Opinion

An Open Suggestion to OWASP (or How to Bridge the Gap)

In a previous post I made a call out to the security community (mostly the OWASP group) about some of the lacking involvement in the world of PHP. There were some good comments on the post, and there’s some I’d like to give my own feedback on to maybe explain things rolling around in my head even better.

First off, there was the comment I knew was coming even before I hit the “Publish” button. In this comment Ryan turns some of my comments back around and wonders if the lack of PHP involvement by OWASP is more of a reflection of how much involvement the PHP community has with it. While I agree with this to a point, I’d also suggest that it has to be a two way street when it comes to communicating effectively with developers. An organization that wants to provide information about how to secure applications should be involved with the groups it’s trying to help. Likewise, that group can’t effectively provide the information developers are looking for without guidance from those developers themselves. After all, what good would a guide about not using “safe_mode” be to people using PHP 5.4.0+? More on this topic later…

Another comment brought up a few more specific issues around the tooling that the OWASP group provides, suggesting that it’s less attuned to what PHP developers actually need and is more of a direct port of an existing Java or .NET version of a similar project. The influence is definitely there and it makes me wonder how much PHP experience the author had in the language (not just writing PHP but actually knowing PHP…there’s a difference). The PHP community is a rapidly evolving one by the nature of the language and if you’re not keeping up with trends, advancements in the language or where the state of security in the language is at, your tool will be deprecated before it even hits 1.0.

Finally there’s the comment I hoped I’d get from a representative of the OWASP group themselves, a member of the board no less, Michael Coates. I’m glad that the response was one of openness and a desire to make things better. It’s easy to see how, especially in a community that tends to err on the side of keeping things under a rock, that the group I was mentioning was paying attention. Michael’s comment asks for direct suggestions about things that can be done to help the situation I put out there. With the somewhat wide chasm between the two words, I can see a lot of room for improvement, but I think there’s one suggestion I’d make to Michael and the rest of the OWASP folks (including those already involved in PHP-related projects under the organization):

Get involved.

Sounds simple, right? Honestly, I think the biggest problem here is the communication between the two groups. I feel like the OWASP group, while having good intentions, sometimes comes across as more of a “we’re security professionals and we know how to write the tools correctly” kind of mentality. As a result, you end up with projects like the PHP ESAPI  or the work being done on the PHP Security Project that’s recreating tools that already exist in the PHP ecosystem for the sake of having a “one tool to rule them all.” Essentially what it ends up being is a mish-mash of tools that a developer could use to secure their applications. What it doesn’t end up being is a useful tool that PHP developers want to use to secure their applications.

The goals of the project are admirable, but their time could be much better spent encouraging the package mentality the PHP community has evolved over the past few years and enhance the security features of pre-existing and well-tested/vetted libraries already in wide-spread use. Let me illustrate with a list of things the owasp/phpsec project includes that already have packages that solve the problem:

– a database abstraction layer (not an ORM or even ActiveRecord, just a layer on top of PDO)

– a “download manager” that seems to not do much more than stream a file to the given output

– an encryption class that does some crazy stuff to encrypt a string

– A HTTP request class that most frameworks have anyway (or even HttpFoundation)

– A Logging class that can output to a database, file, mail or syslog (or just use Monolog)

– A cryptographically secure random number generator (how about RandomLib instead)

– A sort of “security scanner” that looks for a limited set of keywords (try Parse instead)

– A session handler that forces database use and doesn’t plug into the SessionHandler interface

There’s a lot of other features in the tool that could go on this list too, but it feels like there’s just a big disconnect here between the goals of the project to provide a useful library PHP developers will want to use. While I get the whole idea that other packages are “written by developers and not security experts”, there’s a lot of things they’re reproducing here that have already been solved.

So, my suggestion to the group working on the PHP Security Project is this – stop with the Not Invented Here development and get involved in the work that’s already been done to make these “decoupled libraries” people are actually using. Help show the PHP development community that you’re interested in being a guiding force for security concepts and techniques rather than building something in a silo most developers would never even use.

The PHP community gets better tools and OWASP gets known in the community as an organization that cares about keeping PHP safe. Seems to me like this is a win/win situation for both sides.

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“It Depends”

In my research and writings that I’ve already done, I’ve noticed something about trying to share helpful security advice to fellow developers – you can provide all of the code examples and describe the threats all you want, but the problem really boils down to two words:

“It depends”

Much like other development-related issues, there’s a lot of things you have to take into consideration when thinking about the security of your application. Code security by itself is good, and there’s some best practices for that that have been shared all over the web. Unfortunately, this only paints a small part of the picture. Web applications, by their nature, are really complex systems composed of multiple pieces of software all running together to make this useful, functional service for its consumers. If you’re a PHP developer, there’s things you can do to help prevent common attacks (like XSS, CSRF or SQL injection to name some popular ones), but unless you look at the bigger picture, you’re getting a false sense of security.

“But I’m only responsible for the code!” you say. You like the idea that your code can be as secure as possible by filtering output, escaping user input and using defensive coding techniques. You commit your code, run your tests and happily go about your business, thinking things are good. Unfortunately, if you don’t consider the ecosystem your application lives in, chances are you missed something.

I’m not talking about code challenges here – preventing things like XSS or SQL injections is relatively easy (as long as you know what to do). The problems I’m talking about are things that may be true for one environment but not for another – things like:

  • Working with multiple databases and storing their credentials securely
  • Effective logging to a remote syslog server
  • Potentially protecting your data from a physical intrusion
  • Working with sensitive data
  • Bridging authentication/authorization across applications
  • Concurrency issues coming from multiple installations of the same application

While a lot of these kinds of concerns revolve around the architecture of the application, developers still need to keep them in mind when creating their applications. At the very least, you need to keep these kinds of concerns in mind when writing your code. Like anything else, there’s ways to structure the code to make things like this simpler to change. The trick is to keep things loosely coupled enough to make life simpler down the road.

Innovation’s Not The “Ah-Hah!”

After reading through his “Confessions of a Public Speaker” (as a beginning speaker, I learned some good things from this one – I’d suggest it if you do any kind of speaking) I was anxious to check out some of Scott Berkun’s other books. The topics of some of the others didn’t really appeal to me, but the one that’s caught my attention recently is his “Myths of Innovation” book. I’m maybe a third of the way through it right now, and there’s one thing that keeps resonating in my mind as I go through it. In a previous chapter, he makes the point that innovation, despite what the history books and popular culture would have us assume – it’s less of an “Ah-hah!” and more of a “Finally!”.

See, most of the common stories of innovators out there leave out something that’s very important – the reference frame of their lives. They don’t provide a larger picture of who someone is (like Einstein or Newton) and how all of their work, everything they’ve done in their career led up to the discoveries that they’re known for.

I think this is important to remember as software developers, too. All of us start projects and never finish them, it’s just a fact of life in the world of a coder. We find something that we either think is the “Next Big Idea” or something that we’ll find amazingly useful and latch onto it, giving it our all for a week, maybe a month. Nine times out of ten, though, that project falls by the wayside. Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s some folks out there that do a great job with anything they touch, but for the average developer, it’s all about hacking away at the latest “shiny”.

Sometimes it’s about the technology (“everyone’s learning Backbone.js, why shouldn’t I?”) and other times there’s a bit of pride that kicks in (“I could do this so much better if…”) but there’s always one thing to remember. It doesn’t matter if the project you’re working on goes anywhere. Remember this. Just like some of the great innovators of the past, it takes a lot of dedication and work to get to be the “Ah-hah Guy” that wows the world with something new and amazing. Don’t forget that the code of the Next Great App isn’t just going to fly from your fingertips.

Work hard at your craft and it will pay off. Maybe not in fame and glory, maybe in making real, useful contributions to the culture and technology around you. Don’t stop trying to innovate, don’t focus on the failures and, above all, keep learning and keep doing.