Application Security: Shifting Left to the Right Degree

In application security, DevOps, and DevSecOps, “shift left” is a guiding principle for how organizations should implement security practices into the development process. For this reason, today’s application security testing tools and technologies are built to facilitate a shift left approach, but the term has taken on a new meaning compared to when it first entered the scene years ago.

Over the past decade, software development has drastically changed with the proliferation of impactful technology, such as APIs and open-source code. However, shift left has remained a North Star for organizations seeking to improve application security. Its meaning has become more nuanced for those attempting to achieve a mature application security framework.

I recently sat down with Maty Siman, Founder and CTO at Checkmarx on our Agent of Influence podcast to discuss application security and the concept of shift left. You can listen to the full episode here. Let’s explore four highlights from the discussion:

The “Lego-ization” of Software 

In the past, developers would build their solutions from the ground up, developing unique libraries to carry out any desired functionality within an application. Today, developers leverage a wide range of tools and technologies, such as web services, open-source code, third party solutions and more, creating software that is ultimately composed of a variety of different components.

As Maty alluded to during the Agent of Influence podcast, many in the industry have referred to this practice as the “lego-ization” of software, piecing together different premade, standardized Lego blocks to form a unique, sound structure.

While both traditional and modern, lego-ized methods are forms of software development, they demand a different set of expertise. This is where mature application security frameworks become invaluable. Maty explains that today’s developers are often working around the clock to keep up with the pace of digital transformation; they cannot just focus on code for vulnerabilities. They must also look at how the different components are connected and how they communicate with one another.

Each connection point between these components represents a potential attack surface that must be secured – but addressing this can also become a source of friction and perceived inconvenience for developers.  

The Impact of Today’s Open Source and API Proliferation 

The recent proliferation of software supply chain security threats has made the situation even more complex and dire for software developers, as malicious actors look to sneak malicious code into software as it’s being built.

As Siman explains during our podcast conversation, open source code makes up anywhere from 80 to 90 percent of modern applications. Still, developers are pulling these resources from a site like GitHub often without checking to see if the developer who created the package is trustworthy. This further exacerbates the security risk posed by the lego-ized development practices we see today, Maty warns.

Additionally, in recent years, there has been an explosive growth in the usage of APIs in software development. Organizations now leverage thousands of APIs to manage both internal and external processes but have not paid enough attention to the challenge of securing these deployments, according to Maty.

However, efforts have been made to set organizations on the right path in securing APIs, such as the OWASP API Security Project – but there is still a lot of work to be done. Check out the OWASP API Top 10 list, co-written by Checkmarx’s Vice President of Security Research, Erez Yalon.

Read: AppSec Experts React to the OWASP Top 10 2021

Many organizations are not aware of which or how many APIs their services take advantage of, which presents an obstacle towards securing them. As a result, Maty explains that the concept of a “software bill of materials,” or SBOM, is beginning to take shape as organizations seek to better understand the task at hand.

With APIs quickly becoming a favored attack vector for cybercriminals, the importance of developers getting a handle on API security cannot be overstated, which is especially crucial for application penetration testing. Simultaneously, the task is an immense one that many developers see as a headache or hindrance to their main goal, which is to deliver new software as quickly as possible. 

Shifting Left in an Evolving Application Development Landscape  

While the trends outlined above certainly present significant challenges when it comes to application security, they are not insurmountable. Maty advises that organizations can and should implement certain changes in their approach to application security to better support developers with appropriate application security testing tools and other resources.

One of the main issues organizations face in modern application security testing, including application penetration testing or secure code review, lies in the effort to shift left. Shift left is sometimes seen as a source of friction in the developer community. It is about finding and managing vulnerabilities as early as possible, which has only become more difficult and complex as development has evolved.

Read: Shifting Left to Move Forward: Five Steps for Building an Effective Secure Code Review Program

The amount of innovation in software development and implementation means that shifting as far left as possible is not always feasible or even the best approach. While detecting vulnerabilities in code as early as possible is a priority in application security, attempting to force developers to do so too early in the development process can exhaust developers and slow software delivery, as Maty advises.

For example, the use of integrated development environment (IDE) plugins can often make developers feel hindered and nagged by security rather than empowered by it. While they represent a shift to the extreme left in terms of security, they are not always a good idea to impose on developers.

No Right Way to Shift Left in Application Security 

Ultimately, the proper way to shift left is going to vary across organizations, depending on the software they are building and what is going into it. It is paramount to take a tailored approach that balances the security responsibilities placed on developers with the need to maintain agility and deliver software quickly.

Application development has changed significantly, and we can expect it to continue to change in the coming years. Creating and maintaining a mature application security framework will depend on maintaining a proper understanding of the tools and technologies developers are using and adjusting the organizational approach to application security accordingly.

For more, listen to episode 32 of Agent of Influence with Maty of Checkmarx:

For more, listen to episode 32 of Agent of Influence with Maty of Checkmarx: “Shift Left, But Not Too Left”: A Conversation on AppSec and Development Trends.

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