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Chapter: Security in Computing : Program Security

Good Design and Prediction

Designers should try to anticipate faults and handle them in ways that minimize disruption and maximize safety and security. Ideally, we want our system to be fault free.

Good Design


We saw earlier in this chapter that modularity, information hiding, and encapsulation are characteristics of good design. Several design-related process activities are particularly helpful in building secure software:


  using a philosophy of fault tolerance


  having a consistent policy for handling failures


  capturing the design rationale and history


  using design patterns


We describe each of these activities in turn.


Designers should try to anticipate faults and handle them in ways that minimize disruption and maximize safety and security. Ideally, we want our system to be fault free. But in reality, we must assume that the system will fail, and we make sure that unexpected failure does not bring the system down, destroy data, or destroy life. For example, rather than waiting for the system to fail (called passive fault detection), we might construct the system so that it reacts in an acceptable way to a failure's occurrence. Active fault detection could be practiced by, for instance, adopting a philosophy of mutual suspicion. Instead of assuming that data passed from other systems or components are correct, we can always check that the data are within bounds and of the right type or format. We can also use redundancy, comparing the results of two or more processes to see that they agree, before we use their result in a task.


If correcting a fault is too risky, inconvenient, or expensive, we can choose instead to practice fault tolerance: isolating the damage caused by the fault and minimizing disruption to users. Although fault tolerance is not always thought of as a security technique, it supports the idea, discussed in Chapter 8, that our security policy allows us to choose to mitigate the effects of a security problem instead of preventing it. For example, rather than install expensive security controls, we may choose to accept the risk that important data may be corrupted. If in fact a security fault destroys important data, we may decide to isolate the damaged data set and automatically revert to a backup data set so that users can continue to perform system functions.


  More generally, we can design or code defensively, just as we drive defensively, by constructing a consistent policy for handling failures. Typically, failures include failing to provide a service


  providing the wrong service or data


  corrupting data


We can build into the design a particular way of handling each problem, selecting from one of three ways:


           Retrying: restoring the system to its previous state and performing the service again, using a different strategy


           Correcting: restoring the system to its previous state, correcting some system characteristic, and performing the service again, using the same strategy


           Reporting: restoring the system to its previous state, reporting the problem to an error-handling component, and not providing the service again


This consistency of design helps us check for security vulnerabilities; we look for instances that are different from the standard approach.


Design rationales and history tell us the reasons the system is built one way instead of another. Such information helps us as the system evolves, so we can integrate the design of our security functions without compromising the integrity of the system's overall design.


Moreover, the design history enables us to look for patterns, noting what designs work best in which situations. For example, we can reuse patterns that have been successful in preventing buffer overflows, in ensuring data integrity, or in implementing user password checks.



Among the many kinds of prediction we do during software development, we try to predict the risks involved in building and using the system. As we see in depth in Chapter 8, we must postulate which unwelcome events might occur and then make plans to avoid them or at least mitigate their effects. Risk prediction and management are especially important for security, where we are always dealing with unwanted events that have negative consequences. Our predictions help us decide which controls to use and how many. For example, if we think the risk of a particular security breach is small, we may not want to invest a large amount of money, time, or effort in installing sophisticated controls. Or we may use the likely risk impact to justify using several controls at once, a technique called "defense in depth."


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