Applications weakened by third-party code

Twitter's recent vulnerability was caused by third-party code, a problem in the industry

The use of third-party code in applications represents a big security risk for companies, according to a study from security vendor Veracode.

Companies often use code libraries that have been developed from either open-source projects or outsourcing organizations that have been contracted to create applications, said Jason Steer, a solutions architect for Veracode, which specializes in scanning code for vulnerabilities.

Between 30 per cent to 70 per cent of the code in applications come from third parties, which fail to achieve an acceptable level of security up to 81 per cent of the time, according to the study. In general, third-party applications are less secure than internally developed ones on the first submission.

"This is a big problem for our customers," Steer said at the Gartner Security and Risk Management Summit in London on Wednesday.

The problem is exemplified by Twitter, which saw a cross-site scripting flaw exploited on its site on Tuesday. The third-party code enabled a JavaScript function called "onmouseover," Steer said. The command can trigger activity such as a pop-up box appearing, but could also be manipulated with the flaw to redirect a user to a malicious Web site.

The code libraries used by companies in applications are often "nested," meaning they have components developed by others. Once bundled into an application, the code can be difficult to test if it is not open source, Steer said.

This means that companies should be wary of code that hasn't been developed internally.

"Both internal and third-party components and applications must be subjected to the same level of security verification to ensure consistent security across the application portfolio," according to Veracode's report. "Procurement contracts for outsourced or commercial software vendors should insist upon the authority to perform independent security testing and specify minimum security acceptance criteria."

Veracode's latest study assessed the state of application security, drawing data from customers using its data center-based code scanning service, which performed a code-level analysis over the last six months for some 2,922 applications.

Veracode found its customers have been fixing vulnerabilities in their applications faster over the last six month than when it released its first study about a year ago.

Steer said companies are taking only about 16 days to fix problems in their code compared to more than 50 days previously. Third-party suppliers moved even faster.

"Most third-party assessed suppliers also remediated faster than applications on average, with three-quarters of all applications requiring only 11 days to achieve acceptable levels of security quality," Veracode's report said.

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