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Towards efficient security code audits

Jan Rusnacko published on 2014-07-16T13:30:44+00:00, last updated 2014-07-16T13:30:44+00:00

Conducting a code review is often a daunting task, especially when the goal is to find security flaws. They can, and usually are, hidden in all parts and levels of the application - from the lowest level coding errors, through unsafe coding constructs, misuse of APIs, to the overall architecture of the application. Size and quality of the codebase, quality of (hopefully) existing documentation and time restrictions are the main complications of the review. It is therefore useful to have a plan beforehand: know what to look for, how to find the flaws efficiently and how to prioritize.

Code review should start by collecting and reviewing existing documentation about the application. The goal is to get a decent overall picture about the application - what is the expected functionality, what requirements can be possibly expected from the security standpoint, where are the trust boundaries. Not all flaws with security implications are relevant in all contexts, e.g. effective denial of service against server certainly has security implications, whereas coding error in command line application which causes excessive CPU load will probably have low impact. At the end of this phase it should be clear what are the security requirements and which flaws could have the highest impact.

Armed with this knowledge the next step is to define the scope for audit. It is generally always the case that conducting a thorough review would require much more resources than are available, so defining what parts will be audited and which vulnerabilities will be searched for increases efficiency of the audit. It is however necessary to state all the assumptions made explicitly in the report - this makes it possible for others to review them or revisit them in the future in next audits.

In general there are two approaches to conducting a code review - for the lack of better terminology we shall call them bottom up and top down. Of course, real audits always combine techniques from both, so this classification is merely useful when we want to put them in a context.

The top down approach starts with the overall picture of the application and security requirements and drills down towards lower levels of abstraction. We often start by identifying components of application, their relationships and mapping the flow of data. Drilling further down, we can choose to inspect potentially sensitive interfaces which components provide, how data is handled at rest and in motion, how access to sensitive parts of application are restricted etc. From this point audit is quickly becoming very targeted - since we have a good picture of which components, interfaces and channels might be vulnerable to which classes of attacks, we can focus our search and ignore the other parts. Sometimes this will bring us down to the level of line-by-line code inspection, but this is fine - it usually means that architecturally some part of security of application depends on correctness of the code in question.

Top down approach is invaluable, as it is possible to find flaws in overall architecture that would otherwise go unnoticed. However, it is also very demanding - it requires a broad knowledge of all classes of weaknesses, threat models and ability to switch between abstraction levels quickly. Cost of such audit can be reduced by reviewing the application very early in the design phase - unfortunately most of the times this is not possible due to development model chosen or phase in which audit was requested. Another way how to reduce the effort is to invest effort into documentation and reusing it in the future audits.

In the bottom up approach we usually look for indications of vulnerabilities in the code itself and investigate whether they can possibly lead to exploitation. These indications may include outright dangerous code, misuse of APIs, dangerous coding constructs and bad practices to poor code quality - all of these may indicate presence of weakness in the code. Search is usually automated, as there is abundance of tools to simplify this task including static analyzers, code quality metric tools and the most versatile one: grep. All of these reduce the cost of finding a potentially weak spots and so the cost lies in separating wheat from chaff. Bane of this appoach is receiver operating characteristic curve - it is difficult to substantially improve it, so we are usually left with the tradeoffs between false positives and false negatives.

Advantages of bottom up approach are relatively low requirements on resources and reusability. This means it is often easy and desirable to run such analyses as early and as often as possible. It is also much less depends on the skill of the reviewer, since the patterns can be collected to create a knowledgebase, aided with freely available resources on internet. It is a good idea to create checklists to make sure all common types of weaknesses are audited for and make this kind of review more scalable. On the other hand, biggest disadvantage is that certain classes of weaknesses can never be found with this approach - these usually include architectural flaws which lead to vulnerabilities with biggest impact.

The last step in any audit is writing a report. Even though this is usually perceived as the least productive time spent, it is an important one. A good report can enable other interested parties to further scrutinize weak points, provides necessary information to make a potentially hard decisions and is a good way to share and reuse knowledge that might otherwise stay private.

About The Author

jrusnack@redhat.com's picture

Jan Rusnacko