Seven Tips For Using Third-Party Libraries

libraryThere are many good reasons to use code written by others in your application.

This post describes some best practices to optimize your re-use experience.

Library Use Gone Bad

I recently discovered that a library we use for OpenID didn’t handle every situation properly. When I checked for an update, I found that the library is no longer maintained. So I found an alternative and tried to swap that new library in, only to discover that classes from the old library were used all over the place.

This little story shows that a lot can go wrong with using third-party libraries.

The remainder of this post will look at how to use libraries properly. I’m going to focus on open source projects, but most of the same considerations apply for commercial libraries.

1. Use Only Actively Maintained Libraries

Look at things like the date of the latest release, the number of developers contributing, and the sponsoring organizations.

2. Use Only Libraries With an Appropriate License

What’s appropriate for you obviously depends on your context. For instance, if you’re building and distributing a commercial, closed source application, you shouldn’t use any library that only comes with the GPL.

3. Limit the Amount of Code That Touches the Library

Use the Facade design pattern to wrap the library in your own interface. This has several advantages:

  • It allows you to easily replace the library with another, should the need arise
  • It documents what parts of the library you are actually using
  • It allows you to add functionality that the library should have provided but doesn’t, and do so in a logical place

4. Keep the Library Up-to-date

Many developers live by the rule “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. However, you may not notice some of the things that are broken. For instance, many libraries contain security vulnerabilities that are fixed in later versions. You won’t notice these problems until a hacker breaches your application.

5. Write Regression Tests For the Library

If you’re regularly going to update the library, as I suggest, then you’d better know whether they broke anything in a new release. So you need to write some tests that prove the functionality that you want to use from the library.

As a bonus, these tests double as documentation on how to use the library.

6. Know What Libraries You Use

You should always be able to tell what libraries you are using at
any given moment, as well as their versions and licenses. You just never know when someone from the security team is going to call you about a critical vulnerability in a specific version of a library, or when the legal department suddenly decides to forbid the use of a certain license.

7. Take Ownership of the Library

Your application provides functionality to its users. They don’t care whether you build that functionality yourself, or whether you use a library. Not should they. When there is a problem anywhere in your code, you need to be able to fix it.

So think about how you are going to do that for the libraries you plan on using. Are the developing organizations responsive to bug reports? Do you have access to the source? Are the developing organizations willing to apply your patches? Does the license permit modifying the code for private use?

So what have your experiences been with using third-party libraries? Please let me know in the comments.

Signing Java Code

In a previous post, we discussed how to secure mobile code.

One of the measures mentioned was signing code. This post explores how that works for Java programs.

Digital Signatures

The basis for digital signatures is cryptography, specifically, public key cryptography. We use a set of cryptographic keys: a private and a public key.

The private key is used to sign a file and must remain a secret. The public key is used to verify the signature that was generated with the private key. This is possible because of the special mathematical relationship between the keys.

Both the signature and the public key need to be transferred to the recipient.


In order to trust a file, one needs to verify the signature on that file. For this, one needs the public key that corresponds to the private key that was used to sign the file. So how can we trust the public key?

This is where certificates come in. A certificate contains a public key and the distinguished name that identifies the owner of that key.

The trust comes from the fact that the certificate is itself signed. So the certificate also contains a signature and the distinguished name of the signer.

When we control both ends of the communication, we can just provide both with the certificate and be done with it. This works well for mobile apps you write that connect to a server you control, for instance.

If you don’t control both ends, then we need an alternative. The distinguished name of the signer can be used to look up the signer’s certificate. With the public key from that certificate, the signature in the original certificate can be verified.

We can continue in this manner, creating a certificate chain, until we reach a signer that we explicitly trust. This is usually a well-established Certificate Authority (CA), like VeriSign or Thawte.


In Java, private keys and certificates are stored in a password-protected database called a keystore.

Each key/certificate combination is identified by a string known as the alias.

Code Signing Tools

Java comes with two tools for code signing: keytool and jarsigner.

Use the jarsigner program to sign jar files using certificates stored in a keystore.

Use the keytool program to create private keys and the corresponding public key certificates, to retrieve/store those from/to a keystore, and to manage the keystore.

The keytool program is not capable of creating a certificate signed by someone else. It can create a Certificate Signing Request, however, that you can send to a CA. It can also import the CA’s response into the keystore.

The alternative is to use tools like OpenSSL or BSAFE, which support such CA capabilities.

Code Signing Environment

Code signing should happen in a secure environment, since private keys are involved and those need to remain secret. If a private key falls into the wrong hands, a third party could sign their code with your key, tricking your customers into trusting that code.

This means that you probably don’t want to maintain the keystore on the build machine, since that machine is likely available to many people. A more secure approach is to introduce a dedicated signing server:

You should also use different signing certificates for development and production.


Certificates are valid for a limited time period only. Any files signed with a private key for which the public key certificate has expired, should no longer be trusted, since it may have been signed after the certificate expired.

We can alleviate this problem by timestamping the file. By adding a trusted timestamp to the file, we can trust it even after the signing certificate expires.

But then how do we trust the timestamp? Well, by signing it using a Time Stamping Authority, of course! The OpenSSL program can help you with that as well.

Beyond Code Signing

When you sign your code, you only prove that the code came from you. For a customer to be able to trust your code, it needs to be trustworthy. You probably want to set up a full-blown Security Development Lifecycle (SDL) to make sure that it is as much as possible.

Another thing to consider in this area is third-party code. Most software packages embed commercial and/or open source libraries. Ideally, those libraries are signed by their authors. But no matter what, you need to take ownership, since customers don’t care whether a vulnerability is found in code you wrote yourself or in a library you used.

Book review – Software Security: Building Security In

Dr. Gary McGraw is an authority on software security who has written many security books. This book, Software Security: Building Security In, is the third in a series.

While Exploiting Software: How to Break Code focuses on the black hat side of security, and Building Secure Software: How to Avoid Security Problems the Right Way focuses on the white hat side, this book brings the two perspectives together (see book cover on right).

Chapter 1, Defining a Discipline, explains the security problem that we have with software. It also introduces the three pillars of software security:

  1. Applied Risk Management
  2. Software Security Touchpoints
  3. Knowledge

Chapter 2, A Risk Management Framework, explains that security is all about risks and mitigating them. McGraw argues the need to embed this in an overall risk management framework to systematically identify, rank, track, understand, and mitigate security risks over time. The chapter also explains that security risks must always be placed into the larger business context. The chapter ends with a worked out example.

Chapter 3, Introduction to Software Security Touchpoints, starts the second part of the book, about the touchpoints. McGraw uses this term to denote software security best practices. The chapter presents a high level overview of the touchpoints and explains how both black and white hats must be involved to build secure software.

Chapter 4, Code Review with a Tool, introduces static code analysis with a specialized tool, like Fortify. A history of such tools is given, followed by a bit more detail about Fortify.

Chapter 5, Architectural Risk Analysis, shifts the focus from implementation bugs to design flaws, which account for about half of all security problems. Since design flaws can’t be found by a static code analysis tool, we need to perform a risk analysis based on architecture and design documents. McGraw argues that MicroSoft mistakenly calls this threat modeling, but he seems to have lost that battle.

Chapter 6, Software Penetration Testing, explains that functional testing focuses on what software is supposed to do, and how that is not enough to guarantee security. We also need to focus on what should not happen. McGraw argues that this “negative” testing should be informed by the architectural risk analysis (threat modeling) to be effective. The results of penetration testing should be fed back to the developers, so they can learn from their mistakes.

Chapter 7, Risk-Based Security Testing, explains that while black box penetration testing is helpful, we also need white box testing. Again, this testing should be driven by the architectural risk analysis (threat modeling). McGraw also scorns eXtreme Programming (XP). Personally, I feel that this is based on some misunderstandings about XP.

Chapter 8, Abuse Cases, explains that requirements should not only specify what should happen, in use cases, but what should not, in abuse cases. Abuse cases look at the software from the point of view of an attacker. Unfortunately, this chapter is a bit thin on how to go about writing them.

Chapter 9, Software Security Meets Security Operations, explains that developers and operations people should work closely together to improve security. We of course already knew this from the DevOps movement, but security adds some specific focal points. Some people have recently started talking about DevOpsSec. This chapter is a bit more modest, though, and talks mainly about how operations people can contribute to which parts of software development.

Chapter, 10, An Enterprise Software Security Program, starts the final part of the book. It explains how to introduce security into the software development lifecycle to create a Security Development Lifecycle (SDL).

Chapter 11, Knowledge for Software Security, explains the need for catalogs of security knowledge. Existing collections of security information, like CVE and CERT, focus on vulnerabilities and exploits, but we also need collections for principles, guidelines, rules, attack patterns, and historical risks.

Chapter 12, A Taxonomy of Coding Errors, introduces the 7 pernicious kingdoms of coding errors that can lead to vulnerabilities:

  1. Input Validations and Representation
  2. API Abuse
  3. Security Features
  4. Time and State
  5. Error Handling
  6. Code Quality
  7. Encapsulation

It also mentions the kingdom Environment, but doesn’t give it number 8, since it focuses on things outside the code. For each kingdom, the chapter lists a collection of so-called phyla, with more narrowly defined scope. For instance, the kingdom Time and State contains the phylum File Access Race Condition. This chapter concludes with a comparison with other collections of coding errors, like the 19 Deadly Sins of Software Security and the OWASP Top Ten.

Chapter 13, Annotated Bibliography and References, provides a list of must-read security books and other recommended reading.

The book ends with four appendices: Fortify Source Code Analysis Suite, Tutorial, ITS4 Rules, An Exercise in Risk Analysis: Smurfware, and Glossary. There is a trial version of Fortify included with the book.

All in all, this book provides a very good overview for software developers who want to learn about security. It doesn’t go into enough detail in some cases for you to be able to apply the described practices, but it does teach enough to know what to learn more about and it does tie everything together very nicely.

Software Development and Security

It seems that not many software developers are interested in security. One reason may be that security is a negative feature. Another could be that developers don’t see how security relates to their daily activities. Let’s look at a detailed example that sheds some light on this relation.

Example: Crashing Tetris

My employer, EMC, takes security seriously. Besides the annual security awareness training that every employee has to take, software developers are required to take additional security courses, so that they understand the Security Development Lifecycle. In one of those courses, security guru Hugh Thompson tells the following story.

While on an airplane, he found a Tetris game in the on-board entertainment system. The game showed the next blocks to drop in a preview pane. The game’s settings had up and down buttons to increase or decrease the number of preview blocks.

Using the up button, the number could only be increased to four. However, using the telephone key pad, Thompson could enter 5 and get it accepted.

No higher digits were accepted from the telephone, but now that the number was five, the up button on the screen happily increased the number further.

He increased the number all the way up to 127. The next time he pressed the up button, the screen went black. And so did the screen next to him. And everywhere else in the plane. Zero availability.

Exploits Use Vulnerabilities, Which Come From Bugs

How did this happen? The answer is simple: there were some bugs in the application that were abused in a systematic manner. In the security world, such a bug is referred to as a vulnerability, and the abuse of them to decrease security is known as an exploit.

There is nothing inherently “security related” about vulnerabilities. In the example, the first mistake was that the two interfaces each had their own logic for manipulating the model, a clear violation of DRY. The second was the off-by-one error in the telephone interface. Next, the logic for the up button only checked for the specific boundary value four, instead of for four and anything larger. The final mistake was a missing check for integer overflow. These four more or less innocent bugs combined to form a vulnerability that Thompson exploited.

Certain bugs are more likely to lead to vulnerabilities than others. Two notorious examples are Buffer Overflow and SQL Injection. Luckily, many of such bugs are easily prevented. Good tools and a little awareness on the side of the developer go a long way.

Conclusion: Less Bugs Means More Secure

If vulnerabilities come from bugs, then we need a relentless focus on preventing and eliminating bugs in order to make our applications more secure.

With that insight, we’re firmly back in the land of software development. Security isn’t the big scary monster we developers sometimes think it is.