Secure Code Reviews

Secure Code Reviews






Secure Code Reviews



Today, applications and software have become a crucial part of human lives especially when it comes to communication both socially and within corporate and business matters. This has resulted in exposure to a wide range of information from all over the globe, allowing people to access what was not accessible before. This has many benefits, but also comes with a few disadvantages. One of them is security issues that are increasingly becoming a threat to businesses. Access of information by the wrong party could cost a firm a lot of money and customers as well. Specifically, such issues have arisen at application levels, which make it necessary to verify that an application is securely implemented and potential vulnerabilities eliminated or mitigated (Wyk, 2003). This is where secure code review comes in, to ensure that security issues are identified.


Secure code reviews refer to specialized tasks that can be manual, as well as automate, used for reviewing the source code of an application, with the aim of identifying weaknesses and flaws that pose security related issues. Its main objective is fixing errors that are overlooked in the development phase, which could pose a problem to its functionality. This helps in improving the quality and security of the software (OWASP Foundation, 2008). However, it is important to recognize that it does not aim to identify every issue that arises in the application. Rather, it seeks to offer an insight over the problems that could exist, which is important for developers of the application or software, which is necessary for making the source code less vulnerable to security threats (INFOSEC Institute, 2012).

Its main goal is identifying specific security issues in a code that a malicious software or user could exploit to gain access to confidential information (MITRE Corporation, 2014). The process can be performed early during the development stage to identify potential pieces of codes that could pose vulnerability in the application upon completion (Wyk, 2003). A secure code review can be performed using two types of techniques that include automated tool based, also known as black box and manual, also known as white box.

Secure Code Review Focus Areas

A secure code review focuses on seven specific areas. Any weakness in one of the areas poses vulnerability of the application to malicious users, which increases the likelihoods of attacks. The review should ensure that each of the areas is secure before starting production. These areas include authentication, authorization, error handling, session management, data validation, logging and encryption (OWASP Foundation, 2008). There are various flaws that can affect each of these focus areas. For instance, errors in the handling of passwords can affect authentication of information while those relating to the kind of information in a message affect handling of errors. Errors occurring in regular expressions often affect validation of data. During the secure code reviewing, all these areas and others identified as vulnerable should be tested (MITRE Corporation, 2014).

Manual (White Box) Technique

As aforementioned, there are two ways of conducting a secure code review. Manual technique, also known as White Box is one of them, which involves reading of a source code from line to line with the aim of identifying potential weaknesses posing a threat. It is quite tedious and requires a lot of skill to perform, experience, patience, as well as persistence. However, flaws identified from this method can greatly enhance security of an organization. A manual secure code review involves three phases, which include an interview, code review and a report of the findings (MITRE Corporation, 2014).


The first phase of a manual secure code review is conducting an interview with the application developer in order to understand what it is meant before starting on the write up (MITRE Corporation, 2014). After an understanding of the main function and capability of the application, the reviewer can be in a position to gain insight on the approach used by the developer in the focus areas. This phase allows the reviewer to have a better understanding of what to look for during the review since he or she is aware of what the application is intended.

Code Review

After the interview, the reviewer can now work independently to review the whole software. The review can be done by a whole team to make it simpler considering the amount of work and skills required (MITRE Corporation, 2014). Each individual in a team should review the entire application in order to identify issues that another reviewer may have not recognized. Using this approach optimizes on the skills of all the team members, which in often cases contributes to different findings that are relevant at each focus area. This also ensures that the results are verified, especially when an issue is identified by several reviewers.

Reporting of Results

After completing the review, the analysts involved should meet to compare and verify their results. Each reviewer should look at other results in order to discuss them as well as find out why some appeared in some reviewers results and not all. This further allows the reviewers to finding out whether the results are varied (MITRE Corporation, 2014). During this phase, the analysts should not comment on a safe level of risk. Rather, they should report all the relevant findings.

Automated Tool based Review (Black Box)

In this method, the analysts used tools for scanning the code to report any flaws that could arise. An automated technique uses specialized software for reading the lines. It is meant to solve some of the problems associated with manual review, which include time consumption, high level of expertise, potential for human errors, as well as its tedious nature. However, effective tools are quite expensive to acquire. In addition, an automated review relies on identifying issues within its program (MITRE Corporation, 2014). When there is an issue not included in its program, it becomes hard to detect. As such, the technology involved in automated reviews identifies a limited number of flaws and does not reveal all potential threats. Although using several tools for review can increase the chances of uncovering all issues, it may not reveal all. Additionally, some of the automated tools tend to give positive results that are false. To this regard, human intervention is required to mitigate the false positive results generated by the automation tools (INFOSEC Institute, 2012).


As indicated in the background section, people have become increasingly reliant on software and applications for daily activities. However, this has come at a threat where malicious users break into the security of such software to access confidential information that has the potential to bring down a company. In response, secure code review seek to assess the vulnerability of such application to malicious users during the development phase. This is important to ensure that user of application can be safe from security attacks. Of the two methods used in reviewing a code, manual and automated, none is absolute. Therefore, analysts and reviewers should use both to complement each other. Manual reviewing, despite being tedious and time consuming, it allows experts to identify all the possible results. On the other hand, automation, despite being expensive, it can save time and allow reviewers quickly to identify some of the flaws that exist in an application.




INFOSEC Institute. (2012). Secure Code Review: A Practical Approach. Retrieved from

MITRE Corporation. (2014). Secure Code Review. Retrieved from

OWASP Foundation. (2008). OWASP Code Review Guide. Retrieved from

Whitman, M. & Mattord, H. (2013). Management of Information Security. New York, N.Y: Cengage Learning.

Wyk, K.R.V. (2003). Secure Coding: Principles and Practices. California, CA: O’Reilly Media, Inc

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