Software Integrity Blog


Improving software security (maturity models and their ilk?)

Ben Worthen broke the BSIMM story on as was posted earlier.

I was shocked when someone said, “Oh and ASVS is also available, great” on an OWASP list. Super, I thought, but I don’t understand the connection. When I looked at the WSJ site, I noticed Jim Manico (of OWASP, Aspect, and ASVS fame) wrote, “But for those of your programming web applications, consider looking at – it is focused specifically on web application security evaluation.” I know Jim, he’s a good guy, and my curiosity about where the link between maturity models and verification standards was sated, but I thought I’d spend some time here quickly disambiguating them:

Verification standards, like ASVS, enumerate techniques with which an application’s correct use of security controls can be verified. It also posits (what it calls) verification requirements that serve as specifically enumerated tests of particular security controls (such as input validation). Such a standard is best operationally deployed by an organization’s application security group. In some cases, the audit group may own verification and reporting.

Auditors especially love NIST’s 800-53 standard, which recommends security controls for Federal Information Systems and Organizations. This document has frustrated me historically because of its focus on OS configuration, topology, and patch level. Largely, it ignores the application layer of an organizational stack. As such, organizations applying it have found little impact in preventing the web’s most common application security vulnerabilities. I reckon one aim of ASVS was closing this particular gap.

Regardless of what you think of ASVS or NIST 800-53, one applies the bulk of their guidance to an application and systems.

A maturity model such as BSIMM measures what an organization is doing to secure their software. Organizations will be graded on whether they’ve defined and adopted assessment (verification) techniques, but also as to the state of other organizational constructs such as a training program, post-deployment incident response capabilities, and specific application security management. A maturity model helps organizations place their personnel, use of tools, and practices against industry best practices in a broader context (a software security framework). Verification of applications is only a small piece of that governance activity. As such, BSIMM data is produced, consumed, and managed at the CISO/CIO level, rather than within the application security group (as ASVS).

Organizations will need an ability to consistently and comprehensively verify the security of their applications but this is only a piece of what those same organizations will also need to do, in a more broad context, to make sure they reduce, other-wise manage, or transfer software-induced business risk.

To this extent, comparison of BSIMM to ASVS is even a poor fit than comparing the Rational Unified Process (RUP) to Capability Maturity Model (CMM). -shiver-


More by this author