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Chapter: Security in Computing : Program Security

Formal Methods Can Catch Difficult-to-See Problems

Formal methods are sometimes used to check various aspects of secure systems.

Sidebar 3-9: Formal Methods Can Catch Difficult-to-See Problems


Formal methods are sometimes used to check various aspects of secure systems. The notion "formal methods" means many things to many people, and many types of formal methods are proffered for use in software development. Each formal technique involves the use of mathematically precise specification and design notations. In its purest form, formal development is based on refinement and proof of correctness at each stage in the life cycle. But all formal methods are not created equal.


Pfleeger and Hatton [PFL97a] point out that, for some organizations, the changes in software development practices needed to support such techniques can be revolutionary. That is, there is not always a simple migration path from current practice to inclusion of formal methods, because the effective use of formal methods can require a radical change right at the beginning of the traditional software life cycle: how we capture and record customer requirements. Thus, the stakes in this area can be particularly high. For this reason, compelling evidence of the effectiveness of formal methods is highly desirable.


Gerhart et al. [GER94] point out that


There is no simple answer to the question: do formal methods pay off? Our cases provide a wealth of data but only scratch the surface of information available to address these questions. All cases involve so many interwoven factors that it is impossible to allocate payoff from formal methods versus other factors, such as quality of people or effects of other methodologies. Even where data was collected, it was difficult to interpret the results across the background of the organization and the various factors surrounding the application.


Naur [NAU93] reports that the use of formal notations does not lead inevitably to improving the quality of specifications, even when used by the most mathematically sophisticated minds. In his experiment the use of a formal notation often led to a greater number of defects, rather than fewer. Thus, we need careful analyses of the effects of formal methods to understand what contextual and methodological characteristics affect the end results.


However, anecdotal support for formal methods has grown, and practitioners have been more willing to use formal methods on projects where the software is safety critical. For example, McDermid [MCD93] asserts that "these mathematical approaches provide us with the best available approach to the development of high-integrity safety-critical systems." Formal methods are becoming used routinely to evaluate communication protocols and proposed security policies. Evidence from Heitmeyer's work [HEI01] at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory suggests that formal methods are becoming easier to use and more effective. Dill and Rushby [DIL96] report that use of formal methods to analyze correctness of hardware design "has become attractive because it has focused on reducing the cost and time required for validation … [T]here are some lessons and principles from hardware verification that can be transferred to the software world." And Pfleeger and Hatton report that an air traffic control system built with several types of formal methods resulted in software of very high quality. For these reasons, formal methods are being incorporated into standards and imposed on developers. For instance, the interim U.K. defense standard for such systems, DefStd 00-55, makes mandatory the use of formal methods.


However, more evaluation must be done. We must understand how formal methods contribute to quality. And we must decide how to choose among the many competing formal methods, which may not be equally effective in a given situation.

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