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1.3 Software Assurance and Software Security

The increasing dependence on software to get critical jobs done means that software's value no longer lies solely in its ability to enhance or sustain productivity and efficiency. Instead, its value also derives from its ability to continue operating dependably even in the face of events that threaten it. The ability to trust that software will remain dependable under all circumstances, with a justified level of confidence, is the objective of software assurance.

Software assurance has become critical because dramatic increases in business and mission risks are now known to be attributable to exploitable software [DHS 2003]. The growing extent of the resulting risk exposure is rarely understood, as evidenced by these facts:

  • Software is the weakest link in the successful execution of interdependent systems and software applications.
  • Software size and complexity obscure intent and preclude exhaustive testing.
  • Outsourcing and the use of unvetted software supply-chain components increase risk exposure.
  • The sophistication and increasingly more stealthy nature of attacks facilitates exploitation.
  • Reuse of legacy software with other applications introduces unintended consequences, increasing the number of vulnerable targets.
  • Business leaders are unwilling to make risk-appropriate investments in software security.

According to the U.S. Committee on National Security Systems' "National Information Assurance (IA) Glossary" [CNSS 2006], software assurance is

  • the level of confidence that software is free from vulnerabilities, either intentionally designed into the software or accidentally inserted at any time during its life cycle, and that the software functions in the intended manner.

Software assurance includes the disciplines of software reliability2 (also known as software fault tolerance), software safety,3 and software security. The focus of Software Security Engineering: A Guide for Project Managers is on the third of these, software security, which is the ability of software to resist, tolerate, and recover from events that intentionally threaten its dependability. The main objective of software security is to build more-robust, higher-quality, defect-free software that continues to function correctly under malicious attack [McGraw 2006].

Software security matters because so many critical functions are completely dependent on software. This makes software a very high-value target for attackers, whose motives may be malicious, criminal, adversarial, competitive, or terrorist in nature. What makes it so easy for attackers to target software is the virtually guaranteed presence of known vulnerabilities with known attack methods, which can be exploited to violate one or more of the software's security properties or to force the software into an insecure state. Secure software remains dependable (i.e., correct and predictable) despite intentional efforts to compromise that dependability.

The objective of software security is to field software-based systems that satisfy the following criteria:

  • The system is as vulnerability and defect free as possible.
  • The system limits the damage resulting from any failures caused by attack-triggered faults, ensuring that the effects of any attack are not propagated, and it recovers as quickly as possible from those failures.
  • The system continues operating correctly in the presence of most attacks by either resisting the exploitation of weaknesses in the software by the attacker or tolerating the failures that result from such exploits.

Software that has been developed with security in mind generally reflects the following properties throughout its development life cycle:

  • Predictable execution. There is justifiable confidence that the software, when executed, functions as intended. The ability of malicious input to alter the execution or outcome in a way favorable to the attacker is significantly reduced or eliminated.
  • Trustworthiness. The number of exploitable vulnerabilities is intentionally minimized to the greatest extent possible. The goal is no exploitable vulnerabilities.
  • Conformance. Planned, systematic, and multidisciplinary activities ensure that software components, products, and systems conform to requirements and applicable standards and procedures for specified uses.

These objectives and properties must be interpreted and constrained based on the practical realities that you face, such as what constitutes an adequate level of security, what is most critical to address, and which actions fit within the project's cost and schedule. These are risk management decisions.

In addition to predictable execution, trustworthiness, and conformance, secure software and systems should be as attack resistant, attack tolerant, and attack resilient as possible. To ensure that these criteria are satisfied, software engineers should design software components and systems to recognize both legitimate inputs and known attack patterns in the data or signals they receive from external entities (humans or processes) and reflect this recognition in the developed software to the extent possible and practical.

To achieve attack resilience, a software system should be able to recover from failures that result from successful attacks by resuming operation at or above some predefined minimum acceptable level of service in a timely manner. The system must eventually recover full service at the specified level of performance. These qualities and properties, as well as attack patterns, are described in more detail in Chapter 2, What Makes Software Secure?

1.3.1 The Role of Processes and Practices in Software Security

A number of factors influence how likely software is to be secure. For instance, software vulnerabilities can originate in the processes and practices used in its creation. These sources include the decisions made by software engineers, the flaws they introduce in specification and design, and the faults and other defects they include in developed code, inadvertently or intentionally. Other factors may include the choice of programming languages and development tools used to develop the software, and the configuration and behavior of software components in their development and operational environments. It is increasingly observed, however, that the most critical difference between secure software and insecure software lies in the nature of the processes and practices used to specify, design, and develop the software [Goertzel 2006].

The return on investment when security analysis and secure engineering practices are introduced early in the development cycle ranges from 12 percent to 21 percent, with the highest rate of return occurring when the analysis is performed during application design [Berinato 2002; Soo Hoo 2001]. This return on investment occurs because there are fewer security defects in the released product and hence reduced labor costs for fixing defects that are discovered later.

A project that adopts a security-enhanced software development process is adopting a set of practices (such as those described in this book's chapters) that initially should reduce the number of exploitable faults and weaknesses. Over time, as these practices become more codified, they should decrease the likelihood that such vulnerabilities are introduced into the software in the first place. More and more, research results and real-world experiences indicate that correcting potential vulnerabilities as early as possible in the software development life cycle, mainly through the adoption of security-enhanced processes and practices, is far more cost-effective than the currently pervasive approach of developing and releasing frequent patches to operational software [Goertzel 2006].

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