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Security Books Media Bug Programming Book Reviews IT Technology

Exploiting Software 148

prostoalex writes "Why are networked computing environments so insecure? You've heard the story before - early computers were not designed to work in the network environment, and even most software written later was designed to work on benevolent networks. As Bruce Schneier says in the preface to Building Secure Software: How to Break Code, 'We wouldn't have to spend so much time, money and effort on network security if we didn't have such bad software security.'" Read on for prostoalex's review of Exploiting Software, which aims to balance that situation somewhat.
Exploiting Software: How to Break Code
author Greg Hoglund, Gary McGraw
pages 512
publisher Addison Wesley Professional
rating 8
reviewer Alex Moskalyuk
ISBN 0201786958
summary Techniques and software used to attack applications.

What kind of secure are you after?

There are many published titles on the topic of software security are numerous, but most of them follow certain patterns. Building Secure Software by Viega and McGraw was mainly concerned with proper techniques and general software engineering mindset without going into specifics. Then there was Writing Secure Code , by Howard and LeBlanc, which provided concrete examples and showed the "right way" to do secure coding. I heard the title instantly became a required reading at world's largest software corporation. It's currently in its second edition.

Secure Programming Cookbook for C/C++ by Viega and Messier, was the hands-on title for those developing C/C++ application with security in mind, as the cookbook recipes generally gave examples of good code, with each chapter providing some general background information on the topic discussed (I reviewed it on Slashdot in September last year).

Just in case you were wondering, the list above wasn't just retrieved by a quick search at Amazon. My Master's degree, completed last summer, dealt with the topic of software security, and those are the titles I've read preparing to write the theoretical part.

From the other side

With the variety of books on how to write secure software, and what techniques to use to make existing software more secure, there was a niche for a book targeted specifically to those who wanted to break software. Black hat or white hat, the network security experts always had titles like Hacking Exposed to give them an idea of what was available in terms of techniques and methodologies used out there. For software security most of the articles and books generally would tell you something in the terms "do not use strcpy(), as it introduces buffer overruns".

Great, so I won't use strcpy(), did it make my application more secure? Is it more or less hack-proof? What if I am a tester and required to play with this aspect of the application to ensure the application's security before the product ships? Theoretically hanging out at proper IRC rooms and getting lifetime Phrack and 2600 subscriptions should be enough to cover you at the beginning, however, the learning curve here leaves much to be desired, let alone the fact you will probably be kicked out of the IRC rooms for asking n00b questions. Another path would be to take an expensive training course by someone with a name in the industry, but the price tag for those generally leaves out self-learners and those operating on limited budgets, which adds up to about 99% of software engineers and testers out there.

Exploiting Software to the rescue.

Exploiting Software fills the void that existed in this market. Eight chapters take you through the basics and some advanced techniques of attacking software applications with the purpose of executing arbitrary code supplied by an attacker (you).

The book mainly deals with Windows applications for x86 platforms, and some knowledge of C/C++ and Win32 API is required to go through the example applications. To automate some processes and demonstrate possible attacks the authors use Perl, so knowledge of that would help the reader, too. Some chapters, (e.g. the buffer overflow one) show disassembler output, and while you're not expected to read x86 ASM code as if it were English, knowledge of how the registers work and how the subprocedure calls are handled on this Intel architecture are required. After all, if potential attackers know it, you better familiarize yourself with some low-level code, too.

While discussing various possible attacks, the authors post different attack patterns. The patterns themselves usually appear in gray textboxes and talk about the possible exploit in general terms. After that, a series of attack examples follow, with specific descriptions on what can be done, and how. For example, the attack pattern on page 165 is titled "Leverage executable code in non-executable files." The following attack example is "Executable fonts," and it talks how the font files are generally treated by the Windows systems (they are a special form of DLLs). Thus it's possible to embed some executable code into a font library you're creating, for which the authors provide an example in Microsoft Visual Studio.

What's cool is that all the attack patterns are listed in a separate table of contents (alas, not on the Web site table of contents, which just lists the chapters and subchapters), so you can browse to the attack pattern you decide to learn about, read some general info about it and then study specific examples. The examples themselves are not in the table of contents, which I think is a mistake, as it would make searching for possible patterns much easier. After all, how are you supposed to know that "Informix database file system" (p. 189) is under "Relative path traversal" pattern? Well, unless you know specifically that the line http://[Informix database host]/ifx/?LO=../../../etc/ is the one discussed in the example, you would have to either go through the index hoping no omissions were made, or read the chapter in its entirety.

One of the best chapters of the book, Reverse Engineering and Program Understanding, which provides a good introduction into techniques used throughout the book, is available online from Addison Wesley. By having a free chapter you already have 1/8th of the book, but don't think that the low number of chapters makes this 512-page title an introductory book.

Target Audience

Looks like there are two major audiences and reading patterns for this book: those wanting to fix their systems ASAP and thus using Exploiting Software as a reference, and those using it as a text book to learn about security. I've discussed the organization of the book above, and the reference types will probably be more interested in patterns and examples. For a casual reader (although casual readers wouldn't generally pick up a title with C++, Perl, ASM and hex dumps spread around the chapters) this is a book with great educational value, from two authors who have discovered numerous security vulnerabilities themselves.

Exploiting Software is not an easy title to read. Addison-Wesley shipped me the manuscript copy a month before it hit the bookshelves in its final version, and I found myself going through about two pages an hour. The authors bring up sometimes unfamiliar Win32 APIs and occasionally use ready-made tools available on the Web, so generally I found myself visiting MSDN and Google a lot to read through available documentation and download the latest version of the tools used. The book doesn't come with a CD. Some of the stuff, like inserting a malicious BGP packet to exploit a Cisco router (p. 281) is not really testable at home, and I have some reservations about verifying the example with my employer's routers.

The book is probably apt for 2nd or 3rd year computer science students and above. Besides the variety of languages that I mentioned above, you need to be familiar with the basics of Intel architecture, and generally be fluent with terminology like "buffer," "stack," "syscall," "rootkit," etc., as this is not an "Introduction to..." title. From my experience, you probably won't read it from page 1 to page 512 understanding everything perfectly, but for anyone interested in security and those making a career in software development it looks like a bookshelf must-have.

I interviewed Gary McGraw on the current state of software security, the relevance of the topic to the issues beyond C/C++ and improper buffer usage, and future directions in security. Network World magazine also ran an interview with the McGraw in which he talks about the reception of the book at the RSA Conference, whether the economics is right to invest in building secure systems, and whether his book does more harm by providing a compendium of known exploits.

Alex has written numerous reviews of other software and security titles. You can read more of his opinions at his Web site. You can purchase Exploiting Software: How to Break Code from Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.

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Exploiting Software

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  • by MalaclypseTheYounger ( 726934 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:10PM (#8570740) Journal
    Stupidity? Security is easy. Making software stupid-proof is hard.

    A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.

    -- Douglas Adams
    • by IO ERROR ( 128968 ) <> on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:18PM (#8570822) Homepage Journal
      This is where input validation comes in. Check every input value for sanity. Do something reasonable if the value isn't sane. How often have you forgotten to write error checking or input validation code? Do you check the return value from printf()? (yes, it has one) Every time? (I doubt it)

      Writing bulletproof software is TEDIOUS. You still have to verify everything, and still somebody's going to find the one thing you missed and exploit the hell out of it...

      • by RLW ( 662014 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:40PM (#8571014)
        It is true that writing bulletproof software is TEDIOUS. However, after watching our test staff I have determined that testing it is beyond tedious. It is mind numbing!

        The company I work for makes software for wafer fabrication. If the software fails, no one dies but millions of dollars of materials and time can be lost: we spend a lot of time testing and retesting and verifying our tests and going over scenarios to make sure we get it right. Event with all that, over the last couple of years we've logged over 600+ defects of various types. All the way from a misspelled word on an error message to miss-processed data to crashes. Most of those errors are detected in house and the customer doesn't see them: but I would guess we get 4 to 8 defects reported from customers every month with most being minor but a few are so egregiously bad that should have been impossible for that to make it through testing. But even a small error can cost tens of thousands of dollars or more in losses so no bug is a good bug.
        Most other places I've worked have testing in name only. The code is compiled and run for a few seconds: some edit boxes are typed into and the mouse is wiggled around and that's it.

        If architects make buildings like programmers write code then every woodpecker that comes along destroys civilization.
        • by Greyfox ( 87712 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @03:14PM (#8571400) Homepage Journal
          I did security auditing in a standard C library in a previous job. We wrote customized automated test for every freaking C library function. Not only did we document potential side effects from each one of those functions, we could run the entire test suite whenever modifications were made to the library to insure that everything still worked as expected. That job was a real eye-opener, let me tell you...

          Little things can make a big difference too. Let me give you a hypothetical; Lets say the AIX standard C library strlen() tests its input to make sure it's not a NULL pointer prior to testing the string. Lets further say that the Gnu C library doesn't make this test. Recompiling your AUX application on Linux would potentially introduce crashes whenever your application encrounters a strlen.

          While the above was a hypothetical situation, I have uncovered a good many memory overflows and leaks simply by compiling and running an application on a different flavor of UNIX than it was originally written for. Having safe underlying library calls is nice, but it also introduces the possibility that actual errors will go unnoticed for a longer period of time.

          I'm pretty well convinced that in a situation where the need for security is high (Say, for example, an OS kernel) documented testing of every single function that makes up the software is a necessity.

          • That would be a very good - and extraordinarily boring - Linux kernel sub-project. A testing framework that runs continuously over the source tree and flags when things are broken/out-of-limits/unsafe etc, makes a lot of sense. It's the sort of thing that should be on the page, showing that state of say, stable, pre-patch, development, etc. I'd sure feel safer *knowing* that my OS is secure and reliable, not just that smart folks *think* it is.
          • Having safe underlying library calls is nice, but it also introduces the possibility that actual errors will go unnoticed for a longer period of time.

            Isn't the solution to have libraries that are safe, spotting and handling many types of errors, but that log those errors somewhere? That way you get an application that doesn't crash unnecessarily, but you also get early and specific warning of bugs. Of course, they can also test for conditions they can't handle, and stop then and there. Assertions, in o

        • by Tony-A ( 29931 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @03:33PM (#8571646)
          If architects make buildings like programmers write code then every woodpecker that comes along destroys civilization.

          And the architects' answer would be to woodpecker-proof every stick of wood???

          If you need to test every case, check every return code, etc, etc, there is something very bad, very fundamentally bad, with the design of the whole mess.

          With no testing or checking whatever in the program, it should be impossible to create a disaster all out of proportion to the cause.
          • Every function should either check all inputs for valid states and conditions or they are hidden functions that have this done for them. If they are hidden they are never exposed as an API or even beyond the class or compilation unit they come from.

            As far as disasters all out of proportion to the cause, computers are famous for that. There are cases where I've seen very small changes in the code base result in huge messes. This is usually related to pointers or boundary conditions(inputs approaching, or
            • As far as disasters all out of proportion to the cause, computers are famous for that.

              The situation is worse.
              People are surprised when it happens.

              I'd blame unit testing and only attempting integration when the units are "debugged".
              I'm lazy. I prefer the approach of throwing the whole mess together immediately and watch the fireworks. It's not enough for a unit to behave properly when the rest of the world is correct. It much behave no worse than can be expected regardless of the bugs in the rest of the s
      • This is why tools like lint exist. Alongside about 1000 other useful things, lint tells you if you ever fail to check the return value of a function call. Sure, it's tedius to always check the return of printf, but it's necessary and to some extent it can be automated.
      • This is where input validation comes in. Check every input value for sanity.

        IMHO this is completely wrong way to do it. Write your code so that you don't have to check input for sanity - your code should be secure no matter what the input is. What input validation is useful is giving user meaningful error messages.

        Writing bulletproof software is TEDIOUS. You still have to verify everything, and still somebody's going to find the one thing you missed and exploit the hell out of it...

        Yes, like you s

        • by johnnyb ( 4816 ) <> on Monday March 15, 2004 @03:49PM (#8571828) Homepage
          This is true. I've also found that if you over-validate the _form_ of input, then the customer service reps and business entities are going to assume that the _value_ of the input is also correct.

          For example, in places where I have validated that phone numbers follow a proper form, the customer service reps assumed that the phone numbers were definitely correct - becuase they were all properly formulated.

          It's easier on them if they get a few orders where the phone number is just plain wrong so that they know that this is a USER-generated field and that USERs can lie as much as they want to. It makes it obvious just who is responsible for verifying the validity of the information presented. If you make sure the _form_ is fully prim and proper, people are going to assume that you verified the content as well.
        • "The code doesn't get secure by polluting it with tons of security checks. It gets secure by keeping the security checks in as few places as possible."

          True. Difficult but true. This belongs in the category of making programs more competent, more flexible, faster, and smaller.

          The ideal is something that if it passes a few simple tests, is incapable of finding a (complicated) way to fail.
      • Er, how would you report an error to the user if printf() failed?
        • perror()?
        • Er, how would you report an error to the user if printf() failed?

          You use printf(), obviously.
          And prinf() had damned well better be recursive.

          Now if the failure is intermittent, ... , something gets printed and you unwind the stack.

          If the failure is permanent, you need to be able to read the blinking lights.
          Works with the old obsolete stuff. With the fancy new stuff you're SOL;)
      • Anyone know if this exists?

        I want support in a high-level language for a construct like:

        [Integer] function doSomething (
        [integer var1]
        [Foo var2]
        [XML::Some::Schema var3]
        [optional Baz var4] throws IVException {

        where the language declaritively specifies what it's going to get for input, validates that input, and causes a catchable exception if it doesn't. Input validation isn't hard, but it's really tedious, which is why people don't do it. The language is supposed to take care of

        • It sounds like you are looking for contract programming. The specification of the input is the "contract" that the function enforces. I have done no contract programming, so that description might not be completely accurate; you should research yourself for more info. The poster boy for this school of design is the language Eiffel.
    • by robslimo ( 587196 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:20PM (#8570842) Homepage Journal
      I agree that creating stupid-proof is difficult, but I'm not so quick to blow off the task of making software secure. One methodology I've not heard much talk about is testing with external software that tries to break the application (though there is at least one company who makes a such a product,, I think). Just like any other aspect of ensuring robustness in software, testing is the next critical step after design.

      So design it to be secure, then test it! Try to overrun buffers, throw illegal arguments and all around garbage input at it, some specifically designed and even more that are randomized. When it crashes or misbehaves, find out what trashed it and fix it up.

      Design, test, test, test, test, test!
    • by dilettante ( 91064 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:25PM (#8570884)
      Making software stupid-proof is also expensive.

      Most programmers that i know who have an interest in security have already set up Windows or Linux boxes with known vulnerabilities and attempted to duplicate known exploits. But knowledge is, at best, half of the picture. In most commercial software endeavors, what's really important is convincing everyone along the chain of command that security is important. This seems like it should be simple, but security is one of those horizontal aspects of software development that adds considerably to the expense of system development, but doesn't add many new features.

      Further complicating the problem is that even if someone were to develop an environment that attempted to prevent all of the problems caused by programmer errors, it would be horrendously complex and would likely kill performance. Until threat modeling and code inspections with an eye on security become commonplace, this problem will persist.

      • by John Whitley ( 6067 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @03:23PM (#8571518) Homepage
        Further complicating the problem is that even if someone were to develop an environment that attempted to prevent all of the problems caused by programmer errors, it would be horrendously complex and would likely kill performance.

        IMO, a big part of the solution is factoring out solutions for major known security problem areas into the environments, languages, and frameworks that developers use on a day-to-day basis. E.g. if you're using a language with robust automatic memory management, there's little reason to go looking for C-style buffer overflow exploits coded by your developers.

        In today's environments (e.g. Windows and current *nix systems) with current popular languages (e.g. C, C++) we're at a big disadvantage. Much of the discussion in this thread presumes that coders can/should amass total knowledge of all levels of security exploits, from binary code injection to cross-site scripting (aka CSS), SQL injection, etc. It becomes overwhelming to a dev who really should be able to focus on the value-added problems at hand. I'm aware of only one cost efficient approach: choose environments, languages, and/or tools that mitigate known security risks.

        Where applicable, this can be done by leveraging environments that can limit the scope of attacks. See SELinux [] and GR Security [] for ways to patch Linux to meet thess needs, or the EROS project for a fresh view of OS security and compartmentalization models. Environment choise is most relevant to folks providing networked services, where they can control the platform specifics.

        The cause can also be aided by using languages/frameworks that encapsulate security knowledge. This can be as "simple" as using a language with automatic memory management(to factor out common buffer overflow problems), or along the lines of using scripting frameworks that standardize policies for correctly managing more complex security issues (e.g. cookie management, web input/output validation, CSS issues, etc).

        I'd argue that it is possible to improve software security practices significantly simply by careful choices of tools and techniques available today. But it takes a saavy organization to really commit to providing secure software solutions, and to be able to do so in a cost effective manner. As always, the hard part of the equation is programming the wetware. 8-)
      • "Further complicating the problem is that even if someone were to develop an environment that attempted to prevent all of the problems caused by programmer errors, it would be horrendously complex and would likely kill performance. Until threat modeling and code inspections with an eye on security become commonplace, this problem will persist."

        Java does a good job with regards to protecting the local machine when running web-based applets. Java is not as fast as some languages but it does not "kill perfo

    • by SphericalCrusher ( 739397 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:29PM (#8570928) Journal
      Exactly. Even though I may pick this book up for a good read, I can already say that a good 50% of hacking is not technical.

      The social engineer shows just how easy it is to obtain information from someone than it is to actually copy it from their computer. Just by dressing proper and knowing the correct lingo, you could easily masquarade as an employee for the company.

      Read The Art of Deception, by Kevin Mitnick. Great read indeed.
    • by corbettw ( 214229 ) <corbettw AT yahoo DOT com> on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:31PM (#8570951) Journal
      Does anyone else find it ironic that a review of a book regarding software security, which should include such topics as how to check for proper input, did not have a closing italics tag? Not that anyone's gonna hijack a site that doesn't have proper text formatting, but I think it's a glaring example that programmers are human, and human error is the root of all security breaches.
    • I hereby release the ultime software security patch under the GPL.

      cat $1 > /dev/null
      rm $1 -f

      After that, there'll be no security issues in the software!
    • I disagree. Security is not easy, at least not for most people I know/encounter. Making stuff stupid proof is hard, BUT making stuff secure is harder.

      Whilst the boundaries of stupidity could have no limits, determined, knowledgeable and smart people are statistically more likely to be able to find and exploit the limits of your software, than the stupid people are by accident or ignorance. The curve is different.

      As a consultant, I checked a bank web app before it was due to be launched (after an internal
  • by Penguinisto ( 415985 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:10PM (#8570749) Journal
    The one question that sticks out is yes, learning how something is exploited will help out a guy who already knows how to code (and has enough experience to look at an exploit from both sides of the attack), but what about the newbie coder who, more than anyone else, desperately needs to know how to code properly in the first place?

    Someone ought to combine a guide for writing secure code, but with exploit examples that dissect it from both crack and code perspective. (does this book do that, perhaps? Maybe I missed it, but I didn;t see any indication of that in there...)

  • Good Reading (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:11PM (#8570756)
    While I've only read the sample chapter given out at the recent RSA conference, I found it to be extrememly interesting. Useful for those looking for ways to secure consulting gigs fixing blatant security flaws in common software (especially web apps)
  • poetry in motion (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tomstdenis ( 446163 ) < minus math_god> on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:12PM (#8570765) Homepage
    Why I love Bruce...

    "We wouldn't have to spend so much time, money and effort on network security if we didn't have such bad software security."

    Is to smart as

    "We wouldn't have some many crumbling roads if heavy vehicles didn't drive on them"

    Is to insightful. I still say the best way to experience Bruce's mind in action is in person. In his books he's trying to pander to the market [of let's face it less than apt people] and in person he's talking with fairly brilliant people [e.g. me ;-)]

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:23PM (#8570867)
      Looks like someone flunked the analogy sectin on the SATs. Actually what he said is more like,

      "We wouldn't have to spend so much money fixing roads if we would just build more resiliant roads in the first place"

      Which is perfectly true. Sure it's not groundbreaking, but then it's not meant to be. The difficult job for quality insurance people is just to make people like you shut up and actually change the problem behaviors.
    • "We wouldn't have some many crumbling roads if heavy vehicles didn't drive on them"

      I don't quite agree with that. It is more like: "We wouldn't have so many crumbling roads if large, heavy, spiked/square tire vehicles running on afterburner didn't drive on them."


    • by GPLDAN ( 732269 )
      Schnier seems to have made a career out of stating obvious truisms, like "all security is a tradeoff." I mean, I've read his books. Are these books really considered insightful?

      I don't understand the appeal. The Myth of Homeland Security by Marcus ranum is 100x the book that Schnier's is. Ranum actually worked in Washington, he not only shows where security breaks down, but the why of the politics behind it. In 100 years, professors who wish to study Computer Security at this stage of history will put Ra
      • by Beryllium Sphere(tm) ( 193358 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @03:11PM (#8571357) Homepage Journal
        >Schnier seems to have made a career out of stating obvious truisms

        Evidently they're not obvious to everyone. If you've been through an airport in the last couple of years, or used a mass-market network-enabled software product, or looked at the security advice given by newspaper columnists, you're forced to conclude that the world needs "Beyond Fear" more than it needs Blowfish.
      • If you think that's the foundation of Schneier's career you've not looked at his academic publications. He was a seriously high-powered cryptographer and cryptanalyst in his own right long before he got into writing for a popular audience.

        And when he does write for a popular audience, he does an invaluable job getting home the ideas that people seem to miss when they're thinking about this stuff. Some of the ideas he promotes are far from truisms, such as for example his campaign to get insurance compani
        • I know he was a mathematician and cryptographer. And some of the stuff in Applied Cryptography was only to be found in journals, although some of it was on the net. And I know the State Department didn't like him doing that, he says so in his book.

          But his books for the general public, well, just perform this test. Pick up a copy of Beyond Fear at the bookstore. Open it to a random page. Read a paragraph aloud to a friend. See if the friend says "hmmm" or "duh". I'm going to bet on the latter. Several rev
  • by Lucky Kevin ( 305138 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:19PM (#8570834) Homepage
    We need to use more intelligent environments to protect us from ourselves (and other less good proogrammers :-)).
    Like the security manager in Java and the security "taint" stuff in Perl.
  • by Theodrake ( 90052 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:22PM (#8570865)
    I keep reading all these books about how to fix the holes in existing s/w. How to not build systems that are full of holes. It seems we need a decent foundation and its not C. The DoD tried with Ada to design a language that eliminates a lot of the coding mistakes, but it just wasn't embraced. It just seems we are attempting to layer security on top of an inherently insecure software language.
    • While C can easily be insecure, it's still one of the fastest and most powerful languages. Other languages are powerful as well, but nobody benchmarks against Java as their base. The reason is because to do all that checking internally, you have overhead.

      C does not have that overhead unless you add it. I don't think that adding another layer is the solution. I think better training of coders would help more. (Which is where a book like this comes in)
      • >C does not have that overhead unless you add it. I don't think that adding another layer is the solution.

        This is a healthy attitude to take while you're writing code. I produce better code when I try to convince myself that bug-free code is attainable.

        If you're designing entire systems, it's safer to take the realistic view that human error occurs at predictable rates in the most highly trained people. Highly trained people are still vulnerable to getting tired, distracted, misled, and to fat-fingering things.

        The question is whether you're willing to spend CPU cycles (the cheapest thing in the world) to reduce the scope for human error (the most certain thing in the world).
      • Why waste all that time teaching people how to avoid shooting themselves in the foot, instead of simply removing the gun? If you provide an environment that makes it impossible to make certain mistakes, isn't that preferable than hoping that the programmers have learned their lesson? As Bill Joy said, "Hope is a lousy defense."

        You're argument for C based on performance is just plain silly. Since most security issues center around networking, are you ready to say that network programs are CPU-bound?
    • That was actually one of the primary goals in the design of Java. After writing Java code for several years now, I can't imagine having to use strcpy or worry about whether I'm supposed to free an object or if the API I'm using will free it for me.

      I'm sure the C/C++ bigots will flame the hell out of me. Nonetheless, many of the exploits we read about every day simply wouldn't exist if a safer language were used.

      BTW, I participated in the whole "Ada thing" back in the 80's, having worked for a hardware v
      • I'm sure the C/C++ bigots will flame the hell out of me.

        Well, for the C++ part, only for your shown ignorance of C++. I can't imagine calling strcpy (or strncpy, for that matter), too, when I can just write s1 = s2 + s3 with the C++ standard library string class (while not even having to think about how much memory needs to be allocated, or where it needs to be deallocated later). And in C++, all ressource handling (not only memory!) can be handled by a simple rule: Ressources are allocated only in a const

      • There is far more to security than having to deal with buffer overflow attacks.

        Sure Java tends to be more secure, but part of the reason for that is the lack of usage in places where normal C would be - for example I've never seen a setuid(0) Java executable.

        For network servers I agree buffer overflows are pretty much prevented by the use of Java. However there are still flaws there to be exploited due to programmer error - such as writing a HTTP server and not filtering out "..".

        This kind of problem is

      • My favorite sigsegv in C would result in a (probably uncaught) NullPointerException in Java. Dude created a validateInput function which took a string from a tokenizer and the first thing it did in the function was use strlen() to check the size of the string. Except that the tokenizer liked to return NULL pointers for the string if the input was empty. This caused strlen to hork up a sigsev.

        s/tokenizer/StringTokenizer/ in Java and create a validateInput() method that calls .size() on its imput string and

        • I will whole-heartedly agree that you can write really bad, stupid code in Java. What you can't do is write the kind of exploits that are so common in the C codebases of Windoze and Linux.

          Just because you can still make some stupid mistakes is no reason to rule out a language that eliminates a whole category of mistakes. I spent more time than I care to admit chasing down my off-by-1 string copy errors in C. Then there are all the memory management errors, such as using a freed object - the silent kille
    • I agree.

      In sane languages, simple and common programmer mistakes should very rarely allow an attacker to run arbitrary code of the attacker's choice.

      In C such an occurrence is so common that many people think it is normal and near acceptable.

      There must be other languages that perform about as well as C and not prone to such insanity. Looks like we're stuck with C and its problems for an indeterminate time.
  • I wonder if they talk about security risks regarding social engineering.
  • by fuzzy12345 ( 745891 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:27PM (#8570912)
    If you've been around long enough to start seeing patterns in software flaws, keep asking yourself: "What misfeatures of the program's source language contributed to this flaw?"

    Personally, I find that I rarely need to access the thirty-second element of a thirty element array, and I'd die happy if I never have to type for(i=0; i<offbyone; i++){ again.

    I used to think that Perl with taint checking enabled was the cat's meow, but I'm now leaning towards Lisp. For the rest of you, is it fair to blame the programmer when his tools (which are supposed to make his life easier) fail him? Use better tools!

    • For the rest of you, is it fair to blame the programmer when his tools (which are supposed to make his life easier) fail him? Use better tools!

      Still, a good programmer should know his tools, and know the limits of his tools.

      • Still, a good programmer should know his tools, and know the limits of his tools.

        True, but the problem is that there are so many dangerous limits and gotchas in C/C++. This requires a programmer to spend a large chunk of his time and mental energy thinking about and dealing with these issues. That is time that isn't spend on the business/technical problem the software is supposed to solve.

        Wouldn't it be better to use a safer language, where one can do something like:

        for X in My_List'First..My_List'Last

        • You mean like:

          typedef std::vector<int>::iterator iter;
          for (iter it = myvec.begin(), end = myvec.end();
          it != end;

          Granted, it's a bit more to type (I'd like to have myvec::iterator!), but where do you have to know the size of the list here?

          BTW, if you just call a function, you can have it even shorter:

          std::for_each(myvec.begin(), myvec.end(), do_something_with);

          • There ya go. There is indeed a whole lot of tools in C/C++. Some are more risky than others.
            Programming is no different than any other building job. A good C++ programmer knows what tools to use and what tools not to use. Just like a good carpenter knows which hammer to use in each situation.

            Therefore, I believe that one can blame the programmer that his tools failed if he didn't use the right tools for the job.

    • This is why I think that for debugging builds (and perhaps this day in age, when it's usually acceptable to waste a few extra cycles, for final builds as well) C/C++ should have runtime array bounds checking built in. You could always do pointer arithmatic to get around that when it's nessesary, anyway.

      Also, better tools would be an editor that allows you to make macros for common stuff like the for you mentioned.

      /observe ensuing vi vs. emacs flamewar ;-)
  • by Un0r1g1nal ( 711750 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:29PM (#8570936)
    You can write up about security, and tell people to code properly and validate everything but there are always going to be either exceptionally skilled hackers or totally inept users who will be able to do something that you didn't think of, and cause problems.

    Look at some of the breaches that have been published in the last few years, and then consider if they are the ones they published (usually because they caught the person who hacked them) how many more are unpublished, either because they couldn't catch the attacker, couldn't figure out how the hacker got in in the first place or because said attacker penetrated so deeply they didn't want to be embarresed by it.

    But as a good point, it allows people to keep being employed in the network security industry :P So all in all it's a good thing...
    • Most security issues are from bad designs or bad tools/techniques. That anything can be broken by a genius hacker or genius fool is complete non-sense in my opinion. Maybe this is used as an excuus, or just romanticism, but I've never seen any proof to that theory.

      Things like buffer overruns (bad tools and/or bad design) and plain stupidity (build part of IE into kernel space) are the biggest problems in my opinion.
  • by kbonin ( 58917 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:30PM (#8570939) Homepage
    I write security software for a living, occasionally. I'm back in it now, after leaving it for a while out of frustration, among other things.

    The problem is that even for us security geeks, its nearly impossible to get management to buy into spending the time to make things secure. Nobody would believe the stories I could tell about having security features gutted 'cause marketing decided certificates were too complicated, or 'cause access control systems were too hard to use, so "just put the built in passwords back in", or "*** wants a copy of the private keys", or "*** told me to tell you to check the private keys into version control". Stupid, stupid...

    Until companies start caring about making products that are ACTUALLY secure, instead of just hiring security geeks to act as figureheads, then not letting them do their jobs, then system will continue to get hacked.
    • I don't know why this got voted insightful, but you are making a very good point, although involuntarily:
      "Security WON'T work until software engineers and programmers get it into their heads that complicated, invasive security procedures don't work if there are any humans around."

      If the security procedures are transparent and easy to use from the user standpoint, they will expend and extraordinary amount of ingenuity and cunning to get around them. Usually more than any product designer can spend to develo
  • Sounds interesting (Score:5, Informative)

    by plcurechax ( 247883 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:36PM (#8570987) Homepage
    It sounds like I thought I was getting when I bought Hacking: The Art of Exploitation by Jon Erickson, which is fairly basic and easy to read level, other than some of the writing is not as polished as it could be. It did get through the basic concepts explained in various classic Phrack articles but without the 'leet speak which drives me crazy.

    It sounds like this is a more serious and rigious book, and those that were turned off of Jon Erickson's Hacking might prefer it. I think I will take a look at it.

    I think new programmers are likely better served reading something like Writing Secure Code []: Practical Strategies and Proven Techniques for Building Secure Applications in a Networked World by Michael Howard and David LeBlanc or Building Secure Software [] by John Viega than get bogged down in details of this book.

    • by Anonymous Coward
      Microsoft has a book called Writing Secure Code? I looked in the humour section at the bookstore but I couldn't find it.
  • by ron_ivi ( 607351 ) <> on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:38PM (#8570998)
    From the article: " early computers were not designed to work in the network environment, and even most software written later was designed to work on benevolent networks "

    Ugh that's like saying "most office desks aren't secure since their locks are weak and can be drilled easily".

    Part of the problem is one of expectations. When people use insecure components and have unreasonable expectations that the'll magically be safe because one piece asked for a password.

    There's nothing wrong with components (desk locks or computers) that expect to be kept in benevolent environments.

    Next they'll be telling us Wikipedia's not secure because their password-checker is weak.

  • I ordered this book just when it came out and got it about an week ago. Im still reading it since I try to read it very careful and Im writing on a review of it and several other books with exploit techniques also. I can recommend this book and it was a nice review..
  • by redragon ( 161901 ) <(codonnell) (at) (> on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:45PM (#8571053) Homepage
    Just in case you were wondering, the list above wasn't just retrieved by a quick search at Amazon. My Master's degree, completed last summer, dealt with the topic of software security, and those are the titles I've read preparing to write the theoretical part.

    It's kind of sad that a statement like this is even necessary. It's an interesting statement regarding what kind of qualifications are often necessary just to get a typical reader to give you credit for not being an idiot.
    • It's kind of sad that a statement like this is even necessary. It's an interesting statement regarding what kind of qualifications are often necessary just to get a typical reader to give you credit for not being an idiot.

      I don't know--I think it's appropriate for for the author of a review of a book on computer security to discuss his credentials with respect to computer security.

      If I were to write this review, I'd probably say something like, "The material was far too detailed and complex. The author

      • I would agree with short blurbs about authors. No question there.

        However, /. more often has statements like the former. Perhaps a rationale for why a particular person was selected for a review would be useful.
  • by mabu ( 178417 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:58PM (#8571191)
    As a professional in the security business, I'm responsible for handling tens of thousands of financial transactions on a regular basis. My biggest fear regarding security has more to do with the bad habits my clients have than the integrity of the software I use. When it comes to security, having proprietary software can be advantageous in these situations, as there isn't general knowledge of the system's inner workings freely available.

    But the biggest security problem was and likely always will be, people who have access to sensitive information that do not act responsibly. Our systems have never been compromised, but once we transmit information to the client, that data becomes a lot less secure, whether it's from a compromised client machine, a rogue employee or a badly-chosen password.
    • Your argument is akin to "x don't kill people, people kill people". It's a good argument, but it isn't what people want to hear.

      Whether you are talking about cars, software or jungle gyms, engineers design things for sensible people.

      The problem is that management want silver bullets and airtight systems and users want usability. Nobody really wins in the short term.
      • I agree.

        This is because we've turned into a race of people who prefer to ask "What?" or "Who?" instead of "Why?". We've been programmed to expect instant results and preemptive, pseudo-abstract ideas such as "a secure philosophy" don't seem to offer the instant gratification that blaming everything on the software does.

        Exploiting people is a lot easier than exploiting hardware and software. Our entire economy is built around exploiting people, but the powers-that-be don't want this issue to be raised be
  • Disappointing (Score:3, Interesting)

    by WryCoder ( 18961 ) <kbk AT shore DOT net> on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:59PM (#8571201)
    Focused on Windows and commercial tools. I read part of the online chapter, which I found superficial. When I got to this

    "Sharing buffers is somewhat like sharing food. A restaurant (hopefully) maintains strict rules about where raw meat can be placed. A little raw juice in someone s cooked meal could lead to illness and a lawsuit. A typical program has many buffers...."

    I'm afraid I exited acroread in disgust.

  • by rixstep ( 611236 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @03:05PM (#8571271) Homepage
    I find Windows of absolutely no technical interest. They took systems designed for isolated desktop systems and put them on the net without thinking about evildoers, as our president would say.
    - Bill Joy
  • I liked (Score:4, Insightful)

    by g0bshiTe ( 596213 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @03:07PM (#8571301)
    Hacking: The Art of Exploitation
    It provided these same thoughts on software design, but also delved into more the ASM side of things. The book went on to state that "there is no such thing as secure code." I believe this statement to be true. With the current patch n sniff state of Windows, it is very easy to overflow a buffer to execute code. I have oft heard someone say my pc is unhackable, I run blah firewall, or X N.A.T. the sad fact is they are as easy to compromise as an unsecured network pc is. With the plethora of IE and other browser vulnerabilities out there you don't need to drive a tank through the front door. Seems though Microsoft left a Window open.
    • "there is no such thing as secure code."

      Hmmm ... I'm still seeking the vulnerability in the following implementation of /bin/true:
      int main()
      return 0;
  • As a slightly biased source of information (I work for the publisher, No Starch Press) I would recommend the above-mentioned title for those interested in software exploits. It's a great introduction to fundamental ways to exploit software. It may not have quotes from Schneier, but it's a great book. Check it out here: []

  • by Brandybuck ( 704397 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @03:20PM (#8571493) Homepage Journal
    There's another side to the problem. It's insidious. And while Microsoft is fully embedded in this tar pit of insecurity, Open Source projects are rarely better.

    This problem is "feature requests from users." If very few developers understand security well enough to write secure code, think about how much less end users know. Yet it is the end user who pays us. They're our ultimate boss, even on the free-beer Open Source side of things.

    At work I've had feature requirements come to me from marketing that would absolutely eviscerate the product's security. I've also seen bug reports elevated to top priority that that would reduce or eliminate product security.

    Here are some hypothetical (I hope) examples to show the dangers of this in the Open Source arena. While some of these might have been absurd a few years ago, with today's hyper-concern of usability, it wouldn't surprise me if they actually got implemented.

    "It's too much work changing file permissions by hand, so we need a way to automatically execute arbitrary files."

    "It's too much work remembering passwords, or remembering the master password for a password manager, so there needs to be a daemon running that will remember for us."

    "Messages in XYZ email client should be automatically rendered in HTML/CSS/Javascript."

    "The interface is too cluttered! Hide file name extensions!"

    Or my all time favorite...

    "Linux needs a InstallShield clone!"
  • Despite all the security flaws being found in software and all the fixes coming out constantly, the man in the street has no idea what we are talking about.

    A few years ago I was designing a radio network protocol for an electricity distribution client to control their switches. I said that I was going to encrypt the information, they said "Why?" After explaining the problems they simply replied that they had their own cell phone network for the transmissions, no one would break into it and they weren't i

Take everything in stride. Trample anyone who gets in your way.