Behind the The OWASP Top 10 2017 RC1

The OWASP Top 10 has become web app critical infrastructure but do people understand how it is produced?

Josh Grossman
Apr 24, 2017 · 7 min read

The power of OWASP

OWASP (The Open Web Application Security Project) was started in 2001 and describes itself as a:

“…worldwide not-for-profit charitable organization focused on improving the security of software”

The project has been enormously successful in reputation terms and is now considered the primary source of knowledge and truth when it comes to Web Application security.

In my job as an IT Security Consultant, I see many examples of companies relying on OWASP and the OWASP Top 10 Web Application Security Risks (hereafter “the OWASP Top 10”) and even considering the OWASP Top 10 as a de facto standard.

I have seen the following real life examples of this (without discussing whether each company is making correct use of the terminology):

  • Companies engaging with a software supplier will require them to have a secure development life-cycle which complies with OWASP guidelines.
  • Companies want us to provide (potentially based on own their client requirements) secure development training which covers the OWASP Top 10.
  • Companies expect that when we provide them with Application Security testing services, we follow a recognised methodology such as that set out by OWASP
  • Companies require us to provide an Application Security testing report which maps our findings to the OWASP Top 10. (We don’t like doing this as clearly the OWASP Top 10 cannot cover all types of findings)
  • Companies want us to provide just a “quick test” which “just covers the OWASP Top 10”. (We don’t do this!)
  • Companies want us to provide them with a “certification” that their application “complies” with the OWASP Top 10. (Good lord, no!)

The OWASP reality

The fact is that there are a large number of very high quality products and resources from OWASP (my personal favourites being OWASP ZAP, the OWASP Testing Guide and OWASP Juice Shop.

However, the quality of OWASP resources will generally be based on how much effort its unpaid volunteers are able or willing to put in and how much assistance they receive. For example, the OWASP ESAPI (Enterprise Security API) project was at one time a flagship project but was “demoted”, an action which its Java project owner agreed with. Its wiki page now recommends considering other alternatives before considering ESAPI.

To paraphrase the blog post above, not enough people were willing/able to spend time developing/maintaining it.

I don’t think that the ESAPI example should be considered to detract from the overall benefits which OWASP brings to the community but I think that people do not necessarily understand the relatively narrow base on which OWASP rests and the reliance on certain key people.

The OWASP Top 10 itself is considered a Flagship project and justifiably so given its success over the last 15 years. However…

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Appearance of independence

Early in my professional life, I worked at a Big 4 accountancy firm where the idea of “independence” was drummed into me. In the Big 4 context, this is relevant for “Auditor Independence” where a Financial Auditor firm and its staff must demonstrate that they are able to perform a completely unbiased review of a company’s financial reporting without being exposed to external pressures which prevent it from being impartial such as a financial interest or inducement.

We were told that a Financial Auditor must both “be independent” and “be seen to be independent”. This second definition effectively means that even something that just looks like it would threaten independence, even if it does not, should be considered as a risk and avoided as carefully as an actual independence risk.

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The OWASP Top 10 RC1 — Appearing independent

A Release Candidate of the OWASP Top 10 2017 was released a few weeks ago. Many people with more experience than I have debated both the technical merits of the latest release candidate and also examined the underlying data on which it was based.

However, I want to highlight a key point. The new items in the list are A7 — Insufficient Attack Protection and A10 — Underprotected APIs. Specifically about A7, the 2017 introduction says:

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I don’t want to get into the merits of this new item but the analysis which I noted above highlights that there were three companies who suggested an idea similar to the new A7 risk, “Network Test Labs Inc.”, “Shape Security” and “Contrast Security”.

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Shape Security are a vendor who make anti-automation software.

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The vulnerability data which they have provided for the OWASP Top 10 relates to anti-automation and nothing else. They have recommended one additional item for the OWASP Top 10 and that is the problem which they can solve (h/t to Andrew Kalat at the Defensive Security Podcast).

Similarly, Network Test Labs also only provided vulnerability data in the anti-automation category and no other. They have performed some very limited research to support this:

We chose 3 US companies that had many users (as evidenced by their Alexa ratings) and were sizeable ($1B+ revenue) along with 2 other large US companies. We used a simple Selenium test to login to a website with 5 sets of credentials, 4 fake and 1 real. On 3 of the websites we tested, all 5 login attempts were possible, including the real set of credentials.

Finally, one of Contrast Security’s key products is a RASP (Runtime Application Self Protection) solution:

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The new OWASP Top 10 2017 RC draft specifically name-drops “RASP” as a possible way of addressing the new A7 Insufficient Attack Protection risk. (Page 14)

Additionally, Contrast Security’s CTO and co-founder is Jeff Williams who is also the OWASP Top 10 Project Creator and co-author. It is important to note however that Jeff does have an impressive history in OWASP And AppSec in general.

Contrast Security was also the only contributor to suggest the other new risk which was added “A10 — Underprotected APIs”.

Having the​ only two new risks coming from one company with such a close tie to the OWASP Top 10 does not have the appearance of independence. Whilst, there is no attempt to disclose or highlight this connection in the OWASP Top 10 material, the company itself is already using the new Top 10 (which is technically still only a release candidate) in its marketing.

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Final Thoughts

The OWASP Top 10 project clearly provides its raw data sources but as the nVisium blog referenced above notes, the process between the raw data and the final Top 10 is not clear.

Additionally the Top 10 document states:

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In my opinion, the process by which the new OWASP Top 10 release candidate has been produced does not have the appearance of independence and it is not currently clear whether it can demonstrate actual independence due to the missing link between the data and the end result.

On the other hand, as I noted above OWASP is entirely dependent on volunteers who are prepared to put time and effort into the its projects and therefore it can only work with what it has.

I think the response to this has to be three-fold.

  1. In the short term, I think the OWASP Top 10 project has to more clearly articulate its limitations. I would like to think that if the issues I have set out above were communicated correctly to companies and policy writers, they would understand the limitations and we would see less use of the OWASP Top 10 as a de facto standard. Companies should be using the more comprehensive Testing Guide and the ASVS (Application Security Verification Standard) as a starting point, potentially cherry picking the areas which will be most relevant to them.
  2. Perhaps the OWASP Top 10 Web Application Security Risks needs to be a data/risk driven view of the key issues which are being seen in the wild with more frequent updates but less focus on preparing a detailed and complex document. The focus should be on an ordered list of specific issues rather than trying to compress lots of issues into a top 10 list. The OWASP Top 10 Proactive Security controls which is a really useful and practical document for developers should be based on the this list of top issues (but not one-to-one) and provide actual hands-on ways to address security the most common security issues from the original list.
  3. Finally, the industry needs to be more involved in contributing to efforts like these. Only 11 companies contributed the vast majority of the data for the OWASP Top 10. I will certainly be encouraging my employer to start collecting the data required to submit and I think it is important that others do as well.

OWASP and its volunteers have worked hard to build this brand and reputation and it is our responsibility to help maintain and develop this.

Update: In a subsequent post, James Kettle pointed out that a similar issue involving Contrast Security has occurred in the past.

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