Secure Programming: the Seven Pernicious Kingdoms: Page 5

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1.5 Classifying Vulnerabilities

In the course of our work, we look at a lot of vulnerable code. It is impossible to study vulnerabilities for very long without beginning to pick out patterns and relationships between the different types of mistakes that programmers make. From a high level, we divide defects into two loose groups: generic and context specific.

A generic defect is a problem that can occur in almost any program written in the given language. A buffer overflow is an excellent example of a generic defect for C and C++ programs: A buffer overflow represents a security problem in almost any context, and many of the functions and code constructs that can lead to a buffer overflow are the same, regardless of the purpose of the program. (Chapters 6, "Buffer Overflow" and 7, “Bride of Buffer Overflow,” discuss buffer overflow defects in detail.)

Finding context-specific defects, on the other hand, requires a specific knowledge about the semantics of the program at hand. Imagine a program that handles credit card numbers. To comply with the Payment Card Industry (PCI) Data Protection Standard, a program should never display a complete credit card number back to the user. Because there are no standard functions or data structures for storing or presenting credit card data, every program has its own way of doing things. Therefore, finding a problem with the credit card handling requires understanding the meaning of the functions and data structures defined by the program.

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In addition to the amount of context required to identify a defect, many defects can be found only in a particular representation of the program. Figure 1.4 examines the matrix formed by defect type and defect visibility. High-level problems such as wholesale granting of trust are often visible only in the program’s design, while implementation errors such as omitting input validation can often be found only by examining the program’s source code. Object-oriented languages such as Java have large class libraries, which make it possible to more easily understand the design by examining the source code. Classes derived from a standard library carry significant semantics with them, but even in the best of cases, it is not easy (or desirable) to reverse-engineer the design from the implementation.

Security defects share enough common themes and patterns that it makes sense to define a nomenclature for describing them. People have been creating classification systems for security defects since at least the 1970s, but older classification efforts often fail to capture the salient -relationships we see today.

Over the last few years, we have seen a renewed interest in this area. The Common Weakness Enumeration (CWE) project (http://cve.mitre.org/cwe/) is building a formal list and a classification scheme for software weaknesses. The OWASP Honeycomb project (http://www.owasp.org/index.php/Category:OWASP_Honeycomb_Project) is using a community-based approach to define terms and relationships between security principles, threats, attacks, vulnerabilities, and countermeasures. We prefer a simple organization that gives us just enough vocabulary to talk to programmers about the kinds of coding errors that are likely to lead to security problems.

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