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Getting Things Done – Building and Improving an Application Security Program

It seems that the realization that applications provide the most dangerous attack vector and the most common area of exposure for enterprise data has begun to take hold with the healthcare and financial services organizations that I have been talking to recently. The natural question that results is what should be done. What is the best approach to building or improving an application security program?

Often security teams look to industry analysts for their views on trends and developments with respect to security, compliance, privacy and cyber crime in hope of educating executive staff and gaining funds. Such an approach can be useful. In fact, the Ponemon Institute released last week a study of the cost of cyber crime over the last nine months in 45 U.S. companies. The median annualized cost of cyber crime in these organizations was $3.8M and companies reported more than one successful attack per week. While such facts can help make the case for investment in security, I would recommend a more thoughtful, structured approach that has immediate impact but builds for the long term.

In terms of building a new application security program or improving an existing one, I am partial to focusing on two key areas: creating leverage with the organization and replicating what has been successful in other enterprises. Ultimately both these activities help gain executive support and form the foundation for a well structured and effective program.
Let’s look at the first area which seeks to maximize leverage with other organizations within the enterprise. In previous posts I have referenced the diagram below to illustrate the point of how information security interacts with other groups within an organization.


An effective application security program requires alignment with the lines of business as well as sponsorship and coordination between development, QA and operations. Ultimately, all the organizations need to be brought on board with the process and support of the application security program whose goals should include:

• Risk management driven decisions

• Clear direction on how to achieve application security

• Cost reduction through standard, repeatable process

• Increased code quality

The second area of focus is to evaluate what has been successful in other enterprises. An excellent resource for this is the Building Security in Maturity Model or BSIMM. This initiative is a descriptive look at application security programs across thirty companies in sectors such as financial services, healthcare, technology and independent software vendors. Participating companies include organizations such as Bank of America, Capital One, EMC, Intel, Google, Microsoft, Nokia, Thomson Reuters and VMWare.

BSIMM lays out a software security framework consisting of twelve practices organized into four domains. The domains consist of the following:

• Governance – the practices that enable management, organization and measurement of an application security program.

• Intelligence – the collection of knowledge used in carrying out the program.

• Secure software development lifecycle touchpoints – activities supporting the analysis and assurance of applications.

• Deployment – practices that interface with operations, security and support organizations.

The domains, practices and associated business goals are shown in the table below.


The BSIMM initiative further lays out a maturity model for each of these areas identifying three levels of maturity with various practices that reflect program development. Perhaps most interesting is to look at the practices that the companies participating in the program have in common. These may not be a direct fit for every program, but you can conclude that they are found in many highly successful application security programs.  The objectives and activities associated with the common practices are outlined below.

Hopefully these ideas will help to refine and develop your application security programs. I would encourage a close look at the BSIMM document.

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