Secure coding: What is it, and why should you care about it?

Ruheni Mathenge Last updated: January 9, 2023 Read time: 10 minutes Disclosure

Every security breach begins with a software vulnerability. So the first line of defense against hackers is to write code without such weaknesses.

Sneak peek at secure coding and its importance today

Security vulnerabilities are painfully frequent in almost all types of software. This affects everybody’s security and ability to perform. This is why learning about certain code practices is essential in the current software development world.

The so-called zero-day exploits (security vulnerabilities found in the brand new software) attest to how fragile software can be. Programming code is the blueprint of any piece of software; the DNA gives it life. So what happens if your code has a vulnerability? A single line of vulnerable code will turn the whole program into a security liability.

If you peruse the tech headlines of the last twelve months, you’ll see just how frequent it is for fragile pieces of code to become the focus of an exploit by unauthorized users. Let’s face it, it happens all the time, and the press loves to cover it.

And this isn’t a problem pestering the more petite guys in the software business. The digital universe knows nobody bigger than Google and Apple. Both had to report vulnerabilities in their respective operating systems. Even the pioneering Red Hat, now an IBM subsidiary that provides a Linux distro for commercial clients, had to report a vulnerability within its Linux Enterprise version, which was being exploited–Linux exploits are rare, so it was more important news.

Here’s the thing about security: adequate security is not about applying patches. It’s about adopting an integrated approach in which security priorities are hard-wired to every step of the process from the very beginning. Consequently, having secure software starts at the early stages when the initial code is being written. Even at that time, the code writers need to have security in mind and ensure that the final product will be secure.

In other words: security starts with the source code. To understand this, let’s explore in further detail the concept of secure coding, its relevance, and how to get it right.

What are the best secure coding practices? Quick list

There are whole books written to answer this question alone, but you should start by ensuring that your code delivers on the following regards:

  • Input validation
  • Access control
  • Authentication and password management
  • Threat modeling
  • Data protection
  • Cryptographic practices
  • Error logging

Secure coding: What is it? Why does it matter?

We start with the basics. Code writing or computer programming is the design and construction of executable programs in a language that your computer can interpret. A programmer engaged in writing code must keep several factors in mind, such as the application’s architecture, code optimization, efficiency, and, most importantly for us, the code’s security and safety.

Secure removes some of the friction in the process of weeding out vulnerabilities. Developers and code writers can follow a set of practices and guidelines to ensure code security, known as secure coding standards.

Adopting certain coding standards matters because it removes commonly exploited zero-day vulnerabilities, thus precluding future cyberattacks. It even helps the company’s bottom line. Let’s not forget that exploits cost money. The longer they take to fix, the more expensive they become. So having a safe piece of code from the start can reduce costs considerably.

Writing safe code is essential. That should go without saying. And yet, vulnerable software remains the rule rather than the exception. According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), over the last three years, more than 40,000 software vulnerabilities have been. And these are only the ones that got reported.

And all that begs the following question.

How do you write code securely?

Secure coding
(Alamy)

There’s plenty of literature about the best coding practices regarding security. No matter if you’re looking for secure web or app development. For example, take The Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP). This project has published some guidelines that can help those programmers who want’ to avoid the most frequent security pitfalls. Or consider SEI CERT, which has a secure coding standard that consists of ten points to incorporate into your programming philosophy to enhance an application’s security.

So you don’t have the time to read everything in detail through those two websites? That’s fine, and we did already. We’ve prepared a security digest for programmers using both sources right below.

Data input validation

Injection attacks, buffer overflows, and cross-site scripting are essential sources of cybersecurity threats. They happen because the application doesn’t correctly validate the input, so it admits something that can harm the system. Therefore, the code writer needs to ensure security practices so that all the input always comes from trusted sources or consists of the proper information type. If using untrusted sources is unavoidable, a verification process needs enforcement within the software.