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Information Security … A Guide For Business #7 Applying Sound Security Practices


Ten practical lessons businesses can learn from the FTC’s (business.ftc.gov) 50+ data security settlements.  This is part #7.

#7  Apply Sound Security Practices When Developing New Products

So you have a great new app or innovative software on the drawing board. Early in the development process, think through how customers will likely use the product. If they’ll be storing or sending sensitive information, is your product up to the task of handling that data securely? Before going to market, consider the lessons from FTC cases involving product development, design, testing, and roll-out.

Train your engineers in secure coding.

Have you explained to your developers the need to keep security at the forefront? In cases like MTSHTC America, and TRENDnet, the FTC alleged that the companies failed to train their employees in secure coding practices. The upshot: questionable design decisions, including the introduction of vulnerabilities into the software. For example, according to the complaint in HTC America, the company failed to implement readily available secure communications mechanisms in the logging applications it pre-installed on its mobile devices. As a result, malicious third-party apps could communicate with the logging applications, placing consumers’ text messages, location data, and other sensitive information at risk. The company could have reduced the risk of vulnerabilities like that by adequately training its engineers in secure coding practices.

Follow platform guidelines for security.

When it comes to security, there may not be a need to reinvent the wheel. Sometimes the wisest course is to listen to the experts. In actions against HTC AmericaFandango, and Credit Karma, the FTC alleged that the companies failed to follow explicit platform guidelines about secure development practices. For example, Fandango and Credit Karma turned off a critical process known as SSL certificate validation in their mobile apps, leaving the sensitive information consumers transmitted through those apps open to interception through man-in-the-middle attacks. The companies could have prevented this vulnerability by following the iOS and Android guidelines for developers, which explicitly warn against turning off SSL certificate validation.

Verify that privacy and security features work.

If your software offers a privacy or security feature, verify that the feature works as advertised. In TRENDnet, for example, the FTC charged that the company failed to test that an option to make a consumer’s camera feed private would, in fact, restrict access to that feed. As a result, hundreds of “private” camera feeds were publicly available. Similarly, in Snapchat, the company advertised that messages would “disappear forever,” but the FTC says it failed to ensure the accuracy of that claim. Among other things, the app saved video files to a location outside of the app’s sandbox, making it easy to recover the video files with common file browsing tools. The lesson for other companies: When offering privacy and security features, ensure that your product lives up to your advertising claims.

Test for common vulnerabilities.

There is no way to anticipate every threat, but some vulnerabilities are commonly known and reasonably foreseeable. In more than a dozen FTC cases, businesses failed to adequately assess their applications for well-known vulnerabilities. For example, in the Guess? case, the FTC alleged that the business failed to assess whether its web application was vulnerable to Structured Query Language (SQL) injection attacks. As a result, hackers were able to use SQL attacks to gain access to databases with consumers’ credit card information. That’s a risk that could have been avoided by testing for commonly-known vulnerabilities, like those identified by the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP).

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