Why Pen Testing Is Central to State's App Security

By , CSO |  Security, penetration testing

Maley: We have what's called CA2 -- Commonwealth Application Certification and Accreditation -- patterned after the Department of Defense's accreditation process for systems. We focus ours on Web-based applications. One of our challenges is that, like a lot of organizations, we have to be mindful that a lot of Web-based apps are the target of cross-site scripting and SQL injection attacks. Here in the Commonwealth we've had applications developed for years and years with no real underlying security process. So we have to constantly search for things that can be exploited and mitigate the problems before something happens. The bad guys are escalating their SQL injection attacks. We see these attacks constantly, in the thousands. Why are they doing that? Because there are so many vulnerabilities out there and they know they can eventually hit something.

Was CA2 designed to find the flaws left behind over time, or to catch flaws during the development of newer apps?

Maley: It injects security in at the very beginning of a project now. Whether a Web application is developed in-house or outsourced it now has to go through the CA2 process before going live. Part of that process is that the programs have to be pen tested.

Brian Chess at Fortify Software caused some controversy when he said pen testing was a dying art. You obviously disagree.

Maley: Source code analysis is also a critical part of our CA2 process. Early on in the certification process that's what we require and it helps us tremendously. But application flaws are not the only thing we look at with our pen testing. Both are critical to our risk mitigation and I don't see one replacing the other. They really go together. With PCI DSS, an important ingredient is vulnerability scanning. An automated pen testing tool allows me to go through and review vulnerability scans and see in real time what kinds of weaknesses can be exploited. I don't see that as something you can replace.

Describe what your pen testing schedule typically looks like and, if possible, give an example of when you were able to catch and stop an attack through the process.

Maley: We don't randomly go out and pen test things. We don't have that kind of time. We use it at a specific point in the CA2 process. We also use it as a specific piece of the compliance process. Meantime, if we suspect something like an SQL injection attack against a certain app, we go back and do pen testing. One innocuous Web page with job descriptions was subject to such attacks. Through pen testing we were able to extract info about every state employee and their dependents through that page. So we shut it down and did a thorough investigation. We keep all our log files and were able to pinpoint the point in time where attackers started trying to target the data. That's the kind of success we have had.

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