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Secure programmer: Developing secure programs
By David A. Wheeler - 2004-01-21 Page:  1 2 3 4 5 6

Welcome to an unfriendly world

Case #1

It smelled terrible. For over two months, hundreds of thousands of gallons of sewage had been leaking into Australian parks, rivers, and the grounds of a hotel, and no one knew why. Marine plants and animals were dying, and the water in one creek had turned black. On April 23, 2000, police solved the mystery when they arrested a man who had been using a computer and radio to gain complete control over machines governing sewage and drinking water. His motive? Trial evidence suggests he was trying to get a lucrative consulting contract to solve the problems he was causing. It could have been much worse.

Case #2

A thief identified only as "Maxus" stole 350,000 credit card numbers from the online music company CD Universe and demanded a $100,000 ransom. When CD Universe refused to pay, Maxus publicly posted the numbers -- harming CD Universe's customers and giving them a good reason to shop elsewhere.

Case #3

The CIA recently learned that Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist organization has "far more interest" in cyber-terrorism than previously believed. Computers linked to al Qaeda had acquired various computer "cracking" tools, with the intent of inflicting catastrophic harm.

They're attacking your programs -- are you ready?

Computer attacks have become a very serious problem. In 1997, the CERT/CC reported 2,134 computer security incidents and 311 distinct vulnerabilities; by 2002 it had risen to 82,094 incidents and 4,129 vulnerabilities. The Computer Security Institute (CSI) and the San Francisco Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) Computer Intrusion Squad surveyed 503 large corporations and government agencies in 2003 and found that 92 percent of the respondents reported attacks. Respondents identified both their Internet connection (78 percent) and their internal systems (36 percent) as frequent points of attack. 75 percent of the respondents acknowledged financial losses, and although only 47 percent could quantify their losses; those who could found it was over $200 million.

There are many reasons why attacks are on the rise. Computers are increasingly networked, making it easier for attackers to attack anyone in the world with very little risk. Computers have become ubiquitous; they now control many more things of value (making them worth attacking). In the past, customers have been quite willing to buy insecure software, so there had been no financial incentive to create secure software.

The electronic world is now a far more dangerous place. Today, nearly all applications need to be secure applications. Practically every Web application needs to be a secure application, for example, because untrusted users can send data to them. Even applications that display or edit local files (such as word processors) have to be secured, because sometimes users will display or edit data e-mailed to them.

If you develop software, you're in a battleground and you need to learn how to defend yourself. Unfortunately, most software developers have never been told how to write secure applications.

This column will help you learn how to write secure applications. This sort of information is rarely taught in schools, or anywhere else for that matter. If you follow this column, you'll be able to protect your programs against the most common attacks being used today. Although the focus is on the Linux operating system (also called GNU/Linux), nearly all of the material applies to any UNIX-like system, and much of it also applies to other operating systems like Microsoft Windows.

For this first article, I'll start with some basics: security terminology, changing your mindset, the impact of Free-Libre/open source software (FLOSS), and identifying security requirements.

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First published by IBM developerWorks

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