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The majority of information security dollars go to intrusion detection and firewall systems designed to protect the enterprise's perimeter. The dirty little secret, however, is that the perimeter has become quite permeable and the majority of breaches happen at the application layer -- approximately 70 percent according to Gartner.

Organizations routinely open up the perimeter to remote employees connecting to data centers, customers connecting to shopping applications, and partners connecting with supply chains. This makes "perimeter security" like stationing mall guards at the main doors with bazookas but letting shoppers run wild in all the stores, which is essentially what happened at TJX, Hannaford and Heartland. Organizations need to take a more holistic view of security and look closely at securing what's inside the perimeter, i.e., the applications.

The main problem here is the essentially defective software that developers, vendors and contractors write and put on the network. There is far less discipline and rigor to software engineering than in other fields. Doctors have residency programs, plumbers start as apprentices, and civil engineers have to get certified before leading projects. There is no correlation in the software world, and we collectively haven't forced a change. As a result, the application layer is riddled with vulnerabilities.

Continuing to over-invest in perimeter systems will:

  • Make organizations miss the majority of security vulnerabilities
  • Give users a false sense of safety
  • Actually enable damaging business logic attacks

Application vs. network security: research/analyst perspectives

Let's look at some research and analyst perspectives. Gartner says "over 70 percent of security vulnerabilities exist at the application layer, not the network or system layer." The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) puts the number at 92 percent. As IDC states, "the conclusion is unavoidable: any notion that security is a matter of simply protecting the network perimeter is hopelessly out of date."

So it's clear that we need to intensify our focus on application security, but there's another problem: how does one write secure code? According to Microsoft Developer Research, "64 percent of developers are not confident in their ability to write secure applications." That is a telling and disturbing sign. You may want to ask your own developers how they feel. Better yet, how does your IT team feel about deploying software written by developers that are brutally honest about their propensity to write insecure code?


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