Targeted analytics deliver better web security

There are over 650 million sites and some 4.2 billion pages on the web now and that number is continually growing. The proliferation of websites has created a massive threat surface that is constantly changing.

Jeremiah Grossman, the Chief Technology Officer for WhiteHat Security, is in the business of helping companies secure their websites.

“The way we do that is that we simulate the bad guys. We try to break into the systems. But that only gets you so far. When you want to start improving things you need analytics,” he explained.

Grossman looks at known vulnerabilities, the analysis of websites he is asked to secure and what best practice approaches will deliver the best value for website owners.

The trouble with ‘best practice’ is that there’s no universal agreement as to what that is. Grossman’s approach is to cherry-pick a small number of actions that will deliver the best bang for buck rather than giving set operators a huge laundry list of items without any context as to which might be most useful.

The focus is on using analytics so that the impact of a change can be measured. That way, a website manager has a quantitative understanding of how safe their site is before and after making a change. These changes could range from software fixes and process changes to developer training.

Analysis of internal practices allows website owners to map what they are doing against suggested best practice activities and compare that with their vulnerability matrix. Grossman says that this has resulted in some “very interesting data about what works and what doesn’t work”.

The challenge in developing a vulnerability matrix is that not everything can be mapped back to a known issue from a vendor. With so much website code created as part of a bespoke development, it requires a very deep analysis. This ranges from customised WordPress installations through to banking services, stock trading applications and other systems that must be highly secured.

With specific metrics about what vulnerabilities are present, Grossman says it’s then possible to recommend highly targeted actions to reduce the threat profile.

The problem with simply resorting to a generic list of best practice actions is that they aren’t necessarily backed with evidence. “It’s too broad, it’s not data backed,” says Grossman. “Why does this best practice work? Is there any data to suggest that they do?”.

Over recent years, one of the most significant changes Grossman has seen is that security is being embedded into development processes rather than seen as a post-development activity. In the past, he would be called in as a consultant to carry out annual or once-off penetration tests and to make recommendations. However, as website development has become more rapid, there needs to be a different approach.

Grossman’s model is to carry out “comprehensive website assessment all year. Then there’s analytics on top of it”.

A critical element of getting website security right is accountability.

“When you take two identical organisations and both do developer training but one gets different outcomes you look at why it works for one and not the other. Why do some organisations get more out of their security investments than others? One of the things that we saw was accountability. For example, if the developers are personally responsible for the quality of their code that they will get something from the developer training class whereas for the other it’s just a checkbox,” Grossman explained.

“You can do all the best practices but if no one is accountable, you won't get any value from it,” he added.

One mechanism for enforcing accountability, according to Grossman, is to publish security information such as the number of vulnerabilities or time-to-fix by business unit to establish some healthy competition in the company.

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