CISO AppSec Guide: Executive Summary

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Executive Summary

The fact that applications ought to be considered company's assets is "per se" a good reason to put applications in scope for compliance with information security policies and standards. The impact of compliance with information security policies and standards for applications typically depends on the classification of the asset-data stored by the application, the type of exposure of the application to the users (e.g. internet, intranet, extranet) and the risk of the functionality that the application supports with the data (e.g. access to confidential data, transfer of money, payments, users administration etc). From an information security perspective, applications should be in scope for organizations specific vulnerability assessments and application security requirements. The security validations and certifications of applications follow specific security requirements such as the secure design, secure coding and secure operations. These are often part of the goals of application security standards. Therefore, compliance is a critical aspect of application security, and of CISOs responsibilities, but not the only one. Application security spans other security domains that CISOs are responsible for. These can be summarized as (GRC) Governance, Risk and Compliance.

  • From the governance perspective, CISOs are responsible for institute application security processes, roles and responsibilities to manage them, and software security training and awareness for software developers such as defensive coding and vulnerability risk management for information security officers/managers.
  • From the risk management perspective, the risks managed by the CISOs also include application security risks, such as the risks of specific threats targeting applications that process confidential user data by seeking to exploit gaps in security controls as well as vulnerabilities in applications.
  • Among CISOs security domains, compliance with regulations and security standards is often the one that gets the most attention from the organization's executive management. The aim of this guide, is to help CISOs fulfill compliance requirements as well as to use compliance requirements as one of the reasons for justifying investments in application security. For some organizations, managing risks of security incidents such as credit card fraud, theft of personal identifiable information, theft of intellectual property and confidential data is what gets most of the executive management attention, especially when the organization has been impacted by data breach security incidents.


Part I: Reasons for Investing in Application Security


Go to Part I: Reasons for Investing in Application Security

In this digital era, public and private organizations serve an increasing number of citizens, clients, customers and employees through web applications. Often these web applications provide “highly trusted services” over the internet, including functions that bear high risk for the business. These web applications are the target of an ever-increasing number of fraudsters and cyber-criminals. Many incidents result in a denial of online access, breach of customer data and online fraud.

Chief Information Security Officers (CISOs) are tasked to enforce application security measures in order to avoid, mitigate and reduce security risks affecting the organization's ability to deliver on its mission. This evolving threat landscape further drives audit, legal and compliance requirements. CISOs must create a business case for investing in an application security program. The business case should be mapped to the security threats on the business and the program services necessary to serve as a countermeasure. Industry security spending benchmarks and quantitative risk calculations provide support to security investment budget requests.

Part II: Criteria for Managing Application Security Risks


Go to Part II: Criteria for Managing Application Security Risks

CISOs must prioritize security issues in order to identify areas needing attention first. To make informed decisions on how to manage application security risks, CISOs often need to assess the costs of fixing known vulnerabilities and adoption of new countermeasures and to consider the risk mitigation benefits of doing so. Costs vs. benefits trade offs are critical to decide on which application security measures and security controls to invest in to reduce the level of risk. Often CISOs need to explain to executive management the risks to applications and to articulate the potential business impacts for the organization in case applications are attacked and confidential data is breached. Security risks are business risks only when all three risk characteristics exist:

  • Viable threat
  • Vulnerability that may be exposed
  • Asset of value

To systematically prioritize risks for investment, CISOs should consider a risk scoring methodology known as the Common Vulnerability Scoring System Version 2.0 (CVSSv2). To help regularly communicate application risk to the business executives, CISOs may consider providing “emerging cyber-threat awareness” reports to executive management.

Communicating to business executives

CISOs need to be real about cyber-threat risks and present to the business the overall picture of information security risks, not just compliance and vulnerabilities, but also security incidents and threat intelligence of threat agents targeting the organization information assets including for applications. The ability to communicate risks to the business empowers CISOs to articulate the business case for application security and justify additional spending in application security measures. This justification needs to consider the economical impact of security incidents compared with the costs of unlawful non compliance. Today's costs to the business due to the economical impacts of security incidents are much higher than the costs of non-compliance and failing audits. Often the severity of the impact of security incidents might costs CISOs their jobs and the company losing reputation and revenues.

Threat modeling

A top-down approach to identifying threats and countermeasures, CISOs should consider a threat modeling technique also described in Part III. The threat modeling technique allows the target application to be decomposed to reveal its attack surface and subsequently its relevant threats, associated countermeasures, and finally, its gaps and weaknesses.

Handling new technology

New application technologies and platforms such as mobile applications, Web 2.0, and cloud computing services offer different threats and countermeasure techniques. Changes to applications are also a source of potential risks, especially when new or different technologies are integrated within applications. As applications evolve by offering new services to citizens, clients, customers and employees, it is also necessary to plan for mitigation of new vulnerabilities introduced by the adoption and implementation of new technologies such as mobile devices, web 2.0 and new services such as cloud computing. Adopting a risk framework to evaluate the risks introduced by new technologies is essential to determine which countermeasures to adopt to mitigate these new risks. This guide will provide guidance for CISOs on how to mitigate risks of new threats against applications, as well as of vulnerabilities that might be introduced by the implementation of new technologies.

  • Mobile applications
    • Example concerns: lost or stolen devices, malware, multi-communication channel exposure, weak authentication
    • Example CISO actions: Meeting mobile security standards, tailoring security audits to assess mobile application vulnerabilities, secure provisioning, and application data on personal devices.
  • Web 2.0
    • Example concerns: securing social media, content management, security of third party technologies and services
    • Example CISO actions: security API, CAPTCHA, unique security tokens in form posts, and transaction approval workflows.
  • Cloud computing services
    • Example concerns: multi-tenant deployments, security of cloud computing deployments, third party risk, data breaches, denial of service malicious insiders
    • Example CISO actions: cloud computing security assessment, compliance-audit assessment on cloud computing providers, due diligence, encryption in transit and at rest, and monitoring.

Today's threat agents seek financial gain such as by attacking applications to compromise users' sensitive data and company’s proprietary information for financial gain, fraud as well as for competitive advantage (e.g. through cyber espionage). To mitigate the risks posed by these threat agents, it is necessary to determine the risk exposure and factor the probability and the impact of these threats as well as to identify the type of application vulnerabilities that can be exploited by these threat agents. The exploit of some of these application vulnerabilities might severely and negatively impact the organization and jeopardize the business.

Part III: Application Security Program


Go to Part III: Application Security Program

From the risk management strategic point of view, the mitigation of application security risks is not a one time exercise; rather it is an ongoing activity that requires paying close attention to emerging threats and planning ahead for the deployment of new security measures to mitigate these new threats. This includes the planning for the adoption of new application security activities, processes, controls and training. When planning for new application security processes and controls, it is important for CISOs to know on which application security domains to invest, in order for the business to deliver on its missions.

'To build and grow an application security program, CISOs must:

  • Map business priorities to security priorities
  • Assess the current state using a security program maturity model
  • Establish the target state using a security program maturity model

Map business priorities to security priorities

All security priorities must be able to be mapped to business priorities. This is the first step towards establishing the relevance of every security initiative and shows business management how security supports the mission. It also demonstrates to security staff how the staff supports the mission.

Assess the current state using a security program maturity model

Accessing process maturity is a prerequisite for adoption of application security and software security processes. One criteria that is often adopted by organizations is to consider the organization's capabilities in application security domains and the maturity of the organization in operating in these domains. Examples of these application security domains include application security governance, vulnerability risk management, regulatory compliance and application security engineering; such as to design and implement secure applications. Specifically in the case of application security engineering, adopting software security assurance is often necessary when there is not direct control on implementing the security of such software since it is produced by a third party vendor. A factor to consider in this case is to measure the software security assurance using a maturity model. A pre-requisite for measuring software security assurance is the adoption of a Secure Software Development Lifecycle (S-SDLC). At high level, S-SDLC consists of embedding "build security in" security activities, training and tools within the SDLC. Examples of these activities might include software security processes/tools such as architectural risk analysis/ threat modeling, secure code reviews/static source code analysis, application security testing/application vulnerability scanning and secure coding for software developers. A reference to OWASP software assurance maturity model as well as to the several OWASP projects dedicated to software security and S-SDLC are provided in this guide as well.

Establish the target state using a security program maturity model

Not all organizations need to be at the highest maturity. The maturity should be at a level that it can manage the security risk that affects the business. Obviously, this varies among organizations and is driven by the business and what it accepts as risk as part of continuous collaboration and transparency from the security organization.

Once a target state is identified, CISOs should build a roadmap that identifies its strategy for addressing known issues as well as detecting and mitigating new risks.

OWASP provides several projects and guidance for CISOs to help develop and implement an application security program. Besides reading this section of the guide, see the Appendix B: Quick Reference to OWASP Guides & Projects for more information on the type of security engineering domain activities that can be incorporated within an application security program.

Part IV: Metrics For Managing Risks & Application Security Investments


Go to Part IV: Metrics For Managing Risks & Application Security Investments

Once application security and software security investments are made, it is important for CISOs to measure and report the status of governance, risk and compliance of the application security program to Executive Management. Furthermore, CISOs need to show the effectiveness of the application security program investment and its impact on business risk.

CISOs also need metrics to manage and monitor the people, processes, and technologies that make up the application security program. Example metrics for measuring governance, risk and compliance of application security processes are also included.

Security metrics consist of three categories:

  • Application security process metrics
  • Application security risk metrics
  • Security in the SDLC metrics

Application security process metrics

These support informed decisions to decide where to focus the risk mitigation effort and to manage application security risks more effectively. These risk management goals are usually very organization specific and depend on the type of organization and the industry sector that the organization does business with, to decide which application security risks should be prioritized for action.

  • How well is the organization meeting security policies, technical standards, and industry practices?
  • How consistently are we executing security SLAs? By application? By division? By channel?

Application security risk metrics

  • Vulnerability risk management metrics - What is the Mean Time to Repair on an annual basis? On a monthly basis? By application? By division? What are the known security issues in production?
  • Security incident metrics - What security issues have been exploited? Were they known issues that were released in production? What was the cost to the business?
  • Threat intelligence reporting and attack monitoring metrics - Which applications are receiving more attacks than others? Which applications have upcoming expected peak usage?

Security in the SDLC metrics

One often neglected aspect when spending on software security is the economics of dealing with insecure software applications. The investment in software security to identify and fix security issues prior to release of software in production actually pays for itself because it saves the organization money. Patching vulnerabilities after applications are released into production is very expensive; it is much cheaper than to invest in secure architecture reviews to identify design flaws and remediate them prior to coding, as well as to invest in secure code reviews to identify and fix security bugs in software during coding, and to ensure that releases are configured correctly.

  • Metrics for risk mitigation decisions - What is the Mean Time to Repair by an application's risk category? Does it meet expectations? What is the risk heat map by application? By division? By channel?
  • Metrics for vulnerability root causes identification - What are the root causes of vulnerabilities for each application? Is there a systemic issue? Which security practices have been best adopted by each development team? Which development teams need more attention?
  • Metrics for software security investments - Which SDLC phase have identified the most security issues? What is the maturity of the corresponding security practices in each SDLC phase? What is the urgency for more security people, process, and technologies in each SDLC phase? What are the cost-savings between security testing versus downstream vulnerability penetration testing? What are the cost-savings between issues identified in each phase?