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[ # ] Who’s afraid of the big bad code?
January 14th, 2009 under Articles, Devel, InfoSec, Politics, rengolin

What would Bruce Schneier say about the magic list that the NSA is putting together with Microsoft and Symantec of the 25 biggest errors in code that normally lead to a security flaw.

Don’t get me wrong, putting out a list of bad practices is a fantastic job, that’s for sure. It makes programmers more aware of the dangers, and as the article says itself, newbies can learn from experience before getting into a new field.

But the way that (lay) people take it makes it so magical that the practical side of such list is greatly reduced.

Order and size of the list

I understand that the order must have some sense, but which? Is it ordered by number of attacks in the last 12 months? Or by the sum of all reported losses caused by them? Or by number of such errors found in common code (on those companies’ code, of course)? Or by any other subjective “importance” factor from a bunch of “Security Experts”?

Also, why 25? Why not 30? Who says that the 25th is so important to show up in the list and not the 26th?


We programmers know about most of them, know the problems they pose and normally how to fix them. We often want to fix them, but that normally requires some refactoring and now it’s time to implement those features that our client needs for the demo, right? We can think about that later… can we? Will we?

Than, NSA decides to make this a priority for the country and claim it as a national security problem. Big companies like fancy terms, and would strive to adopt any new standard that shows up in the market.

Then, comes down the VP of engineering and say:

“We need to make sure every programmer knows how to write code that is free of the top 25 errors.”

Done, he can put the GIF image from the NSA saying his company’s software is secure against all odds, according to the NSA and DHS.

Now, coders and technicians, tell me: Would any editor, IDE or compiler ever be able to spot those errors with 100% accuracy?

“Then we need to make sure every programming team has processes in place to find and fix these problems [in existing code] and has the tools needed to verify their code is as free of these errors,”

Of course not, but they will try, and Microsoft will put a beta on Visual C++ and other companies will tell their clients that their software is being tested with the new product and the clients will buy, after all, who are them to say anything about that matter?

Protect against who?

Now, after so much time and effort, 30+ companies and government departments working hard to come up with a (quite good) list of the most common errors that lead to security flaws for what?

“The real dedicated serial attacker will probably find a way in even if all these errors were removed. But a high school hacker with malicious intent – ankle-biters if you will – would be deterred from breaking in.”

WHAT?!?! All that to stop script-kids? For heavens’ sake, I thought they were serious on that… Well, maybe I expected too much from the NSA… again…

(Note: quotes from original article, ipsis litteris)

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