Shifting Left: How DevSecOps Strengthens Agency Security and Risk Management

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The modern approach to building software ensures agencies integrate security from the start and offers them the flexibility to quickly respond to vulnerabilities.

It’s an all-too-common headache in the software development process: A shiny new application meticulously coded and tested is almost ready to move into production before cybersecurity analysts brought in as a final step in the process suddenly spot a critical security flaw that went unnoticed earlier, snagging the big awaited rollout. 

Or take an even worse scenario: A vulnerability is discovered on a live app that takes months to repair because of inadequate processes for deploying patches and a lack of developer know-how in dissecting and correcting vulnerabilities. In such a scenario, the only option may be to pull the plug on the system entirely. 

Organizations of all sizes face challenges building secure software — and rapidly responding to threats when they materialize. But a modern approach to building software, DevSecOps allows organizations to proactively integrate security into the early stages of the development process, ensuring not only more secure software to start with but also that organizations are nimble enough to respond to vulnerabilities once detected. 

Developing more secure applications — and responding to and fixing critical flaws when found — has never been more necessary as the future of federal work migrates toward a plethora of mobile devices and employees become more distributed. Even before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of remote work was on track to transform the federal workforce. But these technological developments that help spur innovation also increase the attack surface that must be defended. 

“We now live in this very hybrid, heterogeneous world,” says Susie Adams, chief technology officer with Microsoft Federal. “Managing all these assets that live anywhere, and data that lives anywhere is difficult. If you're going to write apps that use and store data anywhere, then you're going to need to integrate security and make sure testing and agility are a part of that development platform, too.” 

Shifting Left

If building software is akin to solving a mathematical equation, the DevSecOps approach emphasizes integrating security earlier in the process — the so-called “shift left” mentality.  

Adams, who has been with Microsoft for over two decades, began her IT career as a developer when, in the early days, security was often seen as a bolt-on. 

“Security was almost always some type of afterthought, specifically in the development process,” she says.

Now, with a DevSecOps approach, security specialists are integral to the development team through the entire software development lifecycle and maintenance and upgrades. 

“What this is doing is forcing developers to understand risks and to work side-by-side with their security counterparts to make sure that they're putting in place the right automation and gathering the right telemetry to be able to know that something bad is happening and act quickly on it,” Adams says. “That's a big change.”

Rapid Response

Moreover, because security was often bolted on after the code was already written, it traditionally took agencies months to plug vulnerabilities even when discovered. 

With the DevSecOps approach, security considerations are continuously hammered out during the development process, allowing organizations to respond to vulnerabilities faster. 

That’s important in today’s world where, as painful as it may be to hear, it’s a more effective — and realistic — strategy to assume organizations will, at some point, be breached. That’s especially true with a more distributed workforce, where identity is the new firewall and each mobile device is the outer edge of an agency’s network perimeter, Adams says. 

“Before, if organizations thought there was a bad actor or something nefarious was happening, they'd unplug from the internet,” she says. “Or better yet, be in an air-gapped environment.”

In today’s increasingly interconnected world, that’s no longer an option. 

“It's all about telemetry,” Adams says, using a term that describes enhanced threat detection and cyber intelligence capabilities. “And it's not just telemetry that's on the network and looking at net flow data. It's telemetry from all layers of the OSI stack. And you need to be able to look at all that telemetry in real time, to be able to securely manage from our operations perspective, your digital estate.”

Building in Zero Trust

The DevSecOps approach — with its focus on repeatable processes and automation — provides agencies with greater threat visibility. Among the automated security measures made possible in a DevSecOps world: automated code analysis, beefed-up penetration testing and enhanced threat modeling — identifying all the ways an adversary might try to take advantage of a system or probe its vulnerable edges. 

The goal is to build toward a true zero-trust security architecture, in which all activity inside an agency’s perimeter must be verified. The DevSecOps method is built for a world where organizations have to assume they will face a cyberattack and must be able to respond to it effectively. 

When it comes to the security capabilities afforded by DevSecOps, it’s all about automation and instrumentation. But as with the software development process itself under DevSecOps, building strong processes is also important. Teams should ensure testing processes are thorough, continuous and always serve the broader purpose of improving the product.

“You have to make sure you have the right tools, that you have the right automation in place, that you have the right team members in place, that can help you monitor all the telemetry you're capturing, and the automation you're putting inside your applications,” Adams says. “Just checking the box isn't going to make you safer or isn't going to solve the problem. It must truly be a commitment.”

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This content is made possible by our sponsor Microsoft; it is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of NextGov’s editorial staff.

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