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Thought Leaders

Table of Contents


Mike Weider, CTO for Watchfire

Stephen Northcutt - July 23rd, 2007


Mike Weider, the CTO for Watchfire has agreed to be interviewed for the security lab for this special series in web app security and we certainly thank him for his time.

Mike, can you tell us something about yourself, what do you like to do when you are not in front of a computer, Apple or Microsoft, favorite language to code it?

When I am not working I spend a lot of time with my family. I have three girls, ages two, four and six. Outside of that I like to bike, run and many other kinds of exercise. I grew up on side of a ski hill and definitely enjoy skiing and snowboarding in the winter.

You founded Watchfire, can you tell us just a bit about how it got started, tell us something about the early days, what was the main problem you were trying to solve.

I started Watchfire in 1996. Our initial focus was to improve the user experience of online sites. We noted that there were many quality and performance issues with Websites and the process for testing was very manual. I had an idea of creating an automated testing tool for Websites to help find and fix quality problems. Over the years we have expanded our offerings to also test for privacy, compliance and security. We got into the application security market through the acquisition of Sanctum and its AppScan technology: they were the pioneer and leader in the market and had very strong technology, and we had a very strong enterprise platform for testing large scale and complex sites. The fit was extremely complementary.

What can you share about the web app security market segment, growing, shrinking, becoming more sophisticated? How would you describe the typical customer for AppScan?


The application security market is growing fast. The growth is being driven from three core trends:
  • Hackers are increasingly targeting applications. The top two vulnerabilities on the net are now application security issues. This is very different than it was only two years ago.
  • Companies are now realizing they are exposed. Our estimates indicate that 80 percent of Websites are vulnerable. Developers are not security experts and have never been trained on security. If no one downstream is testing, you’re going to see a lot of security issues making it into production. This is exactly what is happening today.
  • Compliance is also forcing companies to move faster. PCI and other regulations are driving companies to improve their application security situation. Disclosure laws like 1386 and high profile breaches are also shining the spot light on this issue by forcing companies to tell their customers when hacks occur.

In a related question, I was just up on Fyodor’s web site, www.insecure.org, and I noticed the banner ad for AppScan 7.5, that is pretty cool. What else is Watchfire doing to reach customers in unique ways?


In addition to regular webinars, in the first quarter of 2007 we launched a series of complimentary and interactive "Hacking 101" security workshops held in cities across North America and Europe. These sessions provided attendees with first-hand insight into how hackers exploit the web application layer, and explored specific attacks including cross-site scripting and SQL injection. In North America alone, Watchfire had well over 1700 registered attendees which is evidence of the market demand for more education on this critical issue.

What is the biggest focus you have for development with AppScan? What cool new capabilities can we expect to have over the next year or so?


AppScan’s main value to customers is automating manual security testing. We are constantly looking for new tests to automate and improve the accuracy of the existing tests. For example, we recently added new tests to automate privilege escalation and testing of AJAX applications.

Another big focus for us this year is to help customers tackle the broader issue of application security across the SDLC. AppScan has traditionally been used by Security analysts to test applications prior to deployment. Now we’re seeing increasing interest in the usage of AppScan within QA and Development groups. In response we’ve integrated AppScan with the leading QA management platform. We have also created a new version of AppScan targeted at application developers. QA and Development don’t have the same security knowledge, so we’ve also invested in training programs to help educate them. We now have over nine hours of Computer Based Training on application security. The work that SANS is doing in this area will also be critical to adoption of application security in development.

On the cool side, we recently launched an exciting new program called the AppScan Extensions Framework (AXF). With AXF our customers and partners are now building add-ons and extensions to AppScan’s functionality and posting them for free download on the axf.watchfire.com site. We now have over 15 extensions that will do anything from logging a security defect in HP Quality Center to producing an executive summary powerpoint of AppScan results. All the source code for these extensions is also there for free. The response has been really positive and we expect customers to produce many more.

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?


The number one issue is clearly input validation. Neglecting to validate input in one location can lead to anything from cross site scripting, to sql injection, to buffer overflows, to remote command execution. It's certain to cause problems in one way or another.

Mike, 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?


It’s fun to talk about the hot new attacks; however, I would say the hottest trend is the acceleration of attacks on the same old vulnerabilities. Recent data from Honeypot projects has shown the vast majority of attacks are targeting very simple vulnerabilities like XSS and SQL Injection. What has increased is that hackers are now using automated scripts to scale their attacks to much higher levels. So many sites are still vulnerable to these attacks, there is no need to move to more sophisticated methods. New Web development technologies like AJAX create new security challenges. However, in most cases the challenges are new attack vectors to exploit the same XSS and SQLi vulnerabilities.

What we need to do to protect against this is to ensure that all applications deployed on the net have had some minimal level of testing prior to deployment. Ideally we would integrate security at all stages of the SDLC from design to deployment. Some organizations are there but many still are not. What we need to do is to “operationalize” security the same way we have quality and performance testing. Quality and performance testing is now a standard practice but this wasn’t always the case. We need to get to the same level with security.


I see you have an educational outreach with events scheduled across the country and Paris France as well, can you tell us a bit more about hacking 101? [2]

As I mentioned previously, we have had phenomenal response to our Hacking 101 workshop series. We’ve co-hosted these events with some key partners and these workshops were held in more than 24 cities in five countries including the United States, Canada, England, and France.

Targeted to IT security professionals in addition to QA and developers, these training sessions were designed to teach attendees first-hand the fundamentals of hacking - how to find web application vulnerabilities through a combination of manual and automated approaches, and what to do when a vulnerability has been identified. The half day workshop covers the importance of web application security; the most common web application attacks - how they occur and what can be done to prevent them; manual versus automated approaches for scanning and identifying web application vulnerabilities; and, finally, best practices for fixing vulnerabilities once they have been identified.

What advice do you have for someone in the security field to stay current on web app security, what is your favorite newsgroup, mailing list or other information source? I know you speak at events on a regular basis, where does a software developer go to get the inside scoop on application security?


Watchfire.com of course! We have a lot of great whitepapers and education material. Second best site is the OWASP.org site. There is a ton of great information on this site.

You are a CTO, 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?


As CTO you’re obviously going to spend time focusing on technology. My advice is to not lose sight of the market and the customers. Too often we get excited about technology for technologies sake and we lose sight of the customer problem we’re trying to address and where the market is moving. I would recommend spending a lot of time with customers to understand their needs and help guide and map your company’s technology strategy towards solving real problems for customers.

What haven’t I asked, this is your chance to grab the bully pulpit[3], 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?


My number one point has been mentioned above – we need to integrate security into the SDLC versus the current practice of bolting on security to the end of an existing process. We need to value security as much as we value functionality, quality, performance and other attributes we currently take for granted. Today I often hear of companies deploying applications with no security testing or having to push out applications into production with known problems because they don’t have time or resources to fix them. If security testing was valued and accounted for in the development process we wouldn’t be in this situation.

Mike, we appreciate your time and willingness to share your thoughts with the SANS readership community, thank you.


1. http://www.watchfire.com/news/cnn-nov03-tr.aspx
2. http://www.watchfire.com/hacking/default.aspx
3. http://www.c-span.org/guide/congress/glossary/bullypul.htm