ForAllSecure Blog

Addressing the Spectrum of Risks

Tamulyn Takakura
·
May 27, 2021

Whether you’re researching SAST, DAST, SCA, RASP, one thing is for certain: eventually it all starts to blur into a game of anagram. If you’re struggling to understand how to get your application security testing program off the ground, you wouldn’t be the first. Find comfort in knowing that this is a common struggle.

In this blog, we’ll walk through the spectrum of risk and the types of solutions that are strongest at addressing each risks.

Introducing Rumsfeld, The Johari Window Champion

In a 2002 US Department of Defense news briefing, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld brought much fame and attention to the strategic planning concepts known as the Johari window, “known knowns”, “known unknowns”, and “unknown unknowns”, to explain the lack of evidence linking the government of Iraq with the supply of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups.

Rumsfeld leveraged the Johari window to assess US relations with themselves and others. The cyber security market has found that this principle is applicable in software security risk management as well.

The Johari window contains four quadrants as outlined below:

Known to Self

Unknown to Self

Known to Other


“Arena”


“Blind Spot”

Unknown to Other


“Facade”


“Unknown”

Mapping the Johari Window to Software Security Risks

When aligned with the types of vulnerabilities, the chart looks as follows:

Known to Self

Unknown to Self

Known to Other


KNOWN VULNERABILITIES (CVEs)


“Arena”


DEFECTS  (CWEs)


“Blind Spot”

Unknown to Other


ZERO-DAY VULNERABILITY


“Facade”


UNKNOWN VULNERABILITY


“Unknown”

Figure 1: When combining terms, we reference each state as: “Other” + “Self”. For example the Arena (top left) quadrant is referred to as Known Known, whereas the Facade (bottom left) quadrant is known as Unknown Known. Green quadrants represent easily identified and address risk, yellow quadrants represent moderately challenging risk to identify and address, and red quadrants represent high difficulty in identifying and addressing risk.

Let’s break down these types of vulnerabilities, what they mean, and how to address them.

  • The Known Known risks: Known Knowns are identifiable risks that are known to lead to compromise. These are called known vulnerabilities. Known vulnerabilities have been disclosed to the software vendor and security community. These risks are identified through a Common Vulnerabilities and Exposure (CVE) ID and usually have a patch publicly available. As a result, these risks are relatively easy to identify and fix, especially with the assistance of a Software Composition Analysis (SCA) tool.
  • The Known Unknown risks: Known Unknowns are identifiable risks that could potentially lead to a compromise. These are called defects. Defects are characterized by publicly disclosed software flaw patterns or weaknesses in coding practices that are likely to lead to security issues. These risks are identified through a Common Weakness Enumeration (CWE) ID and fixes are specific to the software, requiring developer expertise to properly address them. The most popular solution for addressing these risks have historically been Static Analysis (SAST) tools.
  • The Unknown Known risks: Unknown Knowns are hard to identify risks that have not been disclosed to the vendor or the community. These are called zero-day vulnerabilities. Zero-day vulnerabilities have already been discovered and select individuals or organizations are aware of them. These vulnerabilities do not have an identifier or a patch. Zero-days present the greatest risk because they are difficult to detect and prevent. They also enable nefarious actors to function unnoticed for extended periods of time. Guided fuzz testing is a rising technique that has demonstrated strength in addressing this quadrant and has historically been the technique behind high-profile zero-day findings, including Heartbleed.
  • The Unknown Unknown risks: Unknown Unknowns are risks that cannot be identified. These are called unknown vulnerabilities. Unknown vulnerabilities have not been discovered by anyone. They are dormant, waiting to be found and scoped for severity. These vulnerabilities do not have an identifier or a patch. Because these vulnerabilities are unknown, it would require dedicated time and creativity from security researchers to detect and prevent them. Here as well, guided fuzz testing is the rising technique that has demonstrated strength in addressing this quadrant.

Addressing the Spectrum of Risks

In order to address the full spectrum of risks you will need three tools: software composition analysis, static analysis, and guide fuzz testing. However, an organization implementing an application security program for the first time may not be looking for the whole enchilada, just the starter package.

To address the full spectrum of risks in the least amount of tooling, we recommend software composition analysis and guide fuzz testing. We also posit that the first implementation should be guide fuzz testing, then software composition analysis. Here’s why.

Addressing the Known Knowns with SCA

Let’s start with the more obvious use case. SCA tools can quickly and easily scan and identify Known Known risks. Vendor options include BlackDuck, Snyk, WhiteSource, and SourceClear. 

Consider SCA much like the “ctrl + f” function on a Word document. For example, let’s say that you realized you specified “John” in your document rather than “Emily”, and -- drats -- you only realized this after you finished writing your love letter! It’s time to ctrl +f. Easy. Done. Now that you’ve found all the “John”s, you can go in and manually replace (Whoops! Looks like this Word doc version doesn’t come with an automated  “Replace” function. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ) “John” with “Emily”. But, drats again! You didn’t pay attention and did a blind replace, so now you’re not sure if, in some instances, it made sense to keep “John”. 

SCA has a similar experience. This tool is helpful in that it will quickly identify every vulnerable library and tell you which patched version to upgrade to. However, it won’t be able to tell you whether the library is invoked or reachable -- meaning while you may have a vulnerable library, it might not pose a risk at all. And, even if your developers do upgrade to the new version, you won’t know if it addressed the vulnerability without introducing new issues until regression and integration testing occurs. 

Regardless of its limitations, SCA still proves to be the strongest at addressing the Known Known risk of any technique available today.

Download: The Buyer's Guide to Application Security Testing

Get a detailed breakdown of the various application security testing techniques, the strengths and weaknesses of each technique, and how each technique complements one another.

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Addressing Everything Else with Guided Fuzz Testing

Now, for the less obvious use case. Guided fuzz testing is unique from all other testing techniques in that it is able to identify all the different types of unknown risks -- whether it be unknown to others and/or unknown to self -- allowing organizations to get ahead of the threat landscape. 

Yes, you read that correctly. Guided fuzz testing is able to address Unknown Unknown, Unknown Known, and Known Unknown risks. I want to clarify that my former statement that static analysis is the most popular tool for addressing Known Unknowns still stands. However, we’re seeing the market open to address this risk, especially as guided fuzz testing grows mainstream and continues to demonstrate its success in this quadrant.

Consider SAST much like a grammar checker function in a Word document. For example, let’s say that the love letter you’re about to write is the first document you’ve written in a decade. In primary school, you learned that understanding the rules of English grammar sets the foundation for apt writing. So, with the grammar checker on your side, you’re feeling confident. However, as you work your way into the second sentence, you find yourself muttering to yourself grammar rhymes like “I before E except after C”. Now, you’re confused. The English language is all about exceptions and the proper use of grammar depends on context. Maybe understanding grammar is only a single pillar in strong writing, but not the foundation. Coding works similarly; The applicability of coding rules largely depends on context. This is where SAST falls apart. While the logic behind SAST is in the right place, it unfortunately goes awry in execution. Static testing directly analyzes the code for coding weaknesses patterns. Because SAST is conducted on applications while they’re in a non-running state, it can only blindly apply coding best practices. SASTs have zero context into how the application will behave in production environments, and, as a result, frequently produce false-positives. These false-positives have desensitized developers to fix request notifications and introduced strain between security and development teams, propelling the notion that security is a productivity blocker for developers. As a result, SAST has grown to have a poor reputation, motivating organizations to explore other solutions.

You may predict that the reason we assert guided fuzz testing should be your first application security testing investment is because it is able to address three of the four types of risk. Wrong. It’s actually able to uncover Known Knowns too -- meaning guided fuzz testing is able to address the full spectrum of risks. However, it should be noted that its strength remains in the Unknown space.

In application security, we believe that vendors should select the solution that is best qualified to address each risk. While organizations can rely on guided fuzz testing to address Known Known vulnerabilities, we recommend organizations eventually consider moving forward with an SCA to drive greater efficiency as a part of their devops workflows. The benefits of guided fuzzing doesn't stop there. SCA and guided fuzz testing offer synergistic value. Guided fuzz testing is able to address some of SCA limitations, such as validating no new issues were introduced as a part of its regression testing. Thus, when guided fuzzing is implemented first, then SCA, many of the aforementioned limitations are mitigated.

Which Fuzzer Is Right For You?

Interested in getting started with fuzz testing? Unfortunately, it can be tough to navigate the different types of fuzzers -- from random to template to protocol to guided -- in the market. But, you’re in luck. We’re here to help.

To figure out which fuzzer is right for you, check out this Fuzz Testing Checklist to help build a buyer’s criteria for your organization and environment.

Not quite there yet? No problem. Check out the What is Advanced Fuzz Testing whitepaper to learn more about the different types of fuzz testing.

Not sure about the value of fuzz testing yet? Organizations that take the leap to implement a fuzz testing program don't rip it out. Find out the economical reasons that keep them loving their fuzz testing programs in the Fuzz Testing ROI Framework.

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