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How to start an AppSec Program with the OWASP Top 10

Previously, the OWASP Top 10 was never designed to be the basis for an AppSec program. However, it's essential to start somewhere for many organizations just starting out on their application security journey. The OWASP Top 10 2021 is a good start as a baseline for checklists and so on, but it's not in itself sufficient.

Stage 1. Identify the gaps and goals of your appsec program

Many Application Security (AppSec) programs try to run before they can crawl or walk. These efforts are doomed to failure. We strongly encourage CISOs and AppSec leadership to use OWASP Software Assurance Maturity Model (SAMM) to identify weaknesses and areas for improvement over a 1-3 year period. The first step is to evaluate where you are now, identify the gaps in governance, design, implementation, verification, and operations you need to resolve immediately versus those that can wait, and prioritize implementing or improving the fifteen OWASP SAMM security practices. OWASP SAMM can help you build and measure improvements in your software assurance efforts.

Stage 2. Plan for a paved road secure development lifecycle

Traditionally the preserve of so-called "unicorns," the paved road concept is the easiest way to make the most impact and scale AppSec resources with development team velocity, which only increases every year.

The paved road concept is "the easiest way is also the most secure way" and should involve a culture of deep partnerships between the development team and the security team, preferably such that they are one and the same team. The paved road aims to continuously improve, measure, detect and replace insecure alternatives by having an enterprise-wide library of drop-in secured replacements, with tooling to help see where improvements can be made by adopting the paved road. This allows existing development tools to report on insecure builds and help development teams self-correct away from insecure alternatives.

The paved road might seem a lot to take in, but it should be built incrementally over time. There are other forms of appsec programs out there, notably the Microsoft Agile Secure Development Lifecycle. Not every appsec program methodology suits every business.

Stage 3. Implement the paved road with your development teams

Paved roads are built with the consent and direct involvement of the relevant development and operations teams. The paved road should be aligned strategically with the business and help deliver more secure applications faster. Developing the paved road should be a holistic exercise covering the entire enterprise or application ecosystem, not a per-app band-aid, as in the old days.

Stage 4. Migrate all upcoming and existing applications to the paved road

Add paved road detection tools as you develop them and provide information to development teams to improve the security of their applications by how they can directly adopt elements of the paved road. Once an aspect of the paved road has been adopted, organizations should implement continuous integration checks that inspect existing code and check-ins that use prohibited alternatives and warn or reject the build or check-in. This prevents insecure options from creeping into code over time, preventing technical debt and a defective insecure application. Such warnings should link to the secure alternative, so the development team is given the correct answer immediately. They can refactor and adopt the paved road component quickly.

Stage 5. Test that the paved road has mitigated the issues found in the OWASP Top 10

Paved road components should address a significant issue with the OWASP Top 10, for example, how to automatically detect or fix vulnerable components, or a static code analysis IDE plugin to detect injections or even better start using a library that is known safe against injection. The more of these secure drop-in replacements provided to teams, the better. A vital task of the appsec team is to ensure that the security of these components is continuously evaluated and improved. Once they are improved, some form of communication pathway with consumers of the component should indicate that an upgrade should occur, preferably automatically, but if not, as least highlighted on a dashboard or similar.

Stage 6. Build your program into a mature AppSec program

You must not stop at the OWASP Top 10. It only covers 10 risk categories. We strongly encourage organizations to adopt the Application Security Verification Standard and progressively add paved road components and tests for Level 1, 2, and 3, depending on the developed applications' risk level.

Going beyond

All great AppSec programs go beyond the bare minimum. Everyone must keep going if we're ever going to get on top of appsec vulnerabilities.

  • Conceptual integrity. Mature AppSec programs must contain some concept of security architecture, whether a formal cloud or enterprise security architecture or threat modeling

  • Automation and scale. Mature AppSec programs try to automate as much of their deliverables as possible, using scripts to emulate complex penetration testing steps, static code analysis tools directly available to the development teams, assisting dev teams in building appsec unit and integration tests, and more.

  • Culture. Mature AppSec programs try to build out the insecure design and eliminate the technical debt of existing code by being a part of the development team and not to the side. AppSec teams who see development teams as "us" and "them" are doomed to failure.

  • Continuous improvement. Mature AppSec programs look to constantly improve. If something is not working, stop doing it. If something is clunky or not scalable, work to improve it. If something is not being used by the development teams and has no or limited impact, do something different. Just because we've done testing like desk checks since the 1970s doesn't mean it's a good idea. Measure, evaluate, and then build or improve.