When a Project is really finished?

October 14, 2014 — Leave a comment

“I made it! A wonderful Project finished on time and on budget! And I even did that by the book, closely following the dictates of SDL and asking for validation from a panel composed by the most known Security Experts. It will be unbreakable!”

Who wouldn’t like to say those words? Well, I would for sure.

But wait, they have a dangerous seed in them: the feeling of un-breakability. It could be true, for a while, but it definitely is less and less so with the passing of time. This is an hateful truth, disliked by most stakeholders, but a truth anyhow.

If you follow every best practice strictly, you can minimize the quantity and hopefully the severity of vulnerabilities in your solution, but you will not be able to eradicate every one of them: in fact, even if you perform a 100% perfect job, removing all the vulnerabilities in your code – and this is something as close to impossibility as it gets – you will have to rely on third party components or systems, like the O.S. you are using to run your solution, and they will have vulnerabilities as well.

So, you can hope to deter most attackers, but not those skilled and highly funded hackers that are so much in the news nowadays. Your attention to security will delay them from accessing your data, though, hopefully for long.

So, what could you do with that knowledge? You could decide to accept that someone will pass your protections, you could decide that your data is not worth all the effort and bow to the mighty of the attackers giving up any defense (and knowing that they will publicly laugh at you and thank you for your shortsightedness) or you could accept that you are human and plan for the violations. Even if it could not be so apparent, all those three options are equally valuable and acceptable, depending on the circumstances, because they are thoughtful answers to an important question. Personally, I do not consider a wise position only the one that is undertaken without any musing, by instinct or by simple inaction.

By the way, it’s only natural that over time those attackers will find some crack in your most perfect protection, no matter what you do: they have all the resources in the world to do that, while you had only a limited amount to be shared between the many tasks needed to complete your Project. For the sake of discussion, let’s consider the third option, the one where a plan was concocted for handling failures and attacks. It would contain a description of how to detect an attack, how to answer to it in the urgency of the moment, and finally what to do to ensure that the same or similar vulnerabilities will not leveraged upon to violate your solution again. Planning for failure is also important when the Project is in the Design phase: this is because you would want to design your solution to be flexible enough, for example by applying concepts like Cryptographic Agility, which would allow changing your algorithms and keys periodically and with little effort.

You will also want to re-assess your application periodically, in light of the most recent types of attacks in the news. At some point the application will reach its natural end of life: security-wise, it would be when the risk of falling under an attack is too high. As said initially, it’s only normal that the security of the applications wears out over time, as an effect of the combined attacks – more attacks are performed, successful or not, more the application is known by the attackers and greater is the probability for someone to find an important vulnerability. Again, the wise thing is to plan for that: not planning for replacement and retirement of an application is like accepting that your solution will be taken over in due time. Right now, there are many organizations that are considering or performing the migration of hundreds of their old applications from O.S. out of support or about to go out of support, like Windows XP and Windows 2003 Server. Obsolescence hits also Line-of-Business Applications and should be taken under account: re-hosting them could be not the best thing to do, security-wise. In fact, it is not important if those applications are exposed to Internet or not, nor is the sensibility of the data it handles, because even intranet-only applications could be used as an intermediate step toward richer bounties.

So, when a Project is really finished? Well, when it is retired!

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