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Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Security Flaws: Why are they ignored?

Nobody likes to feel vulnerable. So why do security flaws get so readily ignored by developers and administrators? This debate rages on in the security community (and probably will for a long time to come).

I personally believe there are a number of correct answers, depending upon the situation. At the end of the day, the outcome will be the same unless this attitude changes, but shedding some light on the reasons behind wilful ignorance of bugs and security flaws will hopefully encourage you, the reader, to take a closer look at yourself and see if you can change the way you look at bugs. So, without further ado, a few of the key reasons that security gets disregarded.

1. Pride

Most large infrastructure and web projects take incredible amounts of time and dedication to design, develop, debug, and deploy. A successful project should indeed be considered a source of pride for all those who were involved in it, but especially the people who brought it to what it is today, from square one.

When we consider this, it's understandable that a developer or administrator may feel embarrassed, threatened, or even insulted if somebody points out flaws in one of their creations.

This is evident in common reactions to researchers reporting vulnerabilities in software and infrastructure. Security researchers are more than often, at the very least; ignored and at the worst sometimes even face legal action, purely for trying to do the right thing with their knowledge.

2. Self-Preservation

My second big reason is self-preservation. I hate to have to say this, but not everybody in this world is looking out for the greater good and that's just the stark reality. While some people will ignore security holes for the sake of their own pride (which is self-preservation in a sense), I will still be ranking this as a separate class because it is selfish on a different level.

The software engineering industry is incredibly competitive in nature and the unskilled quickly fall to the bottom of the pecking order. In order to survive in such a hostile job market, you must stay on the cutting edge of your development area, or at least appear to be doing so.

Some developers will simply refuse to acknowledge a flaw in their code for fear of losing their job or being held accountable in some other way. They are willing to take a gamble with the risk for the sake of their own short-term job security.

Naturally, this approach can result in catastrophic damage to a company and its reputation. We need only look at Sony in the recent LulzSec attacks to see how much damage can be done to a companies reputation in a matter of minutes as a result of sloppy security.

3. Lack of Understanding

Information security is such a vast and readily expanding topic in today's digital society that is impossible for the average person to keep up with what is occurring in the security world on a regular basis. Flaws are found and exploited faster than any one person can keep up. Vulnerabilities pointed out in the early 2000's are still be actively exploited today and continue to occur in newly developed applications.

This environment is simply part of security research and the cat-and-mouse game is never going to change, however, good security practices and adequate testing are the key to risk-minimisation in the IT world. Unfortunately, many developers simply don't understand the risks associated with leaving applications unchecked for security flaws or don't possess the understanding to fix these problems, and as such, choose to ignore them.

This lack of understanding can prove just as dangerous to a companies reputation and infrastructure as the other two already mentioned. Often people with this mindset will be extremely fast to seek help or fix their projects after an attack, but sometimes, it's just too late. When a database full of credit-card details is stolen or corporate secrets are exfiltrated from a company server, the damage cannot be easily undone.

4. Laziness

Let's face it, almost nobody likes having to do extra work, especially if they don't see it as important or they see the time as better spent somewhere else. I think this one is pretty straightforward and self-explanatory, no need for more then one paragraph. The bottom line is, it needs to be done, simple as that. Either fix it yourself or get someone else to do it for you. Laziness is never an excuse and usually leads to a slippery slope of failure.

Developers and administrators of important systems need to do the mature thing and take ownership of their oversights and mistakes. Trying to hide them or transfer the blame to an innocent researcher who attempts to help them out is not helpful or productive in anyway. The more these kinds of attitudes are held, the more security researchers will be pushed into the criminal world where their skills are readily accepted with open arms and sadly but ironically, with considerably less risk of legal complications.

The "bug bounty" programs of companies such as Google, Facebook, and Paypal are a step forward in the future of security research and I hope to see similar programs implemented across a wider variety of companies soon. Who knows? Perhaps some day soon the "Bug Reporting Policy" will be as common to find in e-businesses as the "Privacy Policy" and "Contact Us" page. One can only hope...

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