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RE: The Right Approach to Web Developer Education
From: "Yaakov Yehudi" <yehudi () tehila gov il>
Date: Wed, 30 Jun 2004 09:10:25 +0300


Copied from ISN News; Since it seems very relevant to this thread.  What do
you think?

By Marcus J. Ranum
ACM Queue vol. 2, no. 4
June 2004 

Security bug? My programming language made me do it! 

Failing Miserably

It doesn't seem that a day goes by without someone announcing a critical
flaw in some crucial piece of software or other. Is software that bad? Are
programmers so inept? What the heck is going on, and why is the problem
getting worse instead of better?

One distressing aspect of software security is that we fundamentally don't
seem to "get it." In the 15 years I've been working the security beat, I
have lost track of the number of times I've seen (and taught) tutorials on
"how to write secure code" or read books on that topic.  
It's clear to me that we're:

* Trying to teach programmers how to write more secure code

* Failing miserably at the task

We're stuck in an endless loop on the education concept. We've been trying
to educate programmers about writing secure code for at least a decade and
it flat-out hasn't worked. While I'm the first to agree that beating one's
head against the wall shows dedication, I am starting to wonder if we've
chosen the wrong wall. What's Plan B?

Indeed, as I write this, I see that Microsoft, Intel, and AMD have jointly
announced a new partnership to help prevent buffer overflows using hardware
controls. In other words, the software quality problem has gotten so bad
that the hardware guys are trying to solve it, too.  
Never mind that lots of processor memory-management units are capable of
marking pages as nonexecutable; it just seems backward to me that we're
trying to solve what is fundamentally a software problem using hardware.
It's not even a generic software problem; it's a runtime environment issue
that's specific to a particular programming language.

Normally, when someone mentions programming languages in an article about
software quality, it's an invitation for everyone to jump in with useful
observations such as, "If we all programmed in [my favorite strongly hyped
programming language], we wouldn't have this problem!" That might be true in
some cases, but it's not reality.

We tried legislating a change of programming languages with Ada back in the
1990s. Remember Ada? That was an expensive disaster. Then we tried getting
everyone to switch to a "sandboxed" environment with Java in the late 1990s,
and it worked better-except that everyone complained about wanting to bypass
the "sandbox" to get file-level access to the local host. In fact, Java
worked so well, Microsoft responded with ActiveX, which bypasses security
entirely by making it easy to blame the user for authorizing bad code to
execute. Please, let's not have any more alternative programming languages
that will solve all our problems!

What's Plan B? I think that Plan B is largely a matter of doing a lot more
work on our compiler and runtime environments, with a focus on making them
embed more support for code quality and error checking.  
We've got to put it "below the radar screen" of the programmer's awareness,
just as we did with compiler optimization, the creation of object code, and
linking. We've done a great job building programming environments that
produce fast executables without a lot of hand-holding from the programmer.
In fact, most programmers today take optimization completely for granted-why
not software security analysis and runtime security, too? For that matter,
why are we still treating security as a separate problem from code quality?
Insecure code is just buggy code!


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