Should the Government Stop Outsourcing Code Development?

By Bruce Schneier
Information Security
March 2010

This essay appeared as the second half of a point/counterpoint with Marcus Ranum. Marcus's half is here.

French translation

Information technology is increasingly everywhere, and it's the same technologies everywhere. The same operating systems are used in corporate and government computers. The same software controls critical infrastructure and home shopping. The same networking technologies are used in every country. The same digital infrastructure underpins the small and the large, the important and the trivial, the local and the global; the same vendors, the same standards, the same protocols, the same applications.

With all of this sameness, you'd think these technologies would be designed to the highest security standard, but they're not. They're designed to the lowest or, at best, somewhere in the middle. They're designed sloppily, in an ad hoc manner, with efficiency in mind. Security is a requirement, more or less, but it's a secondary priority. It's far less important than functionality, and security is what gets compromised when schedules get tight.

Should the government -- ours, someone else's? -- stop outsourcing code development? That's the wrong question to ask. Code isn't magically more secure when it's written by someone who receives a government paycheck than when it's written by someone who receives a corporate paycheck. It's not magically less secure when it's written by someone who speaks a foreign language, or is paid by the hour instead of by salary. Writing all your code in-house isn't even a viable option anymore; we're all stuck with software written by who-knows-whom in who-knows-which-country. And we need to figure out how to get security from that.

The traditional solution has been defense in depth: layering one mediocre security measure on top of another mediocre security measure. So we have the security embedded in our operating system and applications software, the security embedded in our networking protocols, and our additional security products such as antivirus and firewalls. We hope that whatever security flaws -- either found and exploited, or deliberately inserted -- there are in one layer are counteracted by the security in another layer, and that when they're not, we can patch our systems quickly enough to avoid serious long-term damage. That is a lousy solution when you think about it, but we've been more-or-less managing with it so far.

Bringing all software -- and hardware, I suppose -- development in-house under some misconception that proximity equals security is not a better solution. What we need is to improve the software development process, so we can have some assurance that our software is secure -- regardless of what coder, employed by what company, and living in what country, writes it. The key word here is "assurance."

Assurance is less about developing new security techniques than about using the ones we already have. It's all the things described in books on secure coding practices. It's what Microsoft is trying to do with its Security Development Lifecycle. It's the Department of Homeland Security's Build Security In program. It's what every aircraft manufacturer goes through before it fields a piece of avionics software. It's what the NSA demands before it purchases a piece of security equipment. As an industry, we know how to provide security assurance in software and systems. But most of the time, we don't care; commercial software, as insecure as it is, is good enough for most purposes.

Assurance is expensive, in terms of money and time, for both the process and the documentation. But the NSA needs assurance for critical military systems and Boeing needs it for its avionics. And the government needs it more and more: for voting machines, for databases entrusted with our personal information, for electronic passports, for communications systems, for the computers and systems controlling our critical infrastructure. Assurance requirements should be more common in government IT contracts.

The software used to run our critical infrastructure -- government, corporate, everything -- isn't very secure, and there's no hope of fixing it anytime soon. Assurance is really our only option to improve this, but it's expensive and the market doesn't care. Government has to step in and spend the money where its requirements demand it, and then we'll all benefit when we buy the same software.

earlier essay: Spy Cameras Won't Make Us Safer
later essay: Google And Facebook's Privacy Illusion
categories: Computer and Information Security, National Security Policy
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Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

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