Understanding Your Application Platform

Building applications today includes the use of some pretty impressive platforms. These platforms have so much built in capability, many of the most common tasks are easily accomplished through simple method calls. As developers, we rely on these frameworks to provide a certain level of functionality. Much of which we may never even use.

When it comes to security, the platform can be a love/hate relationship. On the one hand, developers may have little control over how the platform handles certain tasks. On the other, the platform may provide excellent security controls. As we mature these platforms, we see a lot of new, cool security features enabled by default. Many view engines have cross-site scripting protections built in by default. Many of the systems use ORM to help reduce SQL Injection vulnerabilities. The problem we often run into is we don’t really know what our platform does and does not provide.

A question was posed about what was the most secure application platform, or which would you recommend. The problem to that question is that the answer really is “It depends.” The frameworks are not all created equally. Some have better XSS preventions. Others may have default CSRF prevention. What a framework does or doesn’t have can also change next month. They are always being updated. Rather than pick the most secure platform, I recommend to people to take the time to understand your platform of choice.

Does it matter if you use PHP, Java, .Net, Python, or Ruby? They all have some built in features, they all have their downfalls. So rather than trying to swap platforms every time a new one gets better features, spend some time to understand the platform you have in front of you. When you understand the risks that you face, you can then determine how those line up with your platform. Do you output user input to a web browser? If so, cross site scripting is a concern. Determine how your platform handles that. It may be that the platform auto encodes that data for you. The encoding may only happen in certain contexts. it may be the platform doesn’t provide any encoding, but rather leaves that up to you.

While the secure by default is more secure, as it reduces the risk of human oversight, applications can still be very secure without it. This is where that understanding comes into play. If I understand my platform and know that it doesn’t encode for me then I must make the effort to protect that. This may even include creating your own function or library that is used enterprise wide to help solve the problem. Unfortunately, when you don’t understand your platform, you never realize that this is a step you must take. Then it is overlooked and you are vulnerable.

I am also seeing more platforms starting to provide security guidelines or checklists to help developers with secure implementation. They may know of areas the platform doesn’t create a protection, so they show how to get around that. Maybe something is not enabled by default, but they recommend and show how to enable that. The more content like this that is produced the more we will understand how to securely create applications.

Whatever platform you use, understanding it will make the most difference. If the platform doesn’t have good documentation, push for it. Ask around or even do the analysis yourself to understand how security works in your situations.

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