Agile software development is a popular approach to building applications. But the focus on user experience and faster development leaves gaping security holes. Cybersecurity organizations have devised the best practices for integrating security into agile software development.

You will hear the word “agile” thrown around liberally in boardroom meetings across the globe. Today, agile frameworks and methodologies are used to achieve organizational goals in everything- from business analysis to project management. But despite its diverse applications in the current era, the agile approach can trace its roots back to software development.  

What is Agile Software Development

We’ve already written about Agile software development in the past. Agile software development refers to a faster and more adaptive approach to designing software. Frameworks that fall under the umbrella of agile software development include, but are not limited to:

  • Scrum
  • Dynamic Systems Development Method (DSDM)
  • Feature-Driven Development (FDD) 
  • Extreme Programming (XP)

A key feature of agile software development is its focus on building a self-organizing, cross-functional team that can execute a project from end to end. Software developed through agile methods goes through continuous updates and iterations. Because it relies on experts with differing skill sets working together to meet a common goal, agile software development places a great emphasis on collaboration.

The agile approach was formally created in 2001 by The Agile Alliance, a team of 17 software developers who became pioneers. The Agile Alliance released “The Agile Manifesto” and “The 12 Principles of Agile Software Development,” two declarations that laid the foundation for what was to come. Today, agile software development is characterized by incremental, iterative development that prioritizes the needs of users and developers.

Security Risks in Agile Software Development

Compared to the traditional method, also called the “waterfall method,” agile development is faster to execute. But the highway of software development is not so different from a regular highway — speed kills. Ever since their adoption, there have been certain inefficiencies in agile development processes that leave open security gaps. Since agile teams operate on tighter timelines, they do not have the luxury of taking multiple days of a development sprint to test security features.

Also, the focus on delivering a convenient user experience over all else can lead to certain security concerns being overlooked. Speed does not automatically translate to safety, and agile software development is a perfect example. Phishing attacks and viruses can target vulnerabilities in software, compromising the user and developer. While antivirus software protects individual users, developers should also take steps during the design stage to ensure threats are neutralized.A 2005 research paper presented during the 38th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences proceedings found that agile software development methods of the time lacked specific security features. Right from the early days of the history of agile development, efforts were being made to integrate better security features.

The Agile Security Manifesto

In 2021, 20 years after the world was introduced to agile methodology, “The Agile Security Manifesto” was released. It put forward four core tenets:

  • Relying on developers and testers for security instead of security specialists
  • Making security a part of the process instead of an afterthought
  • Implementing secure features instead of adding security features
  • Mitigating risks instead of fixing bugs

“The Agile Security Manifesto” gives us a roadmap to develop software through agile methods without compromising on security features.

Best Practices For Integrating Security into Agile Software Development

Agile software development is used to create everything from your favorite mobile game to a stock-trading application. Regardless of the intended purpose of the software, it should be designed to be safe for users. The International Information System Security Certification Consortium, or (ISC)², is a global non-profit cybersecurity organization. It presented a list of best practices to integrate security with agile software development.

Here’s a summary of the same:

1. Preparing User Requirements That Include Security Acceptance Criteria

Security features are commonly overlooked in the requirements prepared by cross-functional teams. But security should be made a priority early on in the software’s development cycle. Developers have to ensure that measurable security criteria are covered in the initial list of user requirements.

2. Conducting Diligent Security Tests

Rigorous security testing is the hallmark of safe, agile software development. Any vulnerabilities or exploits should be identified during early acceptance and integration tests. A common approach to discovering flaws in a software’s security is penetration testing. During penetration testing, developers role-play as cyber attackers and probe the software’s security measures for weaknesses.

3. Following Secure Coding Techniques

One of the core tenets of “The Agile Security Manifesto” is mitigating risks over fixing bugs. This means taking proactive steps to address the most common exploits in a system. Agile developers should adopt control categories, such as the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) Top Ten Proactive Controls. Adhering to these mitigation strategies greatly reduces the chances of encountering unforeseen security bugs.

4. Reviewing Progress through Agile Retrospectives

It is said that hindsight is 20-20, which is very much the case in agile software development. It’s worth holding retrospectives with all team members at periodic intervals through the project’s entire development cycle. The retrospectives bring together the cross-functional team and allow them to identify areas for improvement. Getting the entire development team together to discuss their experiences uncovers security problems, even if they are isolated to a single function or keep recurring throughout the project.

5. Incorporating Application Security Tools

Web applications are the most likely to face attacks from hackers, according to the 2020 Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report. Keeping applications secure from cyberattacks is made easier by integrating security tools into agile software development.

6. Automating Security Features

Agile software development runs through a Continuous Iteration/Continuous Development (CI/CD) Pipeline. Automating security features within this pipeline can address any oversights from the earlier stages of software development.

Custom software development is a complicated process. Seeking advice from experts in agile software development is advisable. Optimize the security features of your software by consulting with experienced developers, and enjoy digital peace of mind.

Tomáš Kouba

Jednatel Net Magnet s.r.o.