Ben Laurie blathering

Ignorance Transfer Network

SSDSIG recognises that some commonly used languages (e.g. C, php etc.) allow, or even encourage, programming practices that introduce security vulnerabilities. Accepting that in time market forces may encourage the adoption of safer alternatives some members feel that the process needs to be accelerated. The reasons for the continued use of ‘unsafe’ ‘languages and the near-term feasibility of alternatives for commercial systems of modest criticality are complex and ill-understood. This also applies to the slow uptake of more formal methods Further data on this is required.

This is a gem from “Secure Software Development – a White Paper: Software Security Failures: who should correct them and how” by Bill Whyte and John Harrison, from the Cyber Security Ignorance (Knowledge, shurely? Ed) Transfer Network, presumably at the taxpayer’s expense. I hear through the grapevine that they’re planning to spend more of our money to set up a “Secure Software Development Panel” to deliberate on the deep thinking exemplified above. Awesome.

So, what’s wrong with that statement? Firstly, I think we’ve got past the idea that there’s something extra special about buffer overflows as a security issue. Yes, there are many languages that prevent them completely (e.g. PHP, amusingly), but they don’t magically produce secure programs either. Indeed, pretty much all languages used for web development are “safe” in this respect, and yet the web is a cesspit of security problems, so how did that help?

Secondly, the claim that the “reasons are … complex and poorly understood” is a great one to make if you want to spend your life wasting your time on government money, but, well, not exactly true. C is widely used because it is fast, portable, can do anything and has a vast amount of software already written in it that is otherwise difficult to get at. Which is, of course, why PHP is widely used: because it’s one way for the less capable programmer to get at all that C out there. As for “near-term feasibility of alternatives”, well, name an alternative and I’m pretty sure anyone knowledgeable in the field could give you a thorough rundown on its near-term feasibility in an hour or so.

Thirdly, talking about “unsafe” languages implies that there might be “safe” ones. Which is nonsense.

Fourthly, formal methods. Really? The reason there’s slow uptake is because they don’t work. Get with the program, guys!

1 Comment

  1. […] 12, 2009 · No Comments Ben Laurie rips a report on software security for suggesting that C and other languages introduce software […]

    Pingback by Software Language Impedance Mismatch « Identity Blogger — 12 Jun 2009 @ 18:14

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