Can better software make cyberattacks a losing proposition?

Writing secure software is something like outrunning a lion: You don’t have to be the fastest in the herd; you just have to be faster than the slowest.

That was the situation when two software giants began raising the bar for attackers, said Brad Arkin, senior director of security for Adobe products and services. When Microsoft improved the quality of its Office suite, bad guys began using more malicious PDFs to attack through Adobe Reader.

With improvements in the latest release of Reader, attackers have been focusing more on social engineering to sneak malware past the user.

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But to improve the security of the whole herd, the quality of everyone’s software will eventually have to be improved. That is the goal of the first Security Development Conference being held May 15 and 16 in Washington. Organized by Microsoft, it aims to bring together those in the industry who deal with security at the code level, said Arkin, who is also a board member of SAFECode, an industry group aiming to improve software quality.

Both Adobe and SAFECode are sponsors of the conference.

Despite a constant drumbeat of high- and low-tech security breaches and continuing streams of security updates and patches for popular operating systems and applications, the quality of software has improved in recent years, Arkin said.

Measuring the amount of time it would take a hypothetical average hacker to find a flaw in a program for the original Windows XP, “it would be several hours,” Arkin said. “You put the same person in front of Widows 7, it would be hundreds of hours.”

By the same standard, the quality of Adobe Reader increased sharply from Version 9.0 to Version 10, which Arkin said was a response to the growth of PDF files for delivering malware. “We’d seen too many attacks on Reader 9,” he said. “We haven’t seen a single attack against Reader 10. We’re not claiming it’s perfect. We know it’s not.”

But Adobe has raised the costs for attackers enough to send them elsewhere. Well-financed, nation-sponsored attacks will always be a separate problem, but because online crime has to be cost-effective, a lot of security ultimately is a matter of economics.

“You’re going to have uneven progress,” Arkin said. The security development conference is an effort by those farther along on the maturity curve to even out the landscape by helping others.

Even with help, it will not necessarily be easy for smaller organizations to take advantage of the lessons learned by giants such as Microsoft in its Trustworthy Computing Program. As with many security issues, the greatest challenges in software development are not technical.

“The biggest challenge is not knowing what needs to be done, but deciding whether you are going to do it,” Arkin said. Money and manpower often are stretched thin, and finding additional resources to devote to improved software development is difficult for many organizations.

Staffing can be a particularly thorny problem. Arkin said the market for coders right now is “white hot,” and even hotter for security professionals. Even for large companies, it is difficult to fill the demand for trained professionals. Fortunately, they do not always have to.

“What we’ve found is that you can create them” with in-house training programs, he said. “We’ve seen some of these folks turn themselves into very effective security professionals.”

As the tide of security knowledge rises, smaller companies also should be able to do effective in-house training, Arkin said. The critical element is for someone at the top of the organization to identify security as a priority and to make someone accountable for it.

Consumers also have a role to play in driving secure software development by establishing clear requirements for their vendors. This is an area in which government, typically the single largest customer for IT, can play a big part.

Unfortunately, the level of sophistication in government procurement is not particularly high, Arkin said. There are pockets of advanced requirements, but they are the “rare exception,” he added. Budget constraints and acquisition requirements keep many agencies and offices behind the curve, running outdated versions of software that is difficult to support and secure.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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