With PoS malware, banking trojans, and persistent NSA threats the flavors of the month and geting all the headlines, application security seems to get overshadowed every year at the RSA Conference. Then again, who wants to talk about the hard, boring tasks of fixing the applications that run your business. We have to admit it’s fun to read about who the real hackers are, including selfies of the dorks people apparently selling credit card numbers on the black market. Dealing with a code vulnerability backlog? Not so much fun. But very real and important trends are going on in application security, most of which involve “calling in the cavalry” – or more precisely outsourcing to people who know more about this stuff, to jumpstart application security programs.

The Application Security Specialists

Companies are increasingly calling in outside help to deal with application security, and it is not just the classi dynamic web site and penetration testing. On the show floor you will see several companies offering cloud services for code scanning. You upload your code and associated libraries, and they report back on known vulnerabilities. Conceptually this sounds an awful lot like white-box scanning in the cloud, but there is more to it – the cloud services can do some dynamic testing as well. Some firms leverage these services before they launch public web applications, while others are responding to customer demands to prove and document code security assurance. In some cases the code scanning vendors can help validate third-party libraries – even when source code is not available – to provide confidence and substantiation for platform providers in the security of their foundations.

Several small professional services firms are popping up to evaluate code development practices, helping to find bad code, and more importantly getting development teams pointed in the right direction. Finally, there is new a trend in application vulnerability management – no, we are not talking about tools that scan for platform defects. The new approaches track vulnerabilities in much the same way we track general software defects, but with a focus on specific issues around security. Severity, path to exploit, line of code responsible, and calling modules that rely on defective code, are all areas where tools can help development teams prioritize security vulnerability fixes.

Exposing Yourself

At the beginning of 2013, several small application security gateway vendors were making names for themselves. Within a matter of months the three biggest were acquired (Mashery by Intel, Vordel by Axway, and Layer 7 by CA). Large firms quickly snapping up little firms often signal the end of a market, but in this case it is just the beginning – to become truly successful these smaller technologies need to be integrated into a broader application infrastructure suite. Time waits for no one, and we will see a couple new vendors on the show floor with similar models.

You will also see a bunch of activity around API gateways because they serve as application development accelerators. The gateway provides base security controls, release management, and identity functions in a building block platform, on top of which companies publish internal systems to the world via RESTful APIs. This means an application developer can focus on delivery of a good user experience, rather than worrying extensively about security. Even better, a gateway does not care whether the developer is an employee or a third party. That plays into the trend of using third-party coders to develop mobile apps. Developers are compensated according to the number of users of their apps, and gateways track which app serves any given customer. This simple technology allows crowdsourcing apps, so we expect the phenomenon to grow over the next few years.

Bounty Hunters – Bug Style

Several companies, most notably Google and Microsoft, have started very public “security bug bounty” programs and hackathons to incentivize professional third-party vulnerability researchers and hackers to find and report bugs for cash. These programs have worked far better than the companies originally hoped, with dozens of insidious and difficult-to-detect flaws disclosed quickly, before new code goes live. Google alone has paid out more than $1 million in bounties – their programs has been so successful that they have announced they will quintuple rewards for bugs on core platforms. These programs tend to attract skilled people who understand the platforms and uncover things development teams were totally unaware of. Additionally, internal developers and security architects learn from attacker approaches. Clearly, as more software publishers engage the public to shake down their applications, we will see everyone jumping on this bandwagon – which will provide an opportunity for small services firms to help software companies set up these programs.