Developer Security Outreach

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to try to bring the security and development communities together, most specifically for PHP (see these two posts for more on that). PHP has a long standing reputation for being an insecure language that it’s had to overcome. I like to think that evidence in more recent years is helping to dissuade that, but it’s an uphill battle. Anyway, that’s not what I’m hear to talk about. True to the title of the post, I want to talk about developer outreach as it relates to security and secure development practices.

While comments were made on my two previous post about the relationship going both ways, I want to focus in on things from the perspective of the organization with the bulk of the knowledge – the application security group/company. Yes, it’s good for developers to contribute back to shared resources so both parties can benefit, but with so many new developers coming to the language every day, I see a real need for engagement. There are a lot of groups and individuals out there on the security side that specialize in training and resources to help developers write their code more securely. They provide training classes and white papers on new technologies that can be used to get the ideas across, but usually only in a limited fashion. They write blog posts about the latest exploits and vulnerabilities or even speak at conferences with case studies and their own real-world experience in the world of application security.

So, take a step back – do you see a problem with this model? Most of these things I’ve listed involve talking at the developers and not with them. Sure, some of the training classes are more hands-on and can be much more effective at getting the speaker’s ideas across. However, these kinds of resources are mostly provided if requested or actively sought out by the developer. There’s a wealth of information out there about securing applications, even PHP ones, that’s tucked away and only shown when the right Google search is performed.

Is there a solution? In thinking about it some this morning, I see a pretty obvious one – developer outreach. I’ve mentioned this same idea before in another post, but that one was more targeted towards the OWASP group and the services/resources it provides. It still surprises me when I ask in my sessions at PHP-related conference how many people have heard of OWASP and some hands go up but a lot don’t. Likewise, there’s a lot of companies out there that provide application security training (such as the Denim Group, WhiteHat Security or even SANS) but those are still presented as passive resources. Developers, by their nature, are notoriously lazy. They try to find the most efficient, most robust solutions to problems. How much would they benefit from someone from the Denim group reaching out to them or even just the PHP community as a whole and sharing what they have to offer.

Am I suggesting they hop on the various community mailing lists and start spamming them with ads for their training courses? Of course not. Here’s what I am proposing:

If you provide training, resources or any other kind of resources that developers could benefit from to create more secure applications, find an advocate (or a few) in the community of your choice and request their help to get the word out. I’d even go so far as to suggest having someone dedicated to working with communities, maybe even different people for different communities. This person should be dedicated to not only sharing what kind of things the company/group has to offer the developer community but to also act as a guide to keep them on the right path.

There’s a security subculture in just about every language out there. The key for those with the security knowledge and resources to do is to tap into it. Break into the community with a sense of humility, an open mind to learn about its members and a passion for teaching and sharing knowledge on a personal level.

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5 comments

  1. As someone who sits in the overlap of both groups, I agree that much more outreach is needed. However, a bigger problem than bad coding habits right now is “we want to support PHP 5.2.x until the heat death of the universe” while the rest of the commmunity is on 5.5.x and newer.

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    1. Yeah, I can see the point there. Adoption is an issue no matter what language community you’re in, though. I think rather than saying “they can’t be as secure running version X” it’s more productive to say “they’re using version X so lets help them be as secure as they can be with what they have”. Sure, in an ideal world we could all keep up with the latest versions of the language and all of the security fixes that come with it, but I honestly think that a large chunk of the exploitation of web applications comes from poorly written code and less about language vulnerabilities themselves.

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