I’m a startup, what should I do about security?
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I’m a startup, what should I do about security?

Chris Wallis

Being a startup is difficult. You don’t have the budget to do everything like a big corporate, but if you don’t appear to be doing things properly, no one will buy from you. This is especially true when it comes to security. Doing security properly costs money that few startups have, but customers expect security by default these days. Giving them the idea that their data is not secure with you can lose you a sale, and a breach could cost you your business (as it did for the bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox).

So how can startups toe the fine line between protecting customer data, without sacrificing too much of their all important cash flow. Well, like with everything else it’s a balance; but you need to know what the important weights are.

Before you do anything else, understand what security means to you. If you’re offering payment services, confidentiality and integrity of your data and availability of service are all equally important. If you’re making an advertising platform, availability and confidentiality are important, but the integrity of your platform (protection against unauthorised changes) would take a higher priority. For example, imagine that hackers replace your adverts with unsavoury content; this would probably make news headlines, and who would buy from you after that? Understanding your priorities can then help you decide where to invest your precious cash, whether it’s on anti-DDoS solutions, or application penetration tests.

Before you spend anything though, it’s worth noting there are some good free services out there; Cloudflare has a free tier that can help against basic DDoS attacks and Let’s Encrypt offer free SSL/TLS Certificates. Unfortunately, free services can only get you so far, and it won’t be long until customers start asking for your penetration test reports.

Delaying a penetration test until customers start asking for evidence may well be tempting. However, be careful going down this route as the more you develop your product the more you are potentially building on a weak foundation. This can lead to products so full of weaknesses that the effort to remediate can equate to starting the whole thing from scratch.

Three particular principles are often the culprits in such situations, and should be paid careful attention to during early development stages. These are: Authorisation, Input Validation and Output Escaping, which if ignored can lead to weaknesses like ‘authorisation bypass’, ‘SQL injection’ and ‘Cross-Site Scripting’ which can pervade your entire application, and may lose you that all important customer when they come knocking. Going into detail on each of these would require an article in its own right, but Google can be your friend here, as the ways to implement these three key controls will differ depending on your programming stack.

Another key principle when developing applications, particularly mobile apps where it is easily forgotten, is to never trust anything sent from the user. It sounds unfriendly, but a common mistake is to assume they can’t edit data you give them, for example the value of their shopping basket, when in actual fact they fundamentally have the ability to bypass client-side checks and manipulate any data they send you. For this reason, it is important to ensure controls like authorisation checking and input validation are implemented on the server-side.

Although penetration testing is often seen as the holy grail of security assurance, bear in mind that you can probably only afford to have it done once or twice a year. But if you offer services via the internet, your applications and infrastructure are effectively exposed to a warzone, and the attacks are evolving as much as they are relentless. This is where continuous monitoring services like Intruder can provide you with ongoing assurance, despite the regular changes to your network and applications that are part and parcel of modern agile development.

Security is a huge topic and compared to the mountain of information out there this article is only the lightest of overviews. Hopefully at least it has given you some indication at least of which paths to start walking down. If you’d like any clarifications or further advice, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Release Date
Level of Ideal
Comments
Before CVE details are published
🥳
Limited public information is available about the vulnerability.

Red teamers, security researchers, detection engineers, threat actors have to actively research type of vulnerability, location in vulnerable software and build an associated exploit.

Tenable release checks for 47.43% of the CVEs they cover in this window, and Greenbone release 32.96%.
Day of CVE publish
😊
Vulnerability information is publicly accessible.

Red teamers, security researchers, detection engineers and threat actors now have access to some of the information they were previously having to hunt themselves, speeding up potential exploit creation.

Tenable release checks for 17.12% of the CVEs they cover in this window, and Greenbone release 17.69%.
First week since CVE publish
😐
Vulnerability information has been publicly available for up to 1 week.

The likelihood that exploitation in the wild is going to be happening is steadily increasing.

Tenable release checks for 10.9% of the CVEs they cover in this window, and Greenbone release 20.69%.
Between 1 week and 1 month since CVE publish
🥺
Vulnerability information has been publicly available for up to 1 month, and some very clever people have had time to craft an exploit.

We’re starting to lose some of the benefit of rapid, automated vulnerability detection.

Tenable release checks for 9.58% of the CVEs they cover in this window, and Greenbone release 12.43%.
After 1 month since CVE publish
😨
Information has been publicly available for more than 31 days.

Any detection released a month after the details are publicly available is decreasing in value for me.

Tenable release checks for 14.97% of the CVEs they cover over a month after the CVE details have been published, and Greenbone release 16.23%.

With this information in mind, I wanted to check what is the delay for both Tenable and Greenbone to release a detection for their scanners. The following section will focus on vulnerabilities which:

These are the ones where an attacker can point their exploit code at your vulnerable system and gain unauthorised access.

We’ve seen previously that Tenable have remote checks for 643 critical vulnerabilities, and OpenVAS have remote checks for 450 critical vulnerabilities. Tenable release remote checks for critical vulnerabilities within 1 month of the details being made public 58.4% of the time, but Greenbone release their checks within 1 month 76.8% of the time. So, even though OpenVAS has fewer checks for those critical vulnerabilities, you are more likely to get them within 1 month of the details being made public. Let’s break that down further.

In Figure 10 we can see the absolute number of remote checks released on a given day after a CVE for a critical vulnerability has been published. What you can immediately see is that both Tenable and OpenVAS release the majority of their checks on or before the CVE details are made public; Tenable have released checks for 247 CVEs, and OpenVAS have released checks for 144 CVEs. Then since 2010 Tenable have remote released checks for 147 critical CVEs and OpenVAS 79 critical CVEs on the same day as the vulnerability details were published. The number of vulnerabilities then drops off across the first week and drops further after 1 week, as we would hope for in an efficient time-to-release scenario.

Figure 10: Absolute numbers of critical CVEs with a remote check release date from the date a CVE is published

While raw numbers are good, Tenable have a larger number of checks available so it could be unfair to go on raw numbers alone. It’s potentially more important to understand the likelihood that OpenVAS or Tenable will release a check of a vulnerability on any given day after a CVE for a critical vulnerability is released. In Figure 11 we can see that Tenable release 61% their checks on or before the date that a CVE is published, and OpenVAS release a shade under 50% of their checks on or before the day that a CVE is published.

Figure 11: Percentage chance of delay for critical vulnerabilities

So, since 2010 Tenable has more frequently released their checks before or on the same day as the CVE details have been published for critical vulnerabilities. While Tenable is leading at this point, Greenbone’s community feed still gets a considerable percentage of their checks out on or before day 0.

I thought I’d go another step further and try and see if I could identify any trend in each organisations release delay, are they getting better year-on-year or are their releases getting later? In Figure 12 I’ve taken the mean delay for critical vulnerabilities per year and plotted them. The mean as a metric is particularly influenced by outliers in a data set, so I expected some wackiness and limited the mean to only checks released 180 days prior to a CVE being published and 31 days after a CVE being published. These seem to me like reasonable limits, as anything greater than 6 months prior to CVE details being released is potentially a quirk of the check details and anything after a 1-month delay is less important for us.

What can we take away from Figure 12?

Figure 12: Release delay year-on-year (lower is better)

With the larger number of checks, and still being able to release a greater percentage of their remote checks for critical vulnerabilities Tenable could win this category. However, the delay time from 2019 and 2020 going to OpenVAS, and the trend lines being so close, I am going to declare this one a tie. It’s a tie.

The takeaway from this is that both vendors are getting their checks out the majority of the time either before the CVE details are published or on the day the details are published. This is overwhelmingly positive for both scanning solutions. Over time both also appear to be releasing remote checks for critical vulnerabilities more quickly.

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Written by

Chris Wallis

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