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Chapter: Security in Computing : Program Security

Peer Reviews

We turn next to the process of developing software. Certain practices and techniques can assist us in finding real and potential security flaws (as well as other faults) and fixing them before we turn the system over to the users.

Peer Reviews


We turn next to the process of developing software. Certain practices and techniques can assist us in finding real and potential security flaws (as well as other faults) and fixing them before we turn the system over to the users. Pfleeger et al.  recommend several key techniques for building what they call "solid software":


·      peer reviews


·      hazard analysis


·      testing


·      good design


·      prediction


·      static analysis


·      configuration management


·      analysis of mistakes


Here, we look at each practice briefly, and we describe its relevance to security controls. We begin with peer reviews.


You have probably been doing some form of review for as many years as you have been writing code: desk-checking your work or asking a colleague to look over a routine to ferret out any problems. Today, a software review is associated with several formal process steps to make it more effective, and we review any artifact of the development process, not just code. But the essence of a review remains the same: sharing a product with colleagues able to comment about its correctness. There are careful distinctions among three types of peer reviews:


  Review: The artifact is presented informally to a team of reviewers; the goal is consensus and buy-in before development proceeds further.


  Walk-through: The artifact is presented to the team by its creator, who leads and controls the discussion. Here, education is the goal, and the focus is on learning about a single document.


  Inspection: This more formal process is a detailed analysis in which the artifact is checked against a prepared list of concerns. The creator does not lead the discussion, and the fault identification and correction are often controlled by statistical measurements.


A wise engineer who finds a fault can deal with it in at least three ways:


·    by learning how, when, and why errors occur


·    by taking action to prevent mistakes


·    by scrutinizing products to find the instances and effects of errors that were missed


Peer reviews address this problem directly. Unfortunately, many organizations give only lip service to peer review, and reviews are still not part of mainstream software engineering activities.


But there are compelling reasons to do reviews. An overwhelming amount of evidence suggests that various types of peer review in software engineering can be extraordinarily effective. For example, early studies at Hewlett-Packard in the 1980s revealed that those developers performing peer review on their projects enjoyed a significant advantage over those relying only on traditional dynamic testing techniques, whether black box or white box. Figure 3 -19 compares the fault discovery rate (that is, faults discovered per hour) among white-box testing, black-box testing, inspections, and software execution. It is clear that inspections discovered far more faults in the same period of time than other alternatives. This result is particularly compelling for large, secure systems, where live running for fault discovery may not be an option.


Researchers and practitioners have repeatedly shown the effectiveness of reviews. For instance, Jones  summarized the data in his large repository of project information to paint a picture of how reviews and inspections find faults relative to other discovery activities. Because products vary so wildly by size, Table 3-6 presents the fault discovery rates relative to the number of thousands of lines of code in the delivered product.

The inspection process involves several important steps: planning, individual preparation, a logging meeting, rework, and reinspection. Details about how to perform reviews and inspections can be found in software engineering books such as [PFL01] and [PFL06a].


During the review process, someone should keep careful track of what each reviewer discovers and how quickly he or she discovers it. This log suggests not only whether particular reviewers need training but also whether certain kinds of faults are harder to find than others. Additionally, a root cause analysis for each fault found may reveal that the fault could have been discovered earlier in the process. For example, a requirements fault that surfaces during a code review should probably have been found during a requirements review. If there are no requirements reviews, you can start performing them. If there are requirements reviews, you can examine why this fault was missed and then improve the requirements review process.


The fault log can also be used to build a checklist of items to be sought in future reviews. The review team can use the checklist as a basis for questioning what can go wrong and where. In particular, the checklist can remind the team of security breaches, such as unchecked buffer overflows, that should be caught and fixed before the system is placed in the field. A rigorous design or code review can locate trapdoors, Trojan horses, salami attacks, worms, viruses, and other program flaws. A crafty programmer can conceal some of these flaws, but the chance of discovery rises when competent programmers review the design and code, especially when the components are small and encapsulated. Management should use demanding reviews throughout development to ensure the ultimate security of the programs.

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