Home > Articles > Security > General Security and Privacy

Software [In]security: Third-Party Software and Security

A lot has been written about dealing with the security issues involved in software you are building, have built, or are having built to your specs. But how do you gauge the security of third-party code? A recent security conference examined that question, and Gary McGraw, author of Software Security: Building Security In, along with Sammy Migues and Brian Chess, present the findings in this article.
Like this article? We recommend

Handling security risk in third-party software presents interesting challenges. Much of what is written about software security deals with code that you are building, have built yourself, or are having built to your requirements.  But a majority of large enterprises (even Independent Software Vendors [ISVs] themselves) make use of code developed elsewhere.  This third-party software comes in two flavors—commercial software (COTS) and open source software.

At the BSIMM Community Conference in November we ran a workshop focused on controlling security risk in third-party software.  Participants were all senior software security executives from twenty-three of the forty-two BSIMM firms.  What made the study particularly interesting was the 50/50 mix of software providers (ISVs like Microsoft, EMC, and Adobe) and software consumers (Financial Services firms like Bank of America, Fidelity, and Citibank).  Talk about diverse perspectives on the problem!

We divided participants into three groups to tackle three different aspects of the third-party software problem.  Group 1 focused on the problem of auditing a particular piece of software, attempting to answer the question, “How do I know I am getting secure software?”  by looking at measuring an application.  Group 2 focused on the problem of  auditing a firm, attempting to answer the question, “How do I know whether my vendor knows what they are doing?” by looking at measuring a firm's software security capability.  Group 3 focused on the problem of open source security, attempting to answer the question, “What do I do when there is no firm?” by looking at measuring open source.

We present the results of the workshop and some further musings.

Application Audit

Group 1, led by Sammy, divided the problem of auditing a particular application into three major areas: 1) knowing about the vendor, 2) knowing about the acquirer (or the situation where the vendor code will find itself), and 3) current approaches.

Everyone agrees that knowing something about the Software Security Development Lifecycle (SSDL) of the vendor is a good idea.  That is, not all eggs can be put into the assurance–of-an-individual-application basket.  The end goal of all application audit approaches is to gather evidence for an assurance case and determine how much faith can be placed in the vendor based on the information they provide.

The vBSIMM can provide some evidence of software security clue, but it is most useful for subdividing vendors into those with some modicum of clue and those with no clue at all (a useful exercise it turns out).  Currently, it is not clear enough how to interpret vBSIMM scores in practice.

A set of questions delving into a vendor's SSDL (and supporting data) can help determine what exactly a vendor does to build secure software:

  • What is your threat model for this application?
  • What types of security testing are you doing?
  • Who is doing security testing?  Is it independent?
  • How do you remediate security problems?  What kind of timeline is involved in remediation and what kind of enforcement is in place?
  • How do you know that security defects are fixed?
  • How often do you perform security testing?
  • What kinds of metrics do you have on your software security effort over time?

Of course, the biggest problem with assessing application risk is that it is entirely context dependent.  If you don't know where an application will end up being used (and what it will be used for), it is impossible to assign any useful risk measurement.  Everybody wants to know more about the software they buy and the vendors who provide it, but this requires some introspection.

Some questions to consider:

  • Do attackers want to break this particular application or do they want to take down the acquirer's brand?
  • Can we get involved directly in the RFPs and other acquisition processes?  (This includes service selection, vendor assurance, onboarding and deployment.)
  • What is our view of risk? (Is this classified government stuff?  Whose name and brand are on the application?)
  • If we ask the vendor for evidence of security, how much integrity do the measurements we are asking for have?  Are they repeatable?

When it comes to application audit, penetration testing appears to be the current gold standard approach.  In addition to penetration test results, some acquirers also seek: attack surface review, review of cryptography, architecture risk analysis, technology-specific security testing, an external scanning regimen, binary analysis if source is unavailable, source code analysis if it is, fuzz testing (especially on new technologies), side-channel analysis on new hardware, and some attempt to ferret out grey-market components.  In short, they seek many of the SSDL activities found in the Touchpoints and the BSIMM.

Both ISVs and Financial Services firms agree that standardizing application audit across all groups is a useful exercise.  In the end, we can all use a better approach for vendors to make security claims that can be easily and transparently validated by acquirers.

(For an amusing take on this thorny issue that shows the tension between vendors and acquirers, see the knock-down drag-out virtual fight featuring Wysopal versus Davidson.)

Firm Audit

Group 2, led by Gary, took a brainstorming approach to the problem of auditing a firm.  Our first task was to explore metrics that could be used collectively to categorize a firm's software security initiative.  We later discussed the metrics we wrote down and ranked them according to what the group thought would work best.  The top six (there was a three-way tie for fourth place) metrics identified in this way were:

  1. Evidence of a documented Software Security Development Lifecycle (SSDL).
  2. Artifacts backing up the activities descibed in the SSDL that provide some proof of use (for example, results from an architecture risk analysis or results from a code review).
  3. Personal conversations with the Software Security Group lead that demonstrate a high level of knowledge about software security.  (The vBSIMM takes this approach.)
  4. The very existence of a Software Security Group (SSG).
  5. A documented process for fixing security defects.
  6. A third-party review.

The rest of the metrics that came up during discussion (in rank order) are:

  • Awareness of and/or participation in the BSIMM or vBSIMM.
  • A documented system for external parties to report security defects.
  • A reasonable “time to fix” for security defects reported publically.
  • A site visit.
  • An up-to-date security related Web page.
  • Access to security people.
  • A demonstrated understanding of security threats.
  • Results of an open-ended questionnaire.
  • Standards and guidance from organizations such as BITS.
  • Static analysis results.

We approached how to determine the amout of effort dedicated to vendor control from both sides of the table.  On one side, vendors report that their level of involvement in a vendor management program depends entirely on the revenue associated with the deal and the level of effort requested.  Some examples serve to clarify this.  One vendor volunteered that a $1M deal that was set to close in the current quarter would justify a one hour phone call with the head of product security regarding the firm's software security initiative.  Likewise, a $5M deal set to close in the current quarter would allow for an on-site visit by the acquirer.  Of course reputation of the customer and importance of its market also plays a role in the level of effort allocated (as does the competition).  If the vendor control process is transparent and allows data to be repurposed, it is easier to conform with.

On the other side of the table, acquirers (mostly large financial services firms in our data set) tend to spend upwards of $5M /year on vendor control for third-party software.  This number encompasses both software vendors who develop bespoke software for the acquirer based on requirements and commercial software vendors who provide code used in high risk business areas.  On average, around 50 employees are allocated to the vendor control effort (usually divided between procurement and the centralized risk office).  Most efforts are driven by strict regulatory requirements.

The most commonly used tool applied during vendor control efforts is the human interview.  This approach has obvious scalability issues.  Web searches, simple online questionnaires, and vendor inventory systems are also used.  These tools are thresholded by the financial relationship between the acquirer and the vendor.

In the end, both vendors and acquirers agree that published information about the vendor's SSDL and artifacts that back up various claims are extremely useful.  There is some disagreement over whether using the vBSIMM makes sense.  Vendors tend not to like it (though some are participating happily) while acquirers favor it.  We intend to address this gulf directly as soon as possible.

Open Source

Group 3, led by Brian, started by listing problems commonly encountered in controlling open source security risk.  Problems divide into four areas:

  1. Inventory: what open source code do we have/use?
  2. Vulnerability management: how do we find out about vulnerabilities and how do they get patched?
  3. Risk assessment.  (This is related to vulnerability management, but has direct ties to the business interests using the open source software.)
  4. Risk of creating and publishing open source. (Including both contributing to and maintaining projects.)

There is a distinct difference between ISVs and Financial Services firms when it comes to open source risk.  ISVs tend to handle this in legal (with licensing concerns playing a major role) whereas Financial Services firms tend to handle this in the software security group.

Tools used to address open source control include: a repository for approved open source, technology to crawl through major code bases looking for open source (with oft-cited examples being Palamida and Black Duck), purchased access to vulnerability databases maintained by third-parties, and some use of SSDL security tools (especially static analysis) to do direct analysis.

Generally speaking, costs for open source control are not tracked separately from other software security and vendor control efforts.  Similarly, any metrics used tend to be the same ones applied to vendor control and or a firm's internal SSDL.

(More thoughts on controlling open source security risk can be found in John Steven's Justice League posting.)

More Transparency Required

One of the great advantages of the BSIMM project is that it provides lots of transparency with regard to what is actually going on in software security initiatives.  For the purposes of this article, the BSIMM covers both acquirers and vendors.  The more we can learn about actual software security initiatives and the more successfully we can measure them, the better off we'll be at ascertaining third party software security risk.

InformIT Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from InformIT and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information

To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.


Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites, develop new products and services, conduct educational research and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.


If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email information@informit.com.

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information

Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at customer-service@informit.com and we will process the deletion of a user's account.


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by InformIT. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive: www.informit.com/u.aspx.

Sale of Personal Information

Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to NevadaDesignatedRequest@pearson.com.

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents

California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure

Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact

Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice

We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020