What is Secure Coding and Why is it Important?

Person coding on laptop
Click here to read a summary of this article!
Summary: What is Secure Coding and Why is It Important?

Most vulnerabilities stem from an application or program’s source code. Flaws or errors in a program’s code can be exploited easily by malicious users to take control of the program and use it for their own personal gain.

Luckily, most common software security vulnerabilities can be mitigated by following well-established secure coding standards, such as OWASP and SEI Cert. Some of the most essential components of secure coding are:

  1. Data input validation
  2. Authentication and Password Management
  3. Access Control
  4. Keep it Simple
  5. Cryptographic Practices
  6. Error Handling and Logging
  7. Data Protection
  8. Threat Modeling

Learn more about secure coding in the article below!

Computervirus Laptop

Security vulnerability exploits show us just how vulnerable software code really can be. Software code sits at the heart of how your application works. If your code has security vulnerabilities, your entire app might be vulnerable to cyberattacks.

A quick glance at tech headlines over the past year reveals how often security vulnerabilities in software are exploited by unauthorized users.

Two big-tech companies, Apple and Google, reported vulnerabilities in their respective operating systems. Even Red Hat, an IBM subsidiary that provides open-source software, reported a vulnerability in its Linux Enterprise version that is being actively exploited.

Preventing cybersecurity incidents, which can cause leaks of sensitive data and other personal information, starts at the very beginning of the software development process with the source code itself. In this article, we go over what secure coding is, why it’s important, and what the top secure coding practices are.

What is Secure Coding? Why is Secure Coding Important?

Laptop With LockCoding, or computer programming, is the practice of designing executable programs in a language that can be interpreted by your computer. When a software developer writes this source code, they need to consider many things, such as:

  • Architecture and design requirements of the application
  • Code optimization and efficiency
  • Code security and safety

Secure Coding makes it easier for developers and programmers to weed out common vulnerabilities in their software by following certain best practices and guidelines, known as secure coding standards.

The adoption of secure coding practices is important because it removes commonly exploited software vulnerabilities and prevents cyberattacks from happening. Moreover, optimizing for security from the start helps reduce long-term costs which may arise if an exploit results in the leak of sensitive information of users.

Despite the importance of coding in a secure manner, software vulnerabilities are rampant. A search using the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) vulnerability list shows that there have been 40,569 application vulnerabilities in the last three years alone.

We’ve listed some of the best secure coding practices below in an attempt to reduce software vulnerability and make computer programs safer for everyone!

How Do You Code Securely?

Coding using secure practices is well-documented. The Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) has created a set of guidelines on how to do so. Within this guide, they offer a checklist of items that you use to make sure your code is as secure as possible. A sample of the types of things covered in the guidelines are:

  • Data input validation: This covers numerous aspects of data source and data validation. For example, the length and date range of a piece of data. Data validation checks help to secure web applications from cyber-attacks.
  • Authentication and password management: Coding also involves software architecture. This section has many advisories which sit at the cross-section of coding and architecture.
  • Cryptographic Practices: The guide suggests that any cryptographic modules used, be FIPS 140-2 or an equivalent standard compliant.
  • Error Handling and Logging: This is a crucial area and one that if not coded securely can leak data.
  • Data Protection: The guidelines for the protection of data include advice on storing passwords securely and how to avoid data leaks via HTTP GET.
  • Communication Security: Advisories on how to protect data during transit, for example, using TLS connections.

When a software architect sets out the architectural design of an application and the programmer creates code based on those dictates, they should use the OWASP guidelines as their secure coding crib sheet.

Secure coding does not stop at the programming stage. Other areas that need to be part of a holistic approach to creating secure code include:

  1. A system based on ‘least privilege’: Keeping access to any code on a need to know basis will help prevent any malicious execution of insecure code. This can be particularly tricky when using outsourced developers or development companies.
  2. Defense in depth: Keep on layering defensive strategies as the code gets promoted through to production. Make sure your runtime environments are as secure as your code.
  3. Practice good quality assurance: Use various assurance programs such as code reviews and PEN testing to ensure quality.

Resources for Successful Secure Coding

Keeping your development team trained and in touch with the latest secure coding techniques is crucial in secure coding. You can’t expect programmers to know how to securely code, they need to be trained and aware. Below are some useful resources to help you and your team on a path to creating secure code.

  1. OWASP – We’ve already mentioned OWASP’s Secure Coding Practices. The OWASP Developer Guide is also a useful foundation stone for secure coding. Also, check out their tool that looks for dependencies and publicly disclosed vulnerabilities that might impact your project.
  2. Microsoft’s bible on secure coding: https://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/aa570401
  3. Books are always useful to dip into when learning about secure coding techniques. Some examples include: “24 Deadly Sins of Software Security” and “Secure Coding: Principles and Practices”
  4. Check out the ‘secure coding framework’, again an OWASP initiative. There are organizations who will help train your staff in secure coding techniques based on this framework.
  5. Secure coding standards, e.g. SEI CERT which is overseen by Carnegie Mellon University, offers support and guidance in secure coding for a variety of programming languages:
  6. Code checking firms can be used to review your code. Firms such as CheckMarx and CAST Software will use specialist analysis tools to look for vulnerabilities and access software quality.
  7. Understand how to apply the Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC) to secure coding. Using an SDLC-approach, will help you to ensure that security filters through all parts of the development lifecycle.
  8. Secure coding tutorials from RedHat

Secure Code for a Competitive Edge

Security starts with your code and creating secure code is a vital part of creating a great software product.

Insecure coding practices not only leave your customers at risk, but they will impact the reputation of your company. Applying the tenets of the SEI CERT and OWASP secure coding guidelines is a good place to start. Producing demonstrable secure software can not only allow you to prevent cyber-attacks but give your organization a competitive edge.

What is Secure Coding and Why is it Important?: Frequently Asked Questions

Secure Coding can be a complex topic with a lot of technical jargon, making it difficult for the average user to understand it easily. To remedy this, we’ve provided answers to some of the most frequently asked questions regarding secure coding in the section below.

Do let us know if we missed anything using the comments!

Code refers to the set of instructions that define how a computer program will run. Code is written by developers using programming languages, such as Java and Python.

While writing this code, developers can sometimes inadvertently make errors or leave gaps that make the software vulnerable to exploitation by unauthorized users. These errors or gaps can make code insecure.

Using secure coding standards is a systematic and practical approach to weeding out any common software vulnerabilities from your code. By following standards such as OWASP and SEI CERT, you can make your software more secure for users and avoid legal and financial complications that could result from any exploits, hacks or breaches.

We would say the following elements are critical to secure coding, based on our study of credible secure coding standards, such as OWSAP and SEI CERT:

  1. Input Validation
  2. Access Control
  3. Authentication and Password Management
  4. Threat Modeling
  5. Data Protection
  6. Cryptographic Practices
  7. Error Handling and Logging
  8. Keeping it simple

For more information on each of these, please refer to our article on secure coding.

Research suggests that Ruby is one of the most secure programming languages, as it has faced the least number of security vulnerabilities over the last decade. Python is also pretty secure and has shown a declining trend of vulnerabilities since 2015.

Corporate IT security expert
Susan has been involved in the IT security sector since the early nineties, working across diverse sectors such as file encryption, digital rights management, digital signing, and online identity. Her mantra is that security is about human beings as much as it is about technology.