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Top Misconceptions of Developer-First Application Security

Explore some of the most common misconceptions of developer-first application security and learn how to build secure software with a developer-first paradigm.
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Security teams are struggling to keep up with fast-paced software development. Modern developer tools, containers, and code repositories have enabled organizations to produce software more rapidly than ever. Security teams can save time for more important tasks by shifting security left in the development cycle.

Shifting security left means developers shoulder more responsibility for producing secure code, with AppSec teams providing guidance and expertise. However, there’s more to a developer-first application security program than just shifting left. This new paradigm includes things like training and collaboration between developers and AppSec teams. By working together, both sides can produce more secure applications while also reducing the risk of vulnerabilities.

There are many misunderstandings in the industry about what it means to build software with a developer-first paradigm. This article will explore some of the most common misconceptions and clarify this type of development.

Risk-Appropriate Security Must Have Context

Developers are often the last line of defense regarding application security. Security scanning tools can help identify vulnerabilities in code, but they are only a part of what is needed to create secure applications. A developer-first AppSec program includes training and resources for developers so they can understand and mitigate security risks. It also includes processes and tools that make it easy for developers to integrate security into their work.

Running security tools in the CI pipeline can help find bugs earlier in the life cycle, but there is no guarantee that developers will respond appropriately. Presenting the dev team with security bugs earlier in the life cycle can be helpful, but it is just the beginning of a developer-first security program.

To create secure software, it is essential for security teams to understand the business context and purpose of the software. Additionally, developers must be aware of the security risks and implications early in the development process. Not all code repositories or services are created equal, and developers should use risk-appropriate security controls when working with different data types.

Context matters. A web service that takes untrusted traffic and handles confidential data presents a more severe risk than an internal service that excludes sensitive data and critical components. Historically, this level of context has been tough to gather in an automated and scalable manner. A lack of context is why most security programs end up treating all vulnerabilities equally. This blind method creates unnecessary work because the thinly stretched security teams don’t know where they should focus.

Security Must Be Involved in Decision-Making

Many security functions mistakenly believe individual developers can prioritize or apply fixes to vulnerable code. In reality, many developers are not authorized to allocate the resources needed to fix vulnerable code. Their workload and tasks during a sprint are often decided not by them but by a product or engineering manager.

It can be challenging for individual developers to allocate time for security enhancements during sprint planning since others often set priorities. This lack of autonomy can mean that necessary security fixes may not be given the attention they need.

To ensure that security enhancements are a priority in the development sprint, organizational leaders must engage all appropriate decision-makers. Knowing who makes work prioritization decisions is critical for getting the necessary resources to secure your product. To make this happen, you need leadership from various stakeholders, including engineering and product management, to commit to providing risk-appropriate security from the start.

Provide a Secure Framework and Security Guardrails

Organization leaders and managers should not expect software developers to have an expert-level understanding of secure development. Developers may be able to program securely, but they likely do not have the same level of knowledge of security engineering principles. Security engineers should be responsible for training developers on secure coding practices.

Organizations need to train developers to help them become proficient in secure development. However, expecting them to be security experts often leads to delivering vulnerable software. Organizations must build security guardrails for developers and provide a secure framework to work within. This approach will help ensure that developers produce more secure software.

A secure development framework and security guardrails should make the secure path easy for developers. This way, developers will automatically stay on the most secure track without worrying about navigating through ambiguous security guidance or researching security bugs. Additionally, leaders can provide developers with tools to quickly incorporate security into their applications. By doing so, they can help reduce the number of application vulnerabilities introduced and ultimately improve the overall security posture of their organization.

A secrets management system is much better than simply running scans to find secrets in code and then creating tickets. Similarly, building guardrails in developer workflows that only allow secure functions is preferable to finding insecure usage of libraries after the fact.

Define Ownership and Automate Software Inventory

As if the challenges mentioned above are not enough, many organizations find it difficult to keep track of who owns which software code and assets, making it hard to determine who is responsible for implementing security enhancements. Without an accurate inventory of software assets and ownership, prioritizing and implementing security fixes can be difficult.

Automating the software inventory and ownership process can help security teams be more effective and streamlined. Code attribution can be frustrating and time-consuming, but automating it can make things easier. By automating this process, security teams can focus on more critical tasks.

Conclusion

The future of application security will be focused on making it easier for developers. Security should be easy to achieve and integrated into the software development life cycle as much as possible. This practice will make it easier for developers to create secure applications and avoid common security pitfalls.

Successful AppSec programs will move away from security gates that cause friction and toward security guardrails that enable developers to build secure code quickly and efficiently. Security gates can often slow down the development process and frustrate developers. Security guardrails, on the other hand, provide a framework within which developers can operate while still ensuring that code is secure. This strategy will enable organizations to produce secure code more quickly and efficiently.

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