QoTW #43: Teaching a loved one about secure coding practices

2013-03-01 by . 0 comments

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Today’s blog post is on a question posted on Security Stackexchange last year title Teaching a loved one about secure coding practices.

Ignoring the obvious innuendos in the comments, I think this is an excellent question. While the question is far longer, this is the gist of it.

As ITSec pros, we talk about infusing the development cycle with secure coding practices and design, but how does that apply to a brand-new learner? A new programmer is at the start of their own ‘lifelong development cycle’, at it were. At what point is it appropriate, from an educational perspective, to switch from the mindset of ‘getting it to work’ to ‘it absolutely must be secure’? At what point should a student ‘fail’ an assignment because of a security issue?

As a student in an infosec diploma course, I have rather strong opinions on this matter. Let’s start with a personal anecdote. I personally started learning programming on my own due to self-interest. My first exposure to “real” programming is through PHP(I know… shudders). Do a quick google search using the terms “php tutorial”. Go on. The very first link points towards w3schools.com.

A quick browse through the site looks good. Nice, simple, easy to follow tutorials on the basics of PHP and HTML. Wait, are they really teaching unparameterized queries? In 2013? Really? I’d like to point you to this website. In particular, this quote.

W3Schools.com is not affiliated with the W3C in any way. Members of the W3C have asked W3Schools to explicitly disavow any connection in the past, and they have refused to do so. W3Schools frequently publishes inaccurate or misleading content. We have collected several examples illustrating this problem below.

This is an obvious problem. A website on the top of Google’s search results targeted at new programmers providing misleading information? What could go wrong right?

Moving on to the actual question.

User Everett stated this in his answer.

The problem I see, is that secure programming is taught as an add on. Best practices should be taught from the beginning (including security). The lie people are taught is that practice makes perfect. The truth is practice makes permanent. So if you are doing it wrong, you have to unlearn what you have learned. That is a bassackwards approach. I would say that secure coding practices should be taught from day one. There’s no reason to learn how to do it, and then learn how to do it securely. It’s a waste of time and money…

I disagree with his opinion. I think user KeithS provides a very good point.

It’s great to say “Secure coding practices should be taught from day one”, and very hard to demonstrate how that day-one “Hello World” program may be vulnerable, especially when “what is a computer program” is a new concept for the class.

I agree. Many of my peers who entered the diploma course without any prior programming experiences have a tough time even wrapping their heads around basic concepts like looping and conditional statements. Introducing more complex security topics at this point in their education would more likely cause more harm than good.

This is the answer I provided to the question.

I would say a great way to learn is for her to break the applications she has already written. Assuming she is writing web applications, point her towards the OWASP Top 10. Have her see if she can find any of those flaws in her own code. There is no better way to learn about security concepts than actually seeing it happen on your own code. Once a flaw has been found, have her rewrite the application to fix the flaw. Doing so will allow her to appreciate the effect of things like sanitation and validation of user inputs and parameterized queries. Take incremental steps. I wouldn’t jump straight into designing a new application with security in mind before truly understanding what type of codes result in security flaws.

With 37 upvotes and the answer being accepted, it is clear that the community agrees with me.

Conclusion

I think the best approach to teaching secure programming is an iterative one. Start off the students with writing simple applications. Have the students go back and look at their code and see how it can be broken. Refer them to good resources like the OWASP Top 10 list. With a little critical thinking, the students should be able to start figuring out what went wrong in their code and how to fix it.

Like user AviD said,

Students that do not practice critical thinking shouldn’t really be learning programming….

This post is a cross-post from my blog at http://www.infosecstudent.com/2013/02/teaching-secure-programming-how-to-do-it-right/

Liked this question of the week? Interested in reading it or adding an answer? See the question in full. Have questions of a security nature of your own? Security expert and want to help others? Come and join us at security.stackexchange.com.

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