What is software security and why is it important?

Did you ever stop to think that most apps and digital experiences can function without any security features? This makes it frighteningly easy to underestimate the importance of security unless you make it a priority.

Even when security is top of mind, companies can be taken by surprise. Zoom’s security features might have been sufficient for business users, but the company had to scramble to respond to security issues when schools and families suddenly started video conferencing in droves.

The reality is, outside a few highly regulated industries, choosing the right amount of security is subjective and most applications have flaws. Three-quarters of applications have at least one flaw, according to Veracode’s State of Software Security v11. Managing security debt wisely is the key to building digital products and experiences that can scale faster.

Software security briefly explained

Software security is the protection of software applications and digital experiences from unauthorized access, use, or destruction. Software security solutions help ensure data is protected while in transit and at rest, and can also help protect against system vulnerabilities like malware and ransomware attacks.

Unlike cybersecurity, which is focused on protecting internet-based systems from digital threats, software security techniques are applied during software development. The goal is to ensure applications and devices are secure and, in worse cases, remain functioning under a malicious attack.

Software developers, stakeholders, and end users all have a vested interest in making sure their solutions are inaccessible to hackers.

How does software security work? 

Information security works by incorporating a variety of measures into Software Development Life Cycles (SDLCs) and software testing processes.

These measures may include:

  • Security requirements definition

  • Secure coding practices

  • Static code analysis

  • Penetration testing

  • Limiting access control

Computer security is an aggressive, ongoing process that starts with an audit, then evolves into ongoing security maintenance over the lifetime of the product.

Why is software security important in software development? 

As we become more reliant on software, it becomes more important that software systems are safe and secure. Hackers are increasingly targeting software as a way to manipulate security vulnerabilities and gain access to sensitive data, especially against mobile apps. For this reason, effective mobile device management, or mdm for data security, is more important than ever. 

In addition, companies are required by law to protect certain types of data, such as credit card information and social security numbers.

Software security is also important for protecting against cyber attacks. While protecting software from malicious threats has its drawbacks from a resource perspective, the business damage caused by a malicious cyber attack can be astronomical.

Here are some of the pros and cons of a typical software security campaign:

Pros

Cons

It protects against hackers

It can be expensive

Software security protects against malware and ransomware attacks

Software security campaigns can be time consuming

It protects sensitive data

It requires ongoing maintenance

Software security techniques

Software security is like protecting a bank vault. You're fully aware that there are people out there that want to compromise your software, and your goal is to prevent them from doing so.

To do this, security teams must leverage common security best practices and mitigation tactics like the below:

  • Patching your software: This is the process of fixing software vulnerabilities as they are discovered.

  • Using a firewall: A firewall is software or hardware that sits between your computer and the internet and helps protect your computer from unauthorized access.

  • Restricting administrative privileges: Limiting the privileges of users who can access sensitive data can help with reducing attack surface, minimizing the risk of a data breach.

  • Encrypting your data: Data encryption is a common cybersecurity practice that involves transforming readable data into an unreadable format. Decryption reverses this transformation.

  • Two-factor authentication: Two-factor authentication requires you to provide two pieces of information, such as a password and a code generated by a mobile app, in order to log in to your account.

  • Employee training: Employee training is essential for software security. Employees need to be aware of the risks associated with using software and how to protect themselves and their company's data.

Illustration of a person working on Contentful, with a chain fence symbolizing security

Software security's role in scalability

Choosing the right amount of security for your app or digital experience is vital to scalability. Growth happens at different paces across different dimensions of scale and, as we saw during the pandemic, it isn’t always predictable. An increase in users on a platform will require more governance features. Scaling to global markets means meeting new legal and regulatory requirements. The bigger your brand or product grows, the greater the damage can be from a security risk, and the more important building secure software becomes. 

Prioritizing security during application planning leads to better decisions on what to implement or not implement, and when. Assessing the likelihood and impact of risks helps builders make informed decisions on how much security a web application needs at each point in the SLDC.

Putting off security features early in a build racks up security debt that will need to be paid as the app or product scales. Underestimating the time it takes to implement security after the fact can be a costly mistake. It can slow down scalability, jeopardize reputation and cost more to fix than to do it right from the start. Hubspot puts the cost at $6-$23 per line of code that needs to be rewritten. With costs like this, most companies can’t afford to deprioritize software security and application security testing. 

Four strategies to reduce security debt

Including good security practices early in your software development process can avoid costly refactoring or potentially catastrophic security breaches later in the application’s lifecycle. Application security is a small piece of overall risk, and can be overlooked, especially by less experienced builders.

Making security strategies part of how developers build new products creates more consistency and transparency of software security. Learn how Contentful built a security culture that standardizes the way we operate, improves the way we make security decisions and helps us stay ahead of evolving threats.

1. Shift left

Don’t make security an afterthought — it needs to be brought in early. Shifting left means getting requirements correct from the start instead of waiting to uncover problems later in the process. More time is spent in the planning stages to avoid redesign and delays later on. Just as a car’s braking system depends on the car’s potential speed, security needs depend on how the software will be used. Developers need to understand what the software will do, who will use it, what problems it will solve or what needs it will address, as well as how it will scale.

2. Apply the right amount of security at the right time 

To avoid spending too much or too little time on security, decide what you need for the specific application or experience you’re building. The level of security a product needs will depend on its intended use and where it is in the product life cycle. A fitness app has different security needs than a banking app. An MVP won’t need the same level of security as the final product. 

3. Keep track of security debt 

Incurring security debt for an MVP can be a good strategic decision, but it’s critical to keep track of this debt. The State of Software Security v11 report found that the older a flaw was, the less likely it was to be fixed. It’s critical to document security debt and to hold someone accountable — at Contentful, every business feature has a security owner. Understanding when security flaws will pose an unacceptable risk and what time and resources are required to fix them can avoid unexpected delays. 

4. Consider replacing legacy systems

Digital moves fast. The tools that worked in the past can quickly become outdated and place your security supply chain at risk. “The data suggests that teams should consider re-architecting their applications or retire legacy applications in favor of streamlined code,” the State of Software Security v11 report states. It goes on to note that microservices and API integrations can have a positive effect on security.

Wrapping up

Contentful is an API-first content platform that sits at the heart of the modern tech stack. Learn how our commitment to security helps digital teams go to market faster and scale confidently. By choosing trusted partners who take security seriously, you can transfer a number of risks along the security supply chain to ensure that your digital apps and experiences are ready to scale.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

Q. What are the three types of software security?

There are three software security types: security of the software itself, security of data processed by the software, and the security of communications with other systems over networks.

Q. Are application security and software security the same?

Both concepts are naturally different. Software security refers to the security of the software itself, whereas application security refers to the overall security of the application. Security of data processed by software and security of communications with other systems over networks are both types of application security.

Q. Is software security necessary?

Software security is absolutely necessary. Software vulnerabilities can put your data and systems at risk, so it’s important to make sure that your software is secure from the start. A number of factors, such as the type of software, its intended use, and the life cycle stage it’s in, will determine what level of security is necessary. You also need to keep track of security debt and plan for retiring old systems.

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