Software Security is in the Wild West (and it’s going to get us killed)

By Pieter Danhieux; CEO and co-founder of Secure Code Warrior

As a (semi-retired) ethical hacker, security professional and all-round computer geek, you might say I care a lot about technology. I care about how it was crafted, what it does and how it’s going to make some aspect of our lives better or more efficient. I look ‘under the hood’ of devices all the time, seeing some of the best (and worst) examples of code out there. Recently, I looked at how my air-con system could be controlled remotely with an Android app (imagine my surprise when I discovered that anyone on the WiFi network could control that thing without any authentication whatsoever).

Software security is always front-of-mind for me, as is the very real danger posed by our increasingly digital, personal information-sharing lifestyles. After all, we are in a largely unregulated, unsupervised and blissfully ignored territory. We’re in the Wild West.

As a collective society, we’re not looking under the hood of the technology we use every day. Although popular and highly acclaimed TV series like Mr. Robot help with general awareness, we’re not security-minded… in fact, most of us have no idea how secure the software is within the myriad of applications, services and increasingly connected things we purchase and use. It’s not even that we inherently trust them - we simply don’t think about them at all.

Sony PlayStation Network (PSN), Ticketmaster, Yahoo!, Facebook, Target: every single one of these widely-used companies has been a victim of a data breach. Their software vulnerabilities were exploited, and millions upon millions of customer records were exposed. These examples represent a fraction of the global breaches that have taken place in the last ten years. They are a costly consequence of poor software security that allows the bad guys to steal our precious information.

When most people consider data breaches, they think about information security breaches, They are understood to be a nightmare for the company breached and inconvenient for those whose personal details have been impacted, but seriously, what’s the big deal? If security continues to be ignored, are the consequences really that big? Nothing that major has happened so far - data breaches have severe impacts for the companies responsible for them, but it’s their problem, right? They lose business, they lose consumer trust; it’s ultimately their job to sort it out and pay for the damage.

Software security should be every organization’s priority.

There’s a fairly simple reason as to why software security isn’t the number one concern for every organization out there with a dev team: not enough people have lost their lives yet and there’s not enough knowledge about the risks.

Morbid? Perhaps. But it’s the honest truth. Regulation, build standards and law-changing attention is paid (like from, for example, government agencies) when there is a real human cost.

Take a bridge, for example. Civil engineers (a line of work that is hundreds of years old) consider safety as a core part of constructing a bridge. Their approach goes far beyond aesthetics and basic functionality. Every bridge built is expected to adhere to stringent safety regulations, with both the civil engineering profession and society as a whole learning over time to expect a high level of safety. A bridge today that does not meet the safety requirements is considered dangerous and unusable. This is still an evolution we need to get to within software engineering.

By way of a more modern example, let’s take a look at the toy industry. The 1950s saw a huge surge in toy production and sales thanks to the post-war baby boom. Interestingly, the amount of emergency room visits involving toy-related incidents was also reported to have increased during this time. Toy arrows were causing eye injuries, small toys (and detachable pieces from larger toys) were being ingested, and toy ovens marketed to little girls were capable of heating to higher temperatures than regular home ovens.

It was somewhat of a ‘Wild West’ out there, with little regulation except for a few isolated bans and product recalls in the most dire of circumstances. Toy makers were essentially free to produce whatever toys they wished, with any concerns for safety typically flagged after several reported incidents had already occured. It wasn’t until bills like Richard Nixon’s 1969 Toy Safety Act were passed into law that the testing and subsequent banning of hazardous toys became standard, in the US and around the world. While accidents will still happen, today the general process of toy manufacturing adopts a “safety first” policy, and our kids are in far less potential danger.

In software security right now, we’re in the Wild West. Apart from obvious laws and regulations in relation to privacy (especially recently with the GDPR) and protection of customer data as well as mandatory breach reporting legislation in some countries, very little is said and done in the mainstream business or community about the level of security built into software. Even those laws relate more to company responsibility than they do to the actual software being regulated, or having a compulsory standard of security to meet.

We will get there, but it may require a path of destruction first.

Gartner estimates that there will be 8.4 billion internet-connected devices in use by 2020; a figure that represents a 31 percent increase since 2016. This includes consumer electronics, as well as things like medical devices and industry-specific equipment. That’s a heck of a lot of opportunities for a hacker.

Imagine the software running someone’s pacemaker is insecure. A hacker could break in and  potentially stop the heart of their victim (think that’s ridiculous? Doctors disabled the WiFi in Dick Cheney’s pacemaker to thwart potential assassination via hacking). A connected microwave or kettle could be blown up remotely (along with all manner of the Internet of Things devices we enjoy in our homes), or a connected electric car could have its brakes disabled. This might sound like a far-fetched Hollywood action movie, but if the software of any of these advanced pieces of connected technology can be breached, we really do have a potential disaster on our hands - just like the threats we’ve already covered with the explosive ramifications of cyberattacks in the oil and gas industry.

We can preempt the dire consequences of malicious hacking as our lives become more and more digitally dependent. It all starts with getting developers more excited about secure coding, and getting serious about growing a strong security mindset and culture in development teams.

Your software revolution starts here. The banking industry is leading the way in embracing gamified training in the fight against bad code, in a truly innovative approach that turns traditional (read: boring) training on its head. In fact, each of the top six banks in Australia are currently engaging their developers this way, igniting their security mindset. Check out what our client, IAG Group did with their next-level tournament.


Secure Code Warrior is a web-based corporate education platform where software developers use hands-on learning to build secure-coding skills and are benchmarked versus their peers.  Developers with PROVEN secure-coding skills are more valuable in today’s workforce, are hired faster and often earn more.

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