I’ve been spending the past few weeks wandering around the country for various shows, speaking to some of the best and brightest in the world of application and database security. Heck, I even hired one of them. During some of my presentations I laid out my vision for where I believe application (especially web application) and database security are headed. I’ve hinted at it here on the blog, discussing the concepts of ADMP, the information-centric security lifecycle, and DAM, but it’s long past time I detailed the big picture.

I’m not going to mess around and write these posts so they are accessible to the non-geeks out there. If you don’t know what secure SDLC, DAM, SSL-VPN, WAF, and connection pooling mean, this isn’t the series for you. That’s not an insult, it’s just that this would drag out to 20+ pages if I didn’t assume a technical audience.

Will all of this play out exactly as I describe? No way in hell. If everything I predict is 100% correct I’m just predicting common knowledge. I’m shooting for a base level of 80% accuracy, with hopes I’m closer to 90%. But rather than issuing some proclamation from the mount, I’ll detail why I think things are going where they are. You can make your own decisions as to my assumptions and the accuracy of the predictions that stem from them.

Also, apologies to Dre’s friends and family. I know this will make his head explode, but that’s a cost I’m willing to pay. Special thanks to Chris Hoff and the work we’ve been doing on disruptive innovation, since that model drives most of what I’m about to describe. Finally, this is just my personal opinion as to where things will go. Adrian is also doing some research on the concept of ADMP, and may not agree with everything I say. Yes, we’re both Securosis, but when you’re predicting uncertain futures no one can speak with absolute authority. (And, as Hoff says, no one can tell you you’re wrong today).

Forces and Assumptions

Based on the work I’ve been doing with Hoff, I’ve started to model future predictions by analyzing current trends and disruptive innovations. Those innovations that force change, rather than ones that merely nudge us to steer slightly around some new curves. In the security world, these forces (disruptions) come from three angles- business innovation, threat innovation, and efficiency innovation. The businesses we support are innovating for competitive advantage, as are the bad guys. For both of them, it’s all about increasing the top line. The last category is more internal- efficiency innovation to increase the bottom line. Here’s how I see the forces we’re dealing with today, in no particular order:

  1. Web browsers are inherently insecure. The very model of the world wide web is to pull different bits from different places, and render them all in a single view through the browser. Images from over here, text from over here, and, using iframes, entire sites from yet someplace else. It’s a powerful tool, and I’m not criticizing this model; it just is what it is. From a security standpoint, this makes our life more than a little difficult. Even with a strictly enforced same origin policy, it’s impossible to completely prevent cross-site issues, especially when people keep multiple sessions to multiple sites open all at the same time. That’s why we have XSS, CSRF, and related attacks. We are trying to build a trust model where one end can never be fully trusted.
  2. We have a massive repository of insecure code that grows daily. I’m not placing the blame on bad programmers; many of the current vulnerabilities weren’t well understood when much of this code was written. Even today, some of these issues are complex and not always easy to remediate. We are also discovering new vulnerability classes on a regular basis, requiring review and remediation on any existing code. We’re talking millions of applications, never mind many millions of lines of code. Even the coding frameworks and tools themselves have vulnerabilities, as we just saw with the latest Ruby issues.
  3. The volume of sensitive data that’s accessible online grows daily. The Internet and web applications are powerful business tools. It only makes sense that we connect more of our business operations online, and thus more of our sensitive data and business operations are Internet accessible.
  4. The bad guys know technology. Just as it took time for us to learn and adopt new technologies, the bad guys had to get up to speed. That window is closed, and we have knowledgeable attackers.
  5. The bad guys have an economic infrastructure. Not only can they steal things, but they have a market to convert the bits to bucks. Pure economics give them viable business models that depend on generating losses for us.
  6. Bad guys attack us to steal or assets (information) or hijack them to use against others (e.g., to launch a big XSS attack). They also sometimes attack us just to destroy our assets, but not often (less economic incentive, even for DoS blackmail).
  7. Current security tools are not oriented to the right attack vectors. Even WAFs offer limited effectiveness since they are more tied to our network security models than our data/information-centric models.
  8. We do not have the resources to clean up all existing code, and we can’t guarantee future code, even using a secure SDLC, won’t be vulnerable. This is probably my most contentious assumption, but most of the clients I work with just don’t have the resources to completely clean what they do have, and even the best programmers will still make mistakes that slip through to production.
  9. Code scanning tools and vulnerability analysis tools can’t catch everything, and can’t eliminate all false positives. They’ll never catch logic flaws, and even if we had a perfect tool, the second a new vulnerability appeared we’d have to go back and fix everything we’d built up to that point.
  10. We’re relying on more and more code and web services developed by others. From machine-generated web applications, to frameworks and off-the-shelf web apps we customize, to mashups where we directly pass content generated by someone else to our users.
  11. “Web applications” is a misnomer- we mean the entire stack: web servers, web application servers, the databases behind them, and all the various interconnected n tiers. Many of these are internally accessible, creating an additional vector for attack.

To rephrase these a bit:

  1. Bad guys are focused on our web applications, and are intelligent and motivated.
  2. We have a lot of insecure code, keep generating more, and can’t rely on secure development to fix it all.
  3. WAFs and code scanning help, but aren’t enough.
  4. We need to protect a big, complex stack including content and services outside our control.

Following these forces, I’m drawing some assumptions about what any solution needs to look like:

  1. We need to include browser elements, but can’t trust the browser.
  2. We need to monitor and enforce at the transaction level, both for audibility and for logic flaws and other security issues.
  3. Such monitoring and enforcement needs to run from the browser to the database.
  4. Any solution needs to understand the application and database, not just layer over it.
  5. We need to filter anything we pass on to the user.
  6. We need to focus on protecting the information.

I’m not totally thrilled with how I’ve laid this out, but I think it’s reasonably understandable. Tomorrow I’ll walk through how I think the technology will develop, and where today’s tools fit in. I suspect Adrian will start chiming in, once he gets off the road, with his own interpretations.