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Software security involves using security as a core principle in software design. The aim is to create software that remains secure and functional even during an attack.
In the digital world, security means preventing unauthorized access to systems, software, and data. Unauthorized access includes infection by malware as well as the use of the systems by unauthorized human threat actors.
Their goal is almost always data-centric. They wish to access your data, destroy your data or hold you to ransom over the threat of the loss of your data.
Modern organizations run on Information Technology (IT). IT systems are like the nervous system for businesses, both large and small. These organizations cannot function effectively if their IT systems are down, not working properly, or lack data.
All of the value of their IT resides in the data and, more precisely, in the information contained within the data. Data is rarely static. It is added to and edited. It is transferred and shared.
Data can be files representing text, images, recorded voice, or the telemetry received from satellites or deep-sea coring equipment. Regardless, at the lowest level, it is all the same. It is a series of ones and zeroes stored somewhere, digitally.
There’s incredible sophistication in the software systems that can read, write, and translate those binary encodings into something humans can consider, understand, and work with.
Data is accessed locally on hardware within the owner’s premises and it is accessed remotely by mobile staff. Software security aims to guarantee that the software that accesses, transmits, and governs the data has as much consideration given to its security as to its functionality, speed, user interface, and other characteristics.
The basic principles of software security are:
Confidentiality, integrity, and availability – forming the well-known acronym CIA – are often cited as the default security goals.
Confidentiality means only authorized users can access systems and data. Attacks can include stealing passwords, capturing network traffic, social engineering, and phishing.
Data integrity requires two things. The assurance of the accuracy of the data, and the completeness of the data. In other words, the data must not be destroyed, partially deleted or reduced in any way, nor undergo unauthorized modification.
In order to access the data, your IT must be operational and fit for purpose, and that includes the software. Software is an all-encompassing term covering operating systems, utilities, applications, and networking protocols.
It also means software such as embedded systems and firmware in hardware devices like routers, switches, and firewalls.
Security software is software that plays a dedicated part in securing a system. Authentication software, firewall operating systems, and intrusion detection systems are all examples of security software.
The most common form of authentication is still the humble password. Gaining knowledge of a password allows a threat actor to behave as if they were the genuine user, with all of their rights and privileges.
Two-factor authentication, which requires a verification code sent to a device like a cellphone, in addition to the password, is becoming more common. This changes the authentication from something you know (your password) to something you know and something you have (your password and your cell phone).
Authentication is linked to access control. Access controls are the measures that regulate what rights users have once they are authenticated. Authentication software and access control software are both examples of security software.
Endpoint protection suites containing antivirus and anti-malware are a form of security software. The software that sits inside a firewall or an intrusion-detection device is security software. Using encryption to protect email in transit and at rest, and other transport layer security methods, are all forms of security software.
But that’s not software security.
There are substantially more cyberattacks exploiting flaws in software security than there are attacks performed by side-stepping security software. Vulnerabilities in software are found, exploited, and shared amongst threat actors. The typical design flaw and coding error vulnerabilities are tested by threat actors on new software packages.
To understand these vulnerabilities better, consider the following common issues:
There are even “cheat sheets” for different programming languages, that list the typical errors made when using those languages, or that exist in the library functions each language provides to the developer. The cheat sheets list the common vulnerabilities and how to exploit them.
Software security – as opposed to security software – requires writing clean and compliant code so that these vulnerabilities do not appear in the finished program. What is compliant code? What must it be compliant with?
Most major development efforts have coding guidelines. They list the techniques and methods that are not to be used, because of the risks associated with those methods. NASA famously published its list of 10 banned techniques for the C language.
Their list was designed to ensure that the code they produced was stable, reliable, easy to understand and maintain, and didn’t contain hidden vulnerabilities.
All significant software development projects should create and strictly adhere to a similar list as NASA’s, focused on security.
Software security requires a robust design built with security as the first, and most important, guiding design principle. The software should be as self-protecting as possible, with a holy grail of zero security vulnerabilities. That might be more aspirational than achievable, but the closer you can drive that figure toward zero, the better.
That’s not the whole of the problem. Modern software isn’t written from scratch, reinventing the wheel along the way. Third-party toolkits, frameworks, and libraries are used to speed up development and to make use of existing and respected code-bases. But third-party software hasn’t been written to your coding standards, so what can you do to verify their code?
And it doesn’t stop there. Nowadays, most applications contain some open-source code. Part of the power of open source is transparency. It is available to be examined by anyone, and with enough eyes all bugs become shallow.
But anyone – including threat actors – can submit new code to an open-source project. That means programmers of all capabilities – and possibly bad guys – can submit code. Submitting code doesn’t mean it is going to be accepted and make its way into the product, but it is obviously infeasible for everyone involved in open-source to be a software genius.
And the problem is recursive. Most toolkits and libraries, especially the open-source ones, will make use of other open-source projects. Because of this, a new type of code-checking software has emerged.
Since the late 70’s there have been source code checking packages such as lint, the Unix utility for checking C source code for problems. These have improved over the years from providing relatively simple syntactical and style checking to highlighting areas of suspicious code and problematic logic.
The modern descendants of these tools now look specifically for security issues, such as Dependency-Check from the Open Web Application Security Project. This checks your web application’s source code against the National Vulnerability Database, maintained by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. There are a growing number of similar tools, for many different development languages and platforms.
With open-source in mind, there are tools available that will scan your code base, identify the open-source components, and highlight security issues in them. They work recursively and check nested toolkits and libraries that those libraries may have used – and so on, right through the source code dependency tree.
It is important to note that you shouldn’t view this as a quality control test that is performed at the end of the coding phase. Programmers must develop with a defensive mindset, be aware of the threats, avoid pitfalls, and build in the ability for software to react to and withstand threats.
It means putting end-to-end engineering back into software development.
Software security is necessary for protecting sensitive data, ensuring privacy, and maintaining the integrity of digital systems. As tech evolves, so do the threats, requiring constant advancements in security measures.
The three types of software security are application security, network security, and cloud security, each focusing on protecting different aspects of digital information and infrastructure.
No, cybersecurity and software security are not the same. Cybersecurity is a broader term encompassing the protection of all digital data and systems, while software security specifically refers to safeguarding the software and applications from vulnerabilities.
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Marshall, a Mississippi native, is a dedicated expert in IT and cybersecurity with over a decade of experience. Along Techopedia, his bylines can be found on Business Insider, PCWorld, VGKAMI, How-To Geek, and Zapier. His articles have reached a massive readership of over 100 million people. Marshall previously served as the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) and technical staff writer at StorageReview, providing comprehensive news coverage and detailed product reviews on storage arrays, hard drives, SSDs, and more. He also developed sales strategies based on regional and global market research to identify and create new project initiatives. Currently, Marshall resides in…
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