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Are your software programmers coding securely?

New security exams could help companies better assess workers

March 26, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - A large group of organizations led by the SANS Institute has launched a new information security skills assessment and certification program for software programmers.

The National Secure Programming Skills Assessment (NSPSA) examinations are designed to give companies with internal software development groups a way to assess the secure coding skills of their programmers and to identify any gaps that may exist, said Alan Paller, director of research at Bethesda, Md.-based SANS. It will also give companies a reliable way to measure the security skills of individuals working for their software vendors and service providers, he said.

Four examinations -- each covering a specific programming language -- will be offered initially, Paller said. The four areas covered are C/C++, Java/J2EE, Perl/PHP and .Net/ASP. The first examinations will be offered in Washington in August and then will be rolled out worldwide through the rest of the year. The exams will cost $400 to take.

The impetus behind the security assessments comes from the growing need to shore up programming skills at a time when cybercriminals are increasingly exploiting application-level vulnerabilities, Paller said. Many of these vulnerabilities are the result of common coding errors involving input validation, buffer overflows and integer errors, he said.

"Organized crime groups have turned their attention to computer-based crimes and are increasingly attacking weaknesses in applications," Paller said. "This assessment and certification program will help programmers learn what they don't know and help organizations identify programmers who have solid security skills."

The effort involves more than 360 organizations, including commercial enterprises, government agencies and universities. Questions that will be asked in the examination are being created by more than 20 individuals drawn from several government agencies, universities and technology vendors. The list includes security experts from Virginia Tech, the CERT Coordination Center, Fortify Software Inc., SPI Dynamics, Watchfire Inc. and the University of California, Davis.

The test developers will work with experts from The Mitre Corp. and Sans' @RISK group to update questions as needed and to make sure that the questions being asked are relevant.

The exams are being designed to test awareness of basic security issues that crop up during programming -- not to measure advanced security knowledge, Paller said. The goal is to identify an individual's ability to spot coding errors and apply fundamental best practices when coding software. Many of the test questions will require individuals to spot potential security issues using actual code samples. Test takers will be assessed using a rating scale rather than a pass or fail grade.

"Programmers don't wake up one morning and think of SQL injection or cross-site request forgery on their own," said Jeff Williams, chairman of the Open Web Application Security Project, in a statement announcing the program. "Yet you can't secure applications without understanding these attacks and others like them."

The NSPSA is being launched at a time when a growing number of cyberattacks are targeting application vulnerabilities rather than network flaws. The trend has already resulted in many large companies, such as Microsoft Corp., undertaking sweeping reviews of their application development practices to weed out common coding errors. It has also led to a growing demand for products that are designed to help companies identify mistakes during the development and quality testing stage.

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