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August 31, 2011

Musings on Custer's Last Stand

Let’s not mince words: this rambling diatribe from Oracle’s CSO is aimed directly at Veracode. No need for a cutesy acronym; we're the only company with true static binary analysis technology, delivered as a service. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s try to cut through the rhetoric (in just over a thousand words, to boot). The recurring theme in her manifesto is the notion that certain software suppliers are "too big to test". It’s fine for the little guys, but not the 800-pound gorillas. Instead, software purchasers should blindly trust companies with security teams and assurance processes to produce secure code. If only it were that simple. In fact, according to our semi-annual State of Software Security Report, there's negligible variation in security quality across software suppliers regardless of company size.


We’re both flattered and amused that Ms. Davidson believes our company alone "created a market" for testing the software supply chain. On the contrary, the market has created itself. Take a look through the noteworthy breaches from the past 12-24 months; software vulnerabilities have been the culprit in nearly every case. CISOs are waking up to the stark realization that all software -- internally or externally produced -- introduces risk into their organizations. In this day and age, wise companies harbor a healthy suspicion of their software vendors. Oracle can choose to do security testing in-house, but a company that's "running their entire business" on Oracle’s software has a right to request unbiased evidence that the testing process is working. That being said, Oracle is hardly the poster child for security process. Within the security community, they are notorious for shipping insecure products. Their laughable "Unbreakable" marketing campaign was famously debunked by security expert David Litchfield, who uncovered several critical (and easily avoidable) vulnerabilities within a matter of weeks. They’ve also earned a reputation for glacial response times and sloppy patches. No company can be expected to build perfectly secure software, but it’s pretty obvious why external validation is needed to complement in-house process -- one need look no further than ZDI for evidence. Even Ms. Davidson's own example illustrates how an outsourced service provider "HuiMaika'i" detected multiple vulnerabilities that weren’t discovered by Oracle’s internal team. Perhaps the most shocking admission about Oracle's security program is their interpretation of the "need to know" principle. Ms. Davidson asserts that she doesn't need access to bug databases. This is a classic liability avoidance move and one that we've witnessed in other organizations as well. Creating barriers to vulnerability information facilitates a culture in which the executive has plausible deniability of critical bugs and can simply look the other way if a ship deadline is looming or if the auditors pay a visit. CISOs should be clamoring for as much data as they can get their hands on, not eschewing it. Finally, Ms. Davidson seemed offended that a tenured university professor would suggest licensing software developers to create a system of accountability. Ironically, only a few years ago, she sent a letter to top universities pressuring them to incorporate secure coding guidelines such as the SANS coding certification into their curriculums. She told them, "We will start making our purchasing decisions, if you will, based on that." Apparently, it’s OK for Oracle to flex their muscle when "buying" (i.e. hiring) from universities, but it’s not OK for Oracle’s customers to hold them to similar standards? It certainly sounds like Oracle has been feeling the pressure lately.

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There are third-party tests and assessments for perhaps every important purchase in business or in our personal lives. Companies hire law firms and specialists when they make acquisitions. People look to safety and quality tests from trusted sources before they buy everything from baby strollers to cars. You wouldn't think of buying a home without a home inspection. In each case, the cost of the independent test must be commensurate with the purchase price and the risk. Look at the typical due dilligence around home purchase. It doesn't always make sense to pay an engineering firm thousands of dollars for a structural analysis, but it does make sense to hire a home inspector for a few hundred dollars, who in a few hours can uncover termites or a leaking roof. These are problems that must be fixed, and because the testing cost is so low it would be negligent not to do it. Most of the major software vendors have participated in third-party testing either as part of their SDLC, to vet code they were acquiring or licensing, or as part of one of their customers' procurement process. Veracode has never claimed that binary SAST provides complete software assurance. From the beginning, we have recommended multiple testing methods to detect vulnerabilities that static automation can’t. In fact, it’s impossible to receive our top ratings without a clean bill of health from a manual penetration test. Each layer of testing, while imperfect on its own, uncovers problems that must be corrected. Outsourcing is not a dirty word. Many companies outsource development for entire products or components of them. Companies also outsource testing and training. The multi-billion dollar IV&V market grew out of this need -- it's simply good business. The goal is shipping secure code, not making a feel-good proclamation that your team can handle a modern development challenge with no outside help. While Oracle can be proud that they have tamed a source code tool and lived to tell the tale, other companies are securing their code faster and cheaper with the help of outsourcing. Even Veracode customers haven't fully outsourced security; many of them have in-house security expertise and are just employing a service to make their security processes more robust. They are still full participants in the process, making decisions around how/when to remediate, how much to invest, etc. Veracode acts as an application security partner, providing customers valuable intelligence gleaned from the software ecosystem. Just as Google gets smarter with every search that it does, Veracode gets smarter with every scan we do. At least we can rest easy knowing that Oracle would never hire lobbyists to promote an agenda. That’s a relief!

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Chris Wysopal, co-founder and CTO of Veracode, is recognized as an expert and a well-known speaker in the information security field. He has given keynotes at computer security events and has testified on Capitol Hill on the subjects of government computer security and how vulnerabilities are discovered in software. His opinions on Internet security are highly sought after and most major print and media outlets have featured stories on Mr. Wysopal and his work. At Veracode, Mr. Wysopal is responsible for the security analysis capabilities of Veracode technology.

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