of reasons:
- Feature design, planning, and implementations are done without security in mind;
- The process to catch vulnerabilities is not enhanced;
- The teams do not share responsibility for security; and
- If an incident does occur, you might not be able to recover quickly.
How does an agile process affect security?
The fast and disruptive nature of today’s business cycles means that organizations must incorporate agile processes in order to remain competitive. In fact, more and more companies are following the Continuous Delivery concept that was first described in the eponymous 2010 book co-authored by Thoughtworks alumni Jez Humble and David Farley. But security wasn’t initially included in the model. We believe that must change.
Security has an important place in the agile process because of the extreme risks that a breach poses to the organization. Consider the Continuous Delivery model below:
When a team incorporates security throughout its agile process, the benefits gained are similar to the qualities gained by incorporating other practices on a continuous basis. These benefits include the following:
- Higher confidence in what is released into production;
- The ability to make changes successfully on a micro basis;
- Better testing and planning; and
- A faster reaction to making improvements or fixes.
The OWASP Proactive Security Controls recommends verifying for security early and often, rather than relying on penetration testing at the end of a process to catch bugs. That’s because the latter approach is prone to failing to find all potential vulnerabilities, a manual process, and hinders the ability to release software early and often. Furthermore, waiting until after a feature has been developed to test for bugs also increases cost and time to release the product into production, as that bug must be returned to the development team to be fixed before release.
Building Security into the Agile Timeline
At a high level, a typical agile software delivery project in Thoughtworks consists of several steps that can be organized under three distinct phases: discovery, inception and delivery. Each step is described in greater detail below.
1.Discovery: What is the current state?
The purpose of the discovery phase is to understand the current state of the system. Information that can be gathered in this phase includes:
- A list of existing systems/applications as well as their users, and people who are involved in these systems
- A map of how existing systems talk to one another
- A map of the current path to production
- A review of past incidents/attacks, in order to avoid recurrences in the future
- A review of existing security policies and how they will impact the scope of the project
This information can then be used to inform decisions in the following phases.
2.Inception/Project Kickoff: What do teams need to protect?
The purpose of the project kickoff phase is to understand the following:
- What will be built
- Which people or services must be involved
- Which assets need to be protected
- How attackers might compromise the system
- How potential threats can be prioritized and mitigated
It is vital that this conversation should continue throughout the development process, as the product evolves, so as to ensure the right security throughout the process.
What will be built?
By the end of a project kickoff, your team should be able to start creating high-level architectural diagrams and defining trust boundaries within these diagrams. Teams don’t need a fine-grained API contract or the complete tech stack this early on, but they should have some idea of the major components and interactions between them. For instance, if we are building a new ecommerce site, we know that there will be a UI that the end user will interact with, a set of services where the business logic will reside and a data store. Based on past projects, we may also make some initial assumptions on where those component would initially reside (i.e. internally in corporate datacenter or externally in the cloud).
As we progress in the development, some of these assumptions will be valid, some will not, and it is important to update this model regularly as the trust boundaries will change over time. A trust boundary is where data moves from a less trusted source to a more trusted system. One example of a trust boundary is when a user submits a form, as the data is moving from a user-controlled environment to a trusted environment (our server). Wherever data moves across a trust boundary is a good place to focus on taking steps such as modeling threats or codifying validations.
In short, by the end of this process, a team should have the beginning structure of a high-level architecture and an understanding of the trust boundaries within this architecture.
What is the current threat landscape?
A common saying in security is that “you can’t protect what you don’t understand.” As a result, it is wise during a project kickoff to enumerate the actors (people, resources, and services that are involved in the system), assets (things of value), and attackers that are involved, as well as attack goals and potential vectors that could compromise your system.
Threat modeling and attack trees can be helpful tools to identify threats and increase visibility. We recommend first assessing how common security threats might be relevant to the project, then using threat modeling as a tool to identify threats unique to the project and business domain. For example, if the project is a web application, you should first consider common vulnerabilities inherent to web applications in general, and then use threat modeling to identify and mitigate vulnerabilities specific to your domain, user base, etc.
What can you do about things that could go wrong?
When a threat to your system exists, the ideal solution is to mitigate, eliminate, or transfer the threat. For example, if a threat to the system is that a user’s password can be guessed via a brute force attack, a mitigation to this threat could be to include multi-factor authentication, or locking a user out after a number of failed attempts.
These steps are not always available to take, and the business must assume the risk, after assessing the cost and potential impact of the threat. For example, social engineering is a hard threat to completely mitigate, as this is often in the control of the user. Therefore, some threats must be accepted, but your team should have sufficient infrastructure in place to detect compromises and quickly recover with minimal lasting damage. To achieve this, make sure that you have regular data backups, robust logging in at least two separate locations, and a secure and effective build pipeline.
3. Delivery: What is the best scenario for a secure delivery process?
Even though each business process is different, there are ways to identify where good security practices can be incorporated on a continuous basis. Below, is a summary of each step in the agile story life cycle:
Iteration 0: Environment Set-Up
Most projects will start with an “Iteration 0,” when necessary infrastructure is established before delivering features.
Pre-production environments provide an entry point into more valuable targets, which is why teams must incorporate greater security measures in the entire build pipeline. Exploitable weaknesses in pre-production environments are often overlooked, such as dangerous default settings or unnecessary privilege. Services often have default passwords or are configured to be accessible without authentication and thus are easy targets. For example, Redis by default is accessible without authentication. While teams might mitigate these risks in production environments, pre-production is often seen as less of a risk and these kind of vulnerabilities can be overlooked – creating access points for attackers.
When setting up development environments, make sure that your services are configured to follow the Principle of Least Privilege, in which access to information or services is granted only to people who have a legitimate need for the information. As part of this, review configuration settings for services (such as your CI server) in both production and development environments.
Iteration 0 is also a good opportunity to begin adding proactive security tools and practices into your development pipeline. SecDevOps (often referred to as Rugged) is an emerging practice that emphasizes this, and we will see a lot of movement in this in the future. We recommend starting out with proven tools that provide dependable behavior in your pipeline, such as OWASP Dependency Check.
Finally, having a streamlined and consistent build pipeline will assist in confidently releasing fixes that have been found in production. Firefox’s “chemspill” release plan is a good model of having sufficient infrastructure in place to recover quickly and confidently from a vulnerability.
User stories are the base of any agile development. Usually at the beginning of a project, the team sits together and agrees how these stories are going to move along the wall. This simple guide can also contain security criteria that stories need to meet so they can be considered complete.
Ready for development
A story can be defined as ‘Ready for Development’ if a team has identified and analyzed the unique security requirements involved in that story.
For example, if the story involves collecting user data, one question to consider is how this information is handled safely in the story. Is any of this PII (Personally Identifiable Information)? Are there established conventions for handling sensitive use data?
Teams should write acceptance criteria that contain information about the level of security that needs to be considered in the story. A good example is how we treat unauthorized or unauthenticated users is the following:
Given an unauthenticated user enters the system
When she tries to view her profile
Then she is redirected to the login page
We noticed that not everything can be written as an acceptance criterion, but still want to make sure the developers and the QAs take them into account when working on the story. These can also be identified in the Cross Functional Requirements (CFRs) of a project along with others such as performance and usability.
Examples of cross-functional requirements might include requirements for secure and informative logging and error handling, or usage of browser controls. Specifically, one criteria might be sending headers to enable browser protections against common attacks. A good place to start is the
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