Everyone is buzzing and tweeting about the SANS Institute CWE/SANS Top 25 Most Dangerous Programming Errors, many heralding its release as the dawning of a new age in secure software. Indeed, it's already changing purchasing requirements. Byron Acohido reports that the Department of Defense is leading the way by "accepting only software tested and certified against the  Top 25 flaws."

Some have begun speculating that this list obviates the need for web application firewalls (WAF). After all, if applications are secured against these vulnerabilities, there's no need for an additional layer of security.

Or is there?

Web application firewalls, while certainly providing a layer of security against the exploitation of the application vulnerabilities resulting from errors such as those detailed by SANS, also provide other benefits in terms of security that should be carefully considered before dismissing their usefulness out of hand.

1. FUTURE PROOF AGAINST NEW VULNERABILITIES

    The axiom says the only things certain in life are death and taxes, but in the world of application security a third is just as certain: the ingenuity of miscreants. Make no mistake, there will be new vulnerabilities discovered and they will, eventually, affect the security of your application. When they are discovered, you'll be faced with an interesting conundrum: take your application offline to protect it while you find, fix, and test the modifications or leave the application online and take your chances.

   The third option, of course, is to employ a web application firewall to detect and stop attacks targeting the vulnerability. This allows you to keep your application online while mitigating the risk of exploitation, giving developers the time necessary to find, fix, and test the changes necessary to address the vulnerability.

2. ENVIRONMENTAL SECURITY

    No application is an island. Applications are deployed in an environment because they require additional moving parts in order to actually be useful. Without an operating system, application or web server, and a network stack, applications really aren't all that useful to the end user.

    While the SANS list takes a subtle stab at mentioning this with its inclusion of OS command injection vulnerability, it assumes that all software and systems required to deploy and deliver an application are certified against the list and therefore secure. This is a utopian ideal that is unlikely to become reality and even if it was to come true, see reason #1 above.

     Web application firewalls protect more than just your application,they can also provide needed protection against vulnerabilities specific to operating systems, application and web servers, and the rest of the environment required to deploy and deliver your application.

    The increase in deployment of applications in virtualized environments, too, has security risks. The potential exploitation of the hypervisor is a serious issue that few have addressed thus far in their rush to adopt virtualization technology.

3. THE NINJA ATTACK

    There are some attacks that cannot be detected by an application. These usually involve the exploitation of a protocol such as HTTP or TCP and appear to the application to be legitimate requests. These "ninja" style attacks take advantage of the fact that applications are generally only aware of one user session at a time, and not able to make decisions based on the activity of all users occurring at the same time. The application cannot prevent these attacks.

    Attacks involving the manipulation of cookies, replay, and other application layer logical attacks, too, often go undetected by applications because they appear to be legitimate. SANS offers a passing nod to some of these types of vulnerabilities in its "Risky Resource Management" category, particularly CWE-642 (External Control of Critical State Data).  Addressing this category for existing applications will likely require heavy modification to existing applications and new design for new applications. In the meantime, applications remain vulnerable to this category of vulnerability as well as the ninja attacks that are not, and cannot be, addressed by the SANS list.

    A web application firewall detects and prevents such stealth attacks attempting to exploit the legitimate behavior of protocols and applications.

 

The excitement with which the SANS list has been greeted is great news for security professionals, because it shows an increased awareness in the importance of secure coding and application security in general. That organizations will demand proof that applications - third-party or in-house - are secure against such a list is sorely needed as a means to ensure better application security across the whole infrastructure.

But "the list" does not obviate the usefulness or need for additional security measures, and web application firewalls have long provided benefits in addition to simply protecting against exploitation of SANS Top 25 errors. Those benefits remain valid and tangible even if your code is (you think) secure.

Just because you installed a digital home security system doesn't mean you should get rid of the deadbolts. Or vice versa.

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