Identity, DevOps

Rethinking SDLC security and governance: A new paradigm with identity at the forefront

developer programming and coding technology.

In today's cybersecurity landscape, a glaring gap in the software development environment stands exposed: the overlooked security of identities. This critical issue, involving both human and machine identities, such as developers, service accounts, and applications, has been consistently overlooked, often overshadowed by more visible security measures. The result of this oversight is manifest in the breaches that have hit organizations, where attackers, having exploited over-provisioned identities that are granted far more access than necessary, cause significant damage.

Poorly governed identities have become a gateway for substantial incidents. High-profile breaches at companies like LastPass and Okta have illuminated the attackers' method: exploiting the identity attack vector to orchestrate some of the most notable breaches, using compromised accounts to potentially alter source code and extract valuable information. These events underscore a clear and present trend of identity theft through phishing or ransomware attacks, which then pave the way for attackers to infiltrate the software development lifecycle (SDLC), leading to the insertion of malicious code and the theft of data.

Despite the clear risks, organizations continue to fumble in securing and managing these identities, making it the riskiest yet most overlooked attack vector facing SDLC security and governance today. As we pivot to address this critical oversight, it's imperative to understand the role of identity within the SDLC. The “Inverted Pyramid" analogy is a useful conceptual framework that captures the essence of the old and new paradigms and how reorienting our approach can better protect against these insidious threats.

The inverted pyramid analogy: A paradigmatic shift

Reflecting on the established cybersecurity methods, one can draw parallels to the exhaustive task of guarding an endless library. This analogy underscores the traditional focus on protecting every line of code within the software development environment, comparable to a ceaseless journey due to the library's infinite expansion. At this metaphorical pyramid's base is the code, the broad foundational layer that has been the mainstay of security efforts.

Ascending from this base, developer tools, which on average number over 50 in an organization, serve as the organizational and management layer, structuring and overseeing the extensive compilation of code. These tools, essential in managing and automating the build pipeline, require meticulous configuration to mitigate the risk of security breaches that can arise from both intentional abuse and accidental misconfiguration.

Yet, this traditional pyramid erroneously positions the most critical element at its pinnacle: the identities, or the "librarians," who are the actual custodians of the code repositories. Despite being the most crucial area, the security of these identities — encompassing both human and machine — has often been neglected in favor of the more conspicuous (broader, more tangible) aspects of code and developer tool posture management.

To fully grasp the implications of this oversight, it is essential to examine the specific vulnerabilities that arise when identity security is not given its due diligence:

Excessive permissions: A staggering two-thirds of cyber-attacks are attributed to over-provisioned identities, highlighting a critical security flaw. Developer identities, along with machine identities from service accounts and applications, are frequently endowed with access rights that far exceed their operational needs. This excess, particularly prevalent as automation increases within the SDLC, paves the way for threat actors to exploit these privileges. Often, these service accounts receive administrative rights from the onset, without subsequent adjustments to follow the principle of least privilege, leaving a wide-open avenue for the introduction of malicious code.

Poor hygiene: Personal access tokens represent a significant but often overlooked security risk. These tokens remain active beyond the tenure of the individual to whom they were issued, primarily because developers, unlike other users, do not always rely on single sign-on for their activities. They depend on these tokens to interact with various tools in their workflow, and the tokens' validity often outlasts the developers' association with the company. This oversight leads to potential unauthorized access, with tokens becoming dormant liabilities rather than being promptly deactivated.

Risky behavior: Understanding the usage patterns of accounts within the SDLC is crucial for mitigating abuse and detecting anomalies. Deviations from established behavioral patterns can signal an insider threat or indicate that an identity has been compromised and is being used for malicious purposes. The scenario becomes particularly dangerous when administrative permissions, perhaps appropriately granted for a single tool, are exploited to gain access to multiple repositories, enabling privilege escalation and a host of subsequent security breaches.

From base to apex: Reordering priorities towards secure SDLC

To overcome the limitations of this traditional approach, a transformative approach to SDLC governance is required: the inverted pyramid strategy. This concept reimagines the traditional hierarchy of security priorities, placing the emphasis squarely on the apex (or pinnacle) — developer identities — rather than the base, which has traditionally focused on securing the vast expanse of code. By inverting this pyramid, organizations are effectively shifting the focus on securing developer identities as the bedrock of SDLC security and governance efforts.

This approach affirms that safeguarding the extensive codebase and developer tools is vital, but not comprehensive enough without integrating a robust identity security framework. Organizations need a multi-layered defense strategy that begins with developer identity governance, ensuring thorough SDLC protection from the start. By addressing the most critical risks at the outset, you can establish a resilient foundation for the security architecture that also encapsulates essential code and tool security measures.

This strategic vision is more than a call to action — it's a necessary evolution in a world where threats are becoming increasingly sophisticated. A comprehensive multi-layered defense approach that integrates developer identity governance with code scanning and developer tool posture management is a must to enhance the SDLC's resilience against the exponential rise in software supply chain threats. This paradigm shift is essential in championing a future where software development is always inherently Secure by Design.

Raj Mallempati

Raj Mallempati is co-founder & CEO of BlueFlag Security.

Get daily email updates

SC Media's daily must-read of the most current and pressing daily news

By clicking the Subscribe button below, you agree to SC Media Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy.