There is no argument that automated tools help quickly identify many of the vulnerabilities found in applications today. Tools are typically categorized into one of the following three categories:
- Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST) – analyzes the running application.
- Static Application Security Testing (SAST) – analyzes the source or byte code of the application.
- Interactive Application Security Testing (IAST) – uses agents installed on the web server to instrument the application and analyze it at runtime. This gives access to both dynamic and static details.
These tools are becoming more popular within organizations as part of their application security programs. While there is still a large gap that can only be filled by manual testing, the automated tools are a good first step.
Are these security tools or development tools?
This depends on what your goal is. Ultimately, they are focused on finding security flaws which make them a “security” tool, however that doesn’t mean it is meant for the security team. I have been presenting for a long time on the idea that many of these tools should be considered development tools and placed in the hands of development and QA. To understand where they fit in your organization, you have to understand how you want to use them.
The application team should be using these tools to help quickly identify security bugs earlier on in the SDLC. To make this work efficiently, this should be considered a development tool. Let’s look at how SAST is used by developers. Developers have the ability to scan their source code using their chosen SAST tool. In many cases, these tools may provide an IDE plugin to make the process easier. As the developer writes their code, they can perform regular scans in smaller increments to quickly identify potential security threats. Once identified, the code can be corrected before it even leaves the development queue. In other instances, SAST is embedded into the continuous integration pipeline and scans can be run on check-in or other predefined activities. The results are immediately available to the development teams to review and make corrections.
The security team should be using these tools differently than the development teams. Security is typically more interested in the risk an application presents to the application. In the use of these tools, they provide valuable information that can be reported on to help analyze that risk. The security team should also be involved in the creation of policies and procedures around the implementation and use of the tools provided.
I thought only security experts can run these tools?
I believe this is a myth that only security experts can run these types of tools. Developers have long had static analysis tools built right into their IDEs, they just didn’t have a focus for security flaws. QA groups use all sorts of automated tools to assist in application testing. Lets take a look at each of the tool categories again.
Dynamic scanners usually require at minimum three pieces of information to get started: URL, Username, Password. Most of these scanners are either a windows or web application with a GUI. Setting up a scan is usually not to complex and fairly straightforward. I will admit that some applications, depending on how the login works or how routing is configured, can require a more complex setup. Depending on the scanner, you may be able to perform other advanced settings, but these are not difficult to learn.
Once the scan has completed, the results are provided in a GUI as well. The GUI typically provides a simple way to then view each of the findings identified, including the request and response the scanner sent and received. In dynamic scanning, the request and response are helpful in identifying where the issue is in the application. The tool will also usually provide a description of the vulnerability and references to more information. Based on my experience, reviewing findings in the provided GUI is much more efficient than trying to review an exported PDF of the results. A GUI that provides easy navigation is much better received than a 100-200 page PDF report that can’t really be consumed.
Dynamic scanning fits right into the QA process of scanners and can be easily executed by the QA or development team. This is good, because it can be executed against the QA or other pre-prod instances which are owned by the QA and development groups.
Static scanners analyze your binaries or source code. As expected, they need either the source code itself, or a compiled version of the code. Depending on the tool, you may have to submit the binaries to a service or select them using a local interface. The most difficult part in the process is usually getting the code to compile correctly with debug symbols and components. This compilation is usually done by the development team or DevOps if that has been implemented.
Once the scan is complete, the results are provided either in a web interface or in a local GUI. These results can then be inspected to view details about the issue, just like in the DAST solutions. The big difference being that in SAST you won’t see a request/response, rather you see the file and line of code indicated as well as the source and sink of the vulnerability. The source and sink help trace the data as it passes through the application to the vulnerable line of code. This is useful in helping understand the vulnerability to resolve it. There is a lot of efficiency gained in being able to view these details in a simple manner. The other option is exporting the results to a PDF file which is very inefficient.
Due to the results referencing source code, developers are put into an environment they understand. With some understanding of how security flaws work and are addressed, developers can review the results and take appropriate actions to address them.
Interactive testing uses an agent on the web server to instrument the application. Basically, it injects code into the application to analyze it as it runs. Due to performance hits, this is a great tool for pre-production environments. It also relies on the code being executed.. basically, if your application is not being used, it won’t analyze the code. This also makes it great for a QA environment or regression testing environment. The setup just requires installing the agent onto the server. The results are displayed, as they are found, in a web interface. These results include the source code and the request/response values. Having direct access to the tool provides an efficient way to view the details to then provide remediations to them.
Review how you use these tools
It has been my experience that more than just security experts can run any of these tools. There may be some tweaking that can be done and requires learning how the tools works, but this is something anyone on the dev or QA teams can adapt to. Take a look at your current program. If you are using any of these tools, look at how you are using them and who has access. Is your current process efficient? Does it make it harder than it needs to be? If you are not using these tools and looking to implement any of them, look at the resources you have and get the development teams involved. Think about where you want these tools to sit and how you want to take advantage of them. They don’t have to be locked down to a security team. Use the resources you have and allow the application teams to take ownership of the tools that will help them create more secure applications.
Jardine Software helps companies get more value from their application security programs. Let’s talk about how we can help you.
James Jardine is the CEO and Principal Consultant at Jardine Software Inc. He has over 15 years of combined development and security experience. If you are interested in learning more about Jardine Software, you can reach him at email@example.com or @jardinesoftware on twitter.
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