I am a big fan of the Agile project development methodology, especially Agile with Scrum. I love the granularity and focus the approach requires. I love that at any given point in time you are working on the most important feature or function. I love the derivative value of communication and subtle form of peer pressure that Scrum meetings produce. I love that if mistakes are made you do not go too far in the wrong direction, resulting in higher productivity and few software projects that are total disasters. I think Agile is the biggest advancement in code development in the last decade as it addresses issues of complexity, scalability, focus and bureaucratic overhead.

But it comes with one huge caveat: Agile hurts secure code development. There, I said it. Someone had to. The Agile process, and even the scrum leadership model, hamstrings development in the area of building secure products. Security is not a freakin’ task card. Logic flaws are not well documented, discreet tasks to be assigned. Project managers (and unfortunately most ScrumMasters) learned security by skimming a ‘For Dummies’ book at Barnes & Noble while waiting for their lattes, but these are the folks making the choices as to what security should make it into the iterations. Just like general IT security, we end up wrapping the Agile process in a security blanket or bolting on security after the code is complete, because the process as we know it is not well suited to secure development.

I know there will be several of you out there who saying “Prove it! Show us a study or research evidence that supports your theory.” I can’t. I don’t have meaningful statistical data to back up my claim. But that does not mean it’s not true, and there is anecdotal evidence to support what I am saying. For example:

  • The average Sprint duration of two weeks is simply too short for meaningful security testing. Fuzzing & black box testing are infeasible with nightly builds or pre-release sanity checks.
  • Trust assumptions between code modules or system functions where multiple modules process requests cannot be fully exercised and tested within the Agile timeline. White box testing can be effective, but face it – security assessments don’t fit into neat 4-8 hour windows.
  • In the same way Agile products deviate from design and architecture specifications, they deviate from systemic analysis of trust and code dependancies. It’s a classic forest through the trees problem: efficiency and focus gained by skipping over big picture details necessarily come at the expense of understanding how the system and data are used as a whole.
  • Agile’s great at dividing and conquering what you know, but not so great for dealing with the abstract. Secure code development is not like fixing bugs where you have a stack trace to follow. Secure code development is more about coding principles that lead to better security. In the same way Agile can’t help enforce code ‘style’, it won’t help with secure coding guidelines. (Secure) style verification is an advantage of peer programming and inherent in code reviews, but not intrinsic to Agile.
  • The person on the Scrum team with the least knowledge of security, the Product Manager, prioritizes what gets done. Project managers as a general guideline don’t track security testing, and they are not incented to get security right. They are incented to get the software over the finish line. If they track bugs on the product backlog, they probably have a task card buried somewhere, but don’t understand the threats. Security personnel are chickens in the project and do not gate code acceptance they way they traditionally were able to do in waterfall testing, and may have limited exposure to developers.
  • The fact that major software development organizations are modifying or wrapping Agile with other frameworks to compensate for security is evidence of the difficulties in applying security practices directly.

The forms of testing that fit within Agile are more likely to get done. If they don’t fit, they are usually skipped (especially at crunch time), or they have to be scheduled outside the development cycle. It’s not just that the granular focus on tasks makes it harder to verify security at the code and system levels. It’s not just that the features are the focus, or that the wrong person is making security decisions. It’s not just that the quick turnaround in code production precludes some forms of testing known to be effective at identifying security issues. It’s not just that it’s hard to bucket security into discreet tasks. It’s all that and more.

We’re not going to see a study that compares Waterfall with Agile for security benefits. Putting together similar development teams to create similar products under two development methodologies to prove this point is not practical. I have run Agile and Waterfall projects of a similar nature in parallel, and while Agile had overwhelming advantages in a number of areas, security was not one of them. If you are moving to Agile, great – but you will need to evolve your Agile process to accomodate security. What do you think? How have you successfully integrated secure coding practices with Agile? This is a FireStarter, so discuss in the comments.