/jun 13, 2024

Navigating the Stages of AppSec Maturity: A Tactical Guide for Risk Management

By Chris Wysopal

In the rapidly evolving digital landscape, the maturity of an organization's Application Security (AppSec) program is not just beneficial; it's imperative for resilience at scale and reducing security debt accumulation. Since software is increasingly central to business operations, the need for robust AppSec programs has never been more critical. Here’s a guide to understanding the various stages of AppSec maturity and how to evolve through them for effective risk management. 

Why AppSec Maturity Matters for Maximized Risk Management 

AppSec maturity refers to the level of sophistication and effectiveness of an organization's approach to securing their applications. It includes the tools and processes in place and the culture and mindset towards security within the organization.  

As companies continue to integrate more sophisticated technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud services into their development processes, the complexity, risk, and number of applications grow. I recently shared in this Forbes article the need for a cautious approach when leveraging AI in software development. While AI can enhance the speed and efficiency of development, it does not inherently guarantee secure code. 

The urgency for robust AppSec measures is further highlighted by recent findings from the Verizon 2024 Data Breach Investigations Report: "Our ways-in analysis witnessed a substantial growth of attacks involving the exploitation of vulnerabilities as the critical path to initiate a breach when compared to previous years. It almost tripled (180% increase) from last year, which will come as no surprise to anyone who has been following the effect of MOVEit and similar zero-day vulnerabilities."  

The Four Stages of AppSec Maturity 

Here are the four stages of AppSec maturity organizations progress through when achieving a higher level of security in their software development processes. 

  1. Reactive: This initial stage is characterized by ad-hoc tools and security assessments that are not integrated into the development lifecycle. Organizations at this stage are primarily driven by external pressures like compliance demands or customer requirements. Unfortunately, this approach is often costly, slow, and does not scale well, leaving the organization vulnerable to threats and potential breaches. There’s likely mounting security debt at this stage, too. 

  1. Baseline: At this level, organizations begin to integrate security assessments more deeply into the software development lifecycle (SDLC), but these are still typically concentrated at the end of the process. While this approach starts to offer better security integration, it remains inflexible and can be costly, as flaws detected late in the development process are more expensive to fix. 

  1. Expanded: Organizations improve upon the baseline by embedding automated tools across the SDLC. This stage aims to support developers with the necessary tools to maintain and improve security, reducing the friction that often comes with security processes. However, challenges related to scale, speed, and costs remain prominent. 

  1. Advanced: The most mature stage of AppSec involves a comprehensive, holistic approach to security. Security testing is fully integrated into the developers' tools and processes, allowing them to own the testing and remediation of security-related defects. Security debt accumulation is minimal at this stage. This stage not only enhances security but also aligns closely with business processes, making it both efficient and cost-effective. 

Key Steps to Maturing Your AppSec Program 

When it comes to maturing an AppSec program, here are several steps an organization can take. 

  • Executive Buy-In: Successful AppSec programs start with strong support from the top. Informing and engaging senior executives about the risks and vulnerabilities can help secure the necessary backing and resources.  

  • Developer Engagement: Since modern software development practices like DevOps integrate development and operations, security must also be integrated, creating DevSecOps. Engaging developers early and ensuring they have the tools integrated into their workflows and knowledge to incorporate security is crucial. 

  • Continuous Assessment: Understanding your current security posture is essential. Regular assessments help identify gaps and set clear, achievable goals for improvement. 

  • Policy and Training: Developing clear policies and using immersive training ensures that security practices are maintained across the organization. This helps in adhering to compliance requirements and aligning with industry standards. 

Conclusion & Next Steps 

Maturing an AppSec program is a journey that involves gradual enhancements in processes, technologies, and security culture. By moving through the stages of AppSec maturity, organizations can not only protect their applications more effectively but also support their overall business objectives with greater efficiency and less risk.  

Remember, in AppSec, maturity reduces risk and enhances operational agility. Embrace the journey to maturity, and you'll find your organization better positioned to tackle the challenges of today's digital world. 

Learn the data behind maturing your program and lifting the burden of security debt by signing up for our webinar on June 27, 2024. 

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By Chris Wysopal

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.