min read ·
October 25, 2023

Shifting Security Left: Ensuring Cyber Security Is Not An Afterthought

To celebrate Cyber Security Awareness Month this October, we want to touch upon how teams can transform the way they approach cyber security as a priority while building software for use at scale.

Why Security ends up on the back seat.

In most software development projects, the journey typically starts with initial security assessments of proposed solutions to identify vulnerabilities and threats proactively. As projects progress, a crucial phase occurs towards the project's end – penetration testing. Penetration testing simulates real-world cyberattacks, uncovering any overlooked vulnerabilities and improving overall security.

However, a concerning issue persists in a significant portion of the development cycle, where secure practices are often lacking. This gap can include insufficient threat modelling and weak coding practices. Addressing these shortcomings is essential to fortify the long-term security of Australian enterprises’ digital assets in the face of evolving cyber threats.

In addition, The proliferation of DevOps has led to numerous CI/CD pipelines facilitating frequent deployments of multiple distributed applications and microservices. The expansive scope of security often overwhelms developers, who often depend on specialised security teams for guidance and support. In this scenario, the security team may struggle to comprehensively review each deployment due to the sheer volume.

What does Shifting Security Left mean?

In the initial phases of many enterprise initiatives, security is often neglected in the early discussions surrounding project requirements. However, this approach can be flipped entirely prioritizing security and incorporating it into the forefront of the strategy. To begin with, security can be made an integral part of Minimum Viable Product (MVP) backlogs, ensuring that security considerations are woven into the very fabric of all projects from the outset. This proactive approach not only enhances the overall security posture but also minimizes potential vulnerabilities and risks throughout the development lifecycle.

By integrating security requirements with functional ones, nothing is left to chance. Instead of solely concentrating on securing the network and infrastructure from an outside perspective, a ground-up approach is taken. This means that security is considered at every step during the application's development, ensuring that it's an inherent part of the build phase. This approach not only safeguards against external threats but also minimizes vulnerabilities originating from within, creating a robust and resilient system.

Ways for Teams to Shift Security Left

Let’s look at some practical methods that teams can adopt several methods to work towards a more robust ‘security first’ software development lifecycle:

  • Static Application Security Testing (SAST) and IDE Plugins: SAST involves examining code for vulnerabilities and coding errors during the development phase. It's a proactive approach to identifying potential security threats early in the software development lifecycle. SAST tools like Checkmarx analyze the source code, identifying issues such as SQL injection, cross-site scripting (XSS), and other vulnerabilities. This helps developers rectify security flaws before they reach the production stage, reducing the risk of security breaches and ensuring a more robust and secure application. In addition, IDE plugins like Snyk offer real-time feedback to developers while they write code. This immediate notification system helps developers spot and rectify security issues as they occur, promoting proactive security practices and reducing the chances of vulnerabilities entering the codebase.

  • Software Composition Analysis (SCA) to identify and remedy known vulnerabilities in open-source components: SCA tools not only pinpoint these vulnerabilities but also provide guidance on upgrading to secure versions. This proactive approach ensures that applications remain resilient to known security threats originating from third-party components, enhancing overall security.

  • Using Infrastructure as Code (IaC) as default and managing IaC security: IaC security involves secure infrastructure patterns and scanning IaC scripts for misconfigurations. By adhering to established secure patterns, organizations reduce the risk of deploying vulnerable infrastructure. Regularly scanning IaC scripts ensures that configurations are in line with security best practices, reducing the potential for security misconfigurations that could expose vulnerabilities in cloud or on-premises infrastructure.

  • Dynamic/Interactive Application Security Testing (DAST/IAST) to assess runtime behaviour for security vulnerabilities:  DAST scans the running application to identify weaknesses like injection attacks or misconfigurations. IAST, a more advanced approach, integrates into the application, providing real-time insights during execution. Both methods help pinpoint and mitigate security threats in the operational environment, enhancing overall protection against cyberattacks.

  • Deploy Runtime Application Self-Protection (RASP) to defend against real-time cyberattacks: RASP tools are embedded within the application and monitor its behaviour during execution. They can detect and respond to suspicious activities, such as injection attacks or unauthorized access, in real-time. This proactive approach enhances the application's security by providing an additional layer of protection, making it more resilient to evolving threats.

  • Use a CI Pipeline to automate application security: Using a CI (Continuous Integration) pipeline to automate application security testing involves seamlessly integrating the security checks mentioned above into the software development process itself. Security scans, including Static Application Security Testing (SAST), Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST), Infrastructure as Code (IaC), and Software Composition Analysis (SCA), are automated to run with every code change and deployment. These automated security checks provide immediate feedback to developers about vulnerabilities in their code or dependencies. Critical issues can even halt the deployment process to prevent insecure code from reaching production.

  • Implement a governance layer: A Governance Layer involves implementing oversight for vulnerability suppression within an organization's security framework. It ensures that the process of suppressing or mitigating vulnerabilities follows established governance guidelines and policies. This oversight guarantees that decisions related to vulnerability handling are well-documented, properly authorized, and aligned with the organization's risk management strategy. It helps maintain consistency, transparency, and accountability in vulnerability management practices, ultimately enhancing the security posture and compliance of the organization.

  • Improve people practices to align the team with the ‘Shift Left’ philosophy: Ensuring that people are aligned with the overall ‘security-first’ goal is critical to the success of a shifting left initiative. Platforms like Secure Code Warrior offer an innovative way to promote this. By hosting tournaments where developers actively participate in identifying and addressing security vulnerabilities within code, the platform enhances their coding skills and instils a heightened awareness of security implications from the outset of development. Through these engaging competitions, developers learn to proactively consider security as an integral part of their coding process. They gain practical experience in identifying and rectifying vulnerabilities, contributing to the creation of more secure software. Ultimately, this approach fosters a culture of security consciousness, aligning perfectly with the "Shift-Left" philosophy, where security is a primary concern from the earliest stages of development.

  • Bonus Tip: “Be cyber-wise - don’t compromise”: This Cyber Security Month’s theme, as highlighted by the Australian Signals Directorate is to be a cyber-wise business as well as an individual. You can achieve this in four simple steps: Update your devices regularly, turn on multi-factor authentication, back up your important files and use passphrases and password managers.

In conclusion, the practice of shifting security left in the software development lifecycle is a fundamental shift in mindset that empowers organizations to build more secure and resilient applications. By integrating security practices early on, from code writing and IDE plugins to comprehensive vulnerability scanning, organizations reduce the risk of security vulnerabilities making their way into production environments. 

We hope this proactive approach fosters a culture of security awareness, minimises the cost and effort required for remediation, and ultimately enhances the overall security posture of applications. Shifting security left is not just about finding and fixing vulnerabilities; it's about preventing them from ever taking root in the first place, resulting in safer and more robust software.

Contributors: Abhijeet Kesarkar, David Barker and Aman Sabir from the Fabric Group Team


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