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Thought Leaders

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Jeremiah Grossman, Founder and CTO of WhiteHat Security

Stephen Northcutt - April 24th, 2009

Update April 23, 2009
Jeremiah and many other software security experts such as Gunnar Peterson are starting to focus on the need for comprehensive guidance. There have been some good efforts, but they are not comprehensive. Jeremiah says, "The problem CIOs and CSOs are facing is that the pseudo Web security standards available are completely inadequate for accomplishing the task." If you think about the evolution of security as a process, you have to point to ISO 27001/2 as a significant milestone, the point where we matured enough to establish a framework. Jeremiah is personally committed to the concept and expecting to be putting some of his own time and energy into it. You can be sure he will post his thoughts on his blog; by the way, I hope you caught his April 1, 2009 blogpost.

Jeremiah Grossman, founder and CTO of WhiteHat Security, has agreed to be interviewed for the security lab, and we certainly thank him for his time.

Thank you, it's my pleasure.

What can you share about the web app security market segment, growing, shrinking, becoming more sophisticated?

After about a decade, the Web application security market has finally come into its own as businesses have embraced its importance. Several distinct solutions have emerged to include vulnerability management providers (like WhiteHat), developer tools (scanners), Web application firewalls, and consultants to fill in the professional services gaps. Each segment solves a particular business problem and successful vendors are experiencing huge growth. Speaking for WhiteHat Security, we've been doubling or tripling our business each year for the last several years.

The market gets complicated for customers due to the tremendous volume of information available and confusing industry terminology, which is not always in strict agreement. Customers must navigate through conflicting marketing messages and decide for themselves which solutions they need when, and evaluate the relative capabilities of each. It's challenging because there are a lot of lemon solutions on the market making many misleading claims. That's why for a security vendor, having a good reputation is everything.

How would you describe the typical customer for WhiteHat Security?

Most of our customers are in the financial services, e-commerce, healthcare, or high-tech industries. Many of these are the largest and most visited websites in the world, which have regular code updates, and require a vulnerability assessment and management solution that can keep pace with development and production releases. What all of our customers also have in common is that they conduct a significant portion of their business - sometimes all of it - through their website, and view website security as vital. Most customers evaluated various vulnerability assessment options or had experimented with Web application vulnerability scanners prior to selecting the WhiteHat Sentinel Service.[1] For our typical customer, WhiteHat's Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model offers the best results and the best ROI.

Of course, many people associate you with "vulnerability clapping" from your time at Yahoo. So one more time for the record, can you explain what vulnerability clapping is and why it is so important for large organizations to understand?

That was a bit of a misquotation that I'd like to clarify--it's vulnerability "flapping" not "clapping". Vulnerability flapping, or a "flapper" is when a vulnerability opens and closes from one scan to the next for some unknown reason. Typically, what's happening is that the website is load balanced and one of the Web servers has a piece of vulnerable code while the others do not. This causes a lot of confusion, especially for the customer's security staff, because they were under the impression the systems are "mirrored". This is a good lesson for organizations because reviewing development code is not the same as assessing production websites. Vulnerability flapping is one example of a security issue that tends not to show up during development or staging, but can have devastating effects on a production site.

I read 6 Reasons Why Reviewing Development Code is Not the Same as Assessing Production Websites with interest.[2] We are seeing some pretty strongly held opinions on how to achieve a reasonable degree of assurance with a reasonable degree of investment. Knowing resources are limited, what guidance can you give organizations to achieve assurance without breaking the bank?

Anytime hardcore source code review and black box vulnerability assessment ideologists converse, spirited conversations take place. The debates are not necessarily about the value of a particular solution, but instead when they should be applied. For example, no one says that source code reviews are unimportant to website security. The process is helpful for spotting backdoors and various forms of unsafe coding practices during development, but remain costly in terms of time and money when websites change frequently. There are also many common and potentially devastating types of website vulnerabilities that occur outside the code. Conversely, I think black box vulnerability assessments provide a better measure of overall website security, but are unable to occur any earlier than the QA stage of the SDLC.

My advice for organizations is to find all their websites, rate their value to the business, and assign a responsible party. This process takes some time and patience, but is not at all expensive. Next, perform comprehensive and ongoing vulnerability assessments (my job) on all, if financially feasible, or at a minimum, the most important websites to the business. All solutions in this segment will cost some time and money, some having better ROI than others, but it's well worth the investment. The knowledge provided is essential to quickly mitigating high-risk issues and developing a long-term game plan for website security without wasting resources unnecessarily. Below are a couple of relevant blog postings that address this very issue.

Congratulations on your book, Cross Site Scripting Attacks: Xss Exploits and Defense. I think you have picked the hottest topic in information security right now. Can you tell us a bit about your experience writing the book and since it was a team of authors, what parts are pure Jeremiah Grossman?

Thank you. I think the timing turned out perfectly and judging from the reviews, people are really enjoying the read. We're really excited!

Prior to committing to co-authoring XSS Attacks, I held off writing any book (besides a couple forewards) for years and must have turned down 10 or more offers. Mostly because I knew how much work it was going to be and I really didn't want to put my name to any book just to say that I did. When this opportunity came up, there was nothing else like it. The topic was white hot, but what pushed me over the edge were the other authors (Seth Fogie, Robert "RSnake" Hansen, Anton Rager, Petko D. Petkov) already onboard. It was an all-star cast for the subject matter and I knew I'd regret not taking part. My content is sprinkled in many areas, but my biggest contributions are in the sections about the history of cross-site scripting, intranet hacking, history stealing, defacement, worms & viruses, and the solutions sections. I'll also say, writing a book or even co-authoring one is a still a huge amount of work!

Web security is getting to be a crowded market and the big boys are starting to come in with the acquisition of SPI Dynamics, what sets WhiteHat apart from your competition?

Actually I think the IBM and HP acquisitions of Watchfire and SPI Dynamics respectively, largely emptied out the main competitors in the vulnerability management market, specifically those offering stand-alone security scanners. The two top products are predicted to fold into larger development/QA product suites, rather than continuing on as a "security play". The vulnerability management market will be predominantly served by providers such as WhiteHat (SaaS), a myriad of small to large consulting shops, and late-comer network scan vendors such Qualys and ScanAlert (SaaS) who've recently started building out Web application scanning technology. What sets WhiteHat Security apart is that our customers have an easy time deploying and managing our service, appreciate the quality of results, and experience a lower TCO.

Since one of the things that sets WhiteHat Security apart from the rest of the companies is a strong professional services offering, can you share a bit about the recruiting/hiring/training process? It is getting better today, but a year ago, finding someone that knew web security was rare. How do you do this?

It's interesting. Since the company's inception we set out to solve the problem of high-volume, accurate website vulnerability assessment and management. In the very early days, while we were developing Sentinel 1.0, we accepted consulting engagements to pay the bills. Today we are where we set out to be - a technology-driven SaaS company. Our website vulnerability assessment and management service, WhiteHat Sentinel, heavily leverages a proprietary scanning platform, which is customer-controlled and expert managed. By that I mean WhiteHat's security engineers perform the necessary configuration, customization and vulnerability verification to complete the assessment process. It's our technology that enables us to do what we do, while customers experience a high quality and consistent vulnerability assessment service that's easy for them to deploy and manage.

Of course no matter how advanced our technology, we still need good, smart Web application security engineers on staff, but more importantly we need to be able to grow our own. WhiteHat has the perfect environment to do just that. For instance, if you look at the average consultancy, their webappsec experts might perform assessments on 20-40 websites per year. Our operations team works very closely managing assessments on more than 500 websites, usually conducted weekly. The experience they gain is deep and exceptionally fast. Plus, any new attack techniques and discoveries they develop along the way are placed back into the scan platform making improvements rapid and easily disseminated for the benefit of all WhiteHat Sentinel customers.

Thank you for that Jeremiah, the security market continues to change and new threats evolve. What are the hottest trends right now in attacking web applications, and what can we do to prevent them?

In Web application security, we're dealing with many of the same attacks in greater number that we've been familiar with for a while: XSS, SQL Injection, CSRF, Authentication/Authorization Bypass, Predictable Resource Location, Information Leakage, etc. What's evolving is the impact of a successful attack. For instance, XSS used to be all about cookie theft, and all but a few figured it was an insignificant issue. Now we're dealing with malware payloads such as Web worms, phishing with superbait, intranet hacking, trojans, keystroke recording and history stealing. The combo attacks are making things a lot worse.

This is a question I like to ask everyone in this space, one of the unique things about web applications is that one programming error can be referenced in hundreds of instances often all of them Internet reachable. What do you think the number one error is; the mistake a programmer can make to guarantee a spot in the hall of shame?

Does anyone give an answer other than "input validation"?

How about a new one: complacency. Most Web developers are well served by a healthy dose of paranoia. In many ways they are the first and last line of website defense. Web developers must be aware that not all their users will be polite, play by the rules, and use the software the way it was intended. When software is accessible to more than one billion people, a certain percentage are going to abuse the system any way they can. Without this touch of paranoia, complacency sets in and that's when vulnerabilities happen. The job of a security professional is to help developers understand what they need to be paranoid about and arm them with the proper set of tools/information.

What advice do you have for someone in the security field to stay current on web app security? And what is your favorite newsgroup, mailing list or other information source?

Read and keep reading. Evaluate and reevaluate your assumptions. Here are my favorite information sources.

You are a senior executive, you have a technical background, if you had a close friend, who was primarily technical, but was being offered a senior level position such as a CTO in a mid sized company, what is the primary piece of advice you would give him or her based on your own experience?

My advice to a close friend, or anyone else for that matter, would be exactly the same advice Steve Jobs would give. "You've got to find what you love." If you love your job, not much else will matter.

You have a boatload of CTO awards, share a bit of your kung fu with the rest of the industry.

Add value. Seriously that's the key. As an engineer one of the hardest lessons for me to learn was that hard does not equal valuable, and something that's valuable isn't necessarily hard. One has little to do with the other. Whatever you plan to build/research and offer for free/sale, its purpose must be to make a person's life better/easier/richer. It doesn't always have to be elaborate or complicated, just solve a problem that needed to be solved.

In a related question, I have followed Stephanie Fohn, your CEO's career since she was COO at TripWire and then the amazing job she did at SecurityFocus, so you have quite an impressive management team. How do so many smart people with such strongly held opinions manage to come to consensus when you have different takes on an issue?

Stephanie is great and a lot of WhiteHat's success has to do with her leadership from the top. What also helps tremendously is that we're not strangers to each other. Most of the management team has worked together in the past and were brought in to WhiteHat specifically because they were great at their job. So teamwork in the group probably comes a lot easier for us than at other startups. Where I think WhiteHat really excels organizationally is in fostering a culture such that people are placed in a position where they can succeed and make a real contribution.

What haven't I asked? This is your chance to grab the bully pulpit,[12] a platform from which to persuasively advocate an agenda, and drive home your Number One point that you are trying to make as a thought leader in the industry?

1) Asset Tracking - you can't secure what you can't control
2) Vulnerability Assessment - you can't secure what you can't measure
3) Development Frameworks - you can't mandate secure code, only help it
4) Web Application Firewalls - Because eight in 10 websites are already insecure
5) Business Liability - Because the cost of insecurity should be borne by those responsible for it

Jeremiah, we really want to thank you for your time and have one last question, can you tell us just a bit about yourself? What do you like to do when you are not in front of a computer?

You mean the remaining eight hours of the day? *smile* I spend "free time" with my two beautiful children (ages: 2 and 4) and lovely wife Llana (age: she'd kill me). We go to the park and the pool a lot, learn to play chess, and do other family type stuff. During the evenings I'm heavy into Brazilian Jiu Jitsu training and on the weekends I'm usually playing Aussie Rules Football. I also do my best to get back home to Maui, Hawaii as often as I can. Yah, life is hard, what can I say.

Thank you for having me!