Key Highlights of the NIST SSDF: Secure Software Development Framework

NIST SSDF represents secure software development practices and helps developers reduce security vulnerabilities. Learn more about the NIST SSDF key security practices. 

NIST SP 800-218 The Secure Software Development Framework (SSDF): Recommendations for Mitigating the Risk of Software Vulnerabilities is now a handbook for every organization that supplies software to the United States government. The NIST SSDF represents secure software development practices throughout the Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC), with the goal of reducing security vulnerabilities and malicious interventions. 

This article introduces the key security practices represented in the NIST SSDF.

Continue reading to learn more. 

NIST SSDF: Background

Version 1.1 NIST 800-218 was published on February 3rd, 2022  in response to requirements of the Executive Order 14028 (the Order) as of May 2021. Section 4 of Order, Improving the Nation’s Cybersecurity, directs the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to publish guidance on software supply chain security “… issue guidance identifying practices that enhance the security of the software supply chain.” The Order also directs the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to “take appropriate steps to require that agencies comply with such guidelines with respect to software procured after the date of this order. 

Why was it necessary?

The turbulent cybersecurity landscape requires strong mechanisms for ensuring the software function securely, especially if it performs functions for critical infrastructure and the Federal Government. NIST 800-218 aims to ensure the security of critical software at all stages of its development lifecycle.

NIST SSDF Overview

The NIST SSDF security practices target software security at all stages of its development lifecycle. In general, the framework has four sections: 

  • Prepare The Organization (PO)
  • Protect the Software (PS)
  • Produce Well-Secured Software (PW)
  • Respond to Vulnerabilities (RV).

Let’s examine these sections in detail:

Prepare the Organization

This section refers to people, processes, and tools and focuses on the organizational capacity to produce secure software. The recommendations and best practices in this section explain how to define requirements and communicate them across your organization.

Define Security Requirements for Software Development. When it comes to critical software development, prioritizing security is a must. This means considering the security needs throughout the entire Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC). These needs may include internal factors such as the organization’s policies, business goals, and risk management strategies, as well as any external factors like relevant laws and regulations.

Implement Roles and Responsibilities. People are no less important than processes. Thus, NIST recommends ensuring that everyone involved in the SDLC is ready to perform their roles and responsibilities. This involves creating necessary roles, reviewing, maintaining, and updating the defined roles periodically. It also includes providing role-based personnel training.

Implement Supporting Toolchains. What is interesting about the NIST 800-218 is that it relies on automation as a means to “reduce human effort and improve the accuracy, reproducibility, usability, and comprehensiveness of security practices throughout the SDLC.” Organizations can use toolchains and automatized tools at different levels, such as organization-wide or project-specific, and may address a particular part of the SDLC.

Define and Use Criteria for Software Security Checks. No matter how strict the SDLC requirements are, the software’s security must be checked during development. Thus, software developers should define and use criteria for checking software security to ensure it meets the organization’s expectations.

Implement and Maintain Secure Environments for Software Development. In short, software developers must ensure that all components of the environments for software development (e.g. building, developing, testing, and distribution environments) are strongly protected from internal and external threats.

Protect the Software 

This section focuses on software integrity and on making sure that products are made securely at all  stagets of the software development process.

Protect All Forms of Code from Unauthorized Access and Tampering. It is crucial to protect source code from unauthorized changes, whether they happen accidentally or with malicious intent. Any unauthorized changes can undermine the security of software. This helps prevent theft of the software and may make it more difficult or time-consuming for attackers to find vulnerabilities in the software.

Provide a Mechanism for Verifying Software Release Integrity. NIST 800-218 turns attention to an important aspect of software development. It requires supporting software acquirers (e.g. Federal Government) to verify the authenticity and integrity of the software they purchase. This helps ensure that the software is free from any unauthorized modifications or tampering. By taking these precautions, you and your clients can have peace of mind, knowing that the software comes from a legitimate source.

Archive and Protect Each Software Release. Preserve software releases in order to help identify, analyze, and eliminate vulnerabilities discovered in the software after release.

Produce Well-Secured Software (PW)

This section focuses on designing, writing, and testing secure software. The advice here focuses on techniques around code review, design review, and component selection. There’s also some guidance on toolchain maintenance.

Design Software to Meet Security Requirements and Mitigate Security Risks. Addressing security requirements and risks during software design (secure by design) is key for improving software security and also helps improve development efficiency. Hence, identify and evaluate the security requirements for software, determine what security risks the software is likely to face during operation, and justify any cases where risk-based analysis indicates that security requirements should be relaxed. This practice is followed with the recommendation to Review the Software Design to Verify Compliance with Security Requirements and Risk Information.

Reuse Existing, Well-Secured Software When Feasible Instead of Duplicating Functionality. The framework recommends lowering the costs of software development, expediting software development, and decreasing the likelihood of introducing additional security vulnerabilities into the software by reusing software modules and services that have already had their security posture checked. This is particularly important for software that implements security functionality, such as cryptographic modules and protocols.

Create Source Code by Adhering to Secure Coding Practices. Decrease the number of security vulnerabilities in the software by minimizing the vulnerabilities introduced during the creation stage.

Review Human-Readable Code to Identify Vulnerabilities and Verify Compliance with Security Requirements. It is always better to identify vulnerabilities so that they can be corrected before the software is released. Consider using automated methods to lower the effort and resources needed to detect vulnerabilities. 

Test Executable Code to Identify Vulnerabilities and Verify Compliance with Security Requirements. Help identify vulnerabilities so that they can be corrected before the software is released in order to prevent exploitation. Using automated methods lowers the effort and resources needed to detect vulnerabilities and improves traceability and repeatability. Executable code includes binaries, directly executed bytecode and source code, and any other form of code that an organization deems executable.

Configure Software to Have Secure Settings by Default. Help improve the security of the software at the time of installation to reduce the likelihood of the software being deployed with weak security settings, putting it at greater risk of compromise.

Respond to vulnerabilities (RW)

Identify and Confirm Vulnerabilities on an Ongoing Basis. To minimize the opportunity for attackers, it is essential to promptly identify vulnerabilities and address them in line with their level of risk. This ensures a shorter timeframe for remediation while reducing the window of opportunity for potential attacks.

Assess, Prioritize, and Remediate Vulnerabilities: Ensure you remediated the software vulnerabilities in accordance with risk.

Analyze Vulnerabilities to Identify Their Root Causes. This helps finetune the vulnerability management process and reduce the number of vulnerabilities in the future.

Follow these practices to reduce the risk of software vulnerabilities and enhance overall security. Feel free to contact the Planet 9 team for help with your security and compliance challenges. We’ll be happy to assist!



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