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What Is Secure Coding, And Why Does It Matter?

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By: Cybrary Staff

September 28, 2021

With software vulnerabilities being a top target for hackers, it is more important than ever to start thinking about security when coding new software.

While today’s security leaders are well aware of the need to keep their software updated, in many cases, the root of the issue lies with software development itself (Almost two-thirds of data breaches in 2019 involved unpatched software vulnerabilities.)

Many organizations have unique software requirements. As such, they either rely on in-house or outsourced development teams to develop software products for their specific needs. This may be more expensive than using off-the-shelf solutions or open-source software, but it does, on the other hand, give organizations far greater control.

The heightened degree of control over such software development projects also presents new opportunities to secure the code itself. In other words, security is factored into the project from the first line of code is written. Many developers are tempted to cut corners when it comes to this field, often because they are under great pressure to release an MVP in as little time as possible.

The problem with poor coding practices

In the earlier days of software development, security was typically tacked on during the late stages of the software development lifecycle (SDLC). However, its issues deemed minuscule were often disregarded entirely, even though they often ended up being the ones resulting in data breaches with serious financial and reputational consequences.

For example, poorly written code and untested software can result in vulnerabilities that may give attackers a direct line of access to that software and any dependencies and other resources connected to it. Common issues that usually boil down to insecure code include buffer overflows, logic bombs, and lax access controls, all of which can compromise confidentiality, availability, and integrity.

Some programming languages are practically insecure by default. Without additional security measures, for instance, older versions of PHP are vulnerable to cross-site scripting attacks. Another common mistake is developers setting up weak default access rights to make it easier to test software while building it but failing to remediate it before releasing the software in production environments.

Buffer overflows are another widespread vulnerability, and they are becoming more severe due to rapidly expanding attack surfaces associated with the adoption of the internet of things. For example, code vulnerabilities in embedded systems may allow attackers to inject malicious scripts. One of the most well-known cases of this was the Heartbleed bug, which affected countless systems and allowed attackers to access sensitive data that was supposed to be safeguarded by the OpenSSL open-source software library.

The rise of secure coding in modern development environments

Code is at the heart of how any software application works, so it makes sense to ensure any potential vulnerabilities have been ironed out before it goes into production.

Software developers have a lot to evaluate. Many consider themselves far too busy to worry about things like cybersecurity, which is still widely viewed as someone else’s responsibility. Though, there are direct benefits to developers themselves of writing secure code. For example, by releasing secure applications in the first place, there will be less need for rework and constantly developing critical security patches after release.

Secure coding is the practice of writing code that is free of vulnerabilities in the first place. The practice revolves around the understanding that security should not be left until the end of development. To use an analogy, adding a deadbolt lock to a door made from cardboard will not make it secure. Secure coding is not just about locking down an application but fortifying it from the ground up through iterative testing and remediation throughout the SDLC.

Secure coding is not a specific standard or framework but rather a loosely associated set of guidelines based on industry best practices. These practices should be applied from the beginning and include dynamic and static application testing and penetration testing. Developers can use a wide range of testing tools to assist them with secure coding and help them remediate any vulnerabilities before.

How can developers code securely?

Secure coding practices have been widely documented for some time now. One of the most commonly recognized guidelines is the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP). The guide includes a comprehensive checklist of things developers need to do to ensure that their code is as secure as possible. This includes guidelines around things like authentication and password management, data input validation, and communication security. Other popular resources include Microsoft’s secure coding documentation and the Software Engineering Institute’s SEI CERT coding standards.

All software developers should learn the fundamentals of secure coding according to a widely recognized set of standards and best practices like those mentioned above. Moreover, they should be wary of lesser-known guides and resources about software development, as some of these have themselves instilled poor coding habits with far-reaching consequences. Similarly, open-source software libraries should be cautiously approached and thoroughly tested before being integrated into any project in progress.

It is also essential for developers to work closely with software architects on security matters since secure coding only concerns the programming stage. Developers and architects should ideally take a holistic approach that incorporates least privilege and defense principles in depth.

Security starts with coding, and when development teams take note of this fact and adopt new and more secure coding practices, they will gain a competitive edge. Secure coding is now a vital part of creating any successful software product, and it can save money and time in the longer term. By applying the tenets of OWASP or another widely used set of guidelines, developers can reduce risk, eliminate unnecessary rework, and enhance user experiences.

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