Pushing Left, Like a Boss – Part 10: Special AppSec Activities and Situations

By Tanya Janca (SheHacksPurple) on June 5, 2021

Special Situations

Not all application security programs are the same, and not all security needs are equal. In this article we will compare security for a small family business, a government and Apple.

Think about this: Not only does Apple make two popular consumer operating systems (OSX for desktop and laptop computers and IOS for phones and iPads), they also make a popular cloud platform (iCloud), a popular programming IDE (xCode), hardware for several types of laptops, phones, tablets, watches, and so, so much more. They also build physical security features directly into their products. It wasn’t until I decided to re-publish this article that I realized just how many things depend on Apple. It’s staggering.

What this means is that Apple has very special security needs. Their operating system, cloud and other products that we depend on must be secure. They must go far beyond the average company in their efforts to ensure this, and they do.



Tanya Janca teaching

See that computer to my left? It's an Apple. I own 3 laptops that run OSX,
and even used to work at an Apple repair shop back in the day. I learned 
to program on an Apple computer.

But the average company is not Apple. Which means they don’t need to take the same precautions. As a second example, let’s take “Alice’s Flowers”.

Alice has a website for her floral shop that delivers flowers in her small town. It shows basic info, such where they are located, their phone number, and when they are open. It also has a link to her Shopify shop for online orders (meaning she does not need to secure that, Shopify does; Alice is smart to have outsourced the hard part. This is called Risk Transference.). The rest of Alice’s website, in the big scheme of things, is not very important. If her site goes down for a day or two, it would be inconvenient but it would not the end of the world.

Most companies fall somewhere between Apple and “Alice’s Flowers” in regard to their risk. It has been my experience that many places, when I look at where they spend their security dollars, seem to be very confused as to where they sit on this scale. This is not my attempt to make fun or insult any company, I think it’s a sign of our times that not all companies are receiving good (and unbiased) advice.

The AppSec activities listed below do not apply to all IT shops. I invite you, reader, to try to imagine where your workplace would be on this scale. Please remember your place on the scale as you read the rest of these examples, to help you decide if any of this activities may apply to your place of work.

Special AppSec Activities

Responsible Disclosure

Responsible Disclosure (also known as Coordinated Disclosure), is a process where someone finds a security problem in a product or site, reports it to a company, and the company 1) does not sue them 2) thanks them 3) sometimes offers a token of appreciation but generally does not offer money and/or 4) sometimes the person who reported it is publicly acknowledged by the company or their bug is reported formally as a CVE to Mitre.

Last week (when I wrote the first version of this article, in 2019) I used a government website, I saw a bug, I figured out who to talk to (the Canadian Government doesn’t have a disclosure process, of any kind), and I emailed it to them. They said thanks, I offered ideas on how to fix it, and they were great. This is one version of responsible disclosure. See how I was responsible?

Some places have a formal program, whereby security researchers (or normal users like me), can report issues to them in a secure manner (me sending details over twitter then an email to the government employee was not very ‘secure’). If the product they found the issue in is something well-known or used often, they may file a CVE (Common Vulnerability Exposure) so that other’s are aware that version of that product is known to be insecure. But also for credit; having your name on a CVE is pretty cool.

Industry standard for fixing such things is (theoretically) 90 days, but not every company complies, and not every person who reports such an issue is so patient. When you hear that someone “dropped O Day”, what they mean is they released the info about a vulnerability onto the internet, and there is no known patch for it (also known as a ‘zero day’). This is often done in order to pressure a company to fix the issue. Because if one person found it, that means others might have found it (and they may be exploiting it in the wild, causing people problems, and that’s no good).

Note: “dropping O day” is NOT a part of responsible disclosure.

Bug Bounties

Katie Moussouris basically invented Bug Bounties as we know them today, she speaks on this topic often and is a wealth of knowledge on this and many other security topics. Since then several large tech companies have started their own programs including Shopify, Apple, and Netflix.

The invention of bug bounties spawned an entirely new industry; dedicated security researchers or “bug hunters”, as well as large companies that sell these people’s services on a pay-per-find basis.

The thing about working as part of a bounty program is you only get paid if you find something, if no one else has found it before, if your finding is in scope, and if your report actually makes sense. Submitting things that aren’t in scope is a great way to get yourself banned (such as taking over accounts of employees at the company you are supposed to be finding bugs for, don’t do that). What this means is that many, many bug hunters make little-to-no money, and a small few do quite well. I’ve heard people call this “a gig economy”, which means no job security, benefits or anything to fall back on if you have a bad month.

The economics for the researchers aside, this is an advanced AppSec activity. I’ve been asked many times “Should we do a bounty?” to which I have responded “How is your disclosure program going? Oh, you don’t have one, okay. Ummm, how is your AppSec program going? Oh, you don’t really have a formal program you just hire a pentester from time-to-time, okay. Hmmmm, do you have any security-savvy developers that could fix the bugs the bounty finds? No, okay, ummmmm. So you already know that you should DEFINITELY NOT DO A BOUNTY, right? Okay, yeah, thanks.”

I realize that doing a bounty program is “hot” right now, and that the companies that sell bounty programs are happy to tell you that it’s good value for your money to start no matter where you are at in your AppSec program. I disagree. I often sugar-coat things in my blog, but for this I can’t. If you don’t already have an AppSec program and you do a bug bounty program you are setting your money on fire. If you want to hear from an expert on the topic though, you should watch Katie Moussouris explain it much more gracefully than I, here: Bug Bounty Botox Versus Natural Beauty.

Capture The Flag, Cyber Ranges, and other forms of Gamification

Capture the Flag contests, also known as CTFs, are not a bunch of security people running around in a field with flags; it’s a contest made up of security puzzles. Sometimes it is vulnerable systems you need to exploit, sometimes it’s intentional puzzles for you to solve. When you ‘solve’ one of the challenges you get a ‘flag’, which means points. The person or team at the end with the most points wins.

Cyber Ranges and other gamification systems are similar, you play, solve security problems, and learn at the same time.

Why do security professionals sit around playing games and solving puzzles? Because this is a great way to learn. And it’s FUN! Also: if you find a vulnerability and it’s something you have done before in your code you will never, ever make that mistake again. Trust me on that one.

Inviting your developers to participate in security gamification can be a great team building exercise and it can teach them many of the lessons you wish they knew!


There are many more special situations that demand interesting and exciting AppSec activities, such as chaos engineering, red teaming, and so much more. You can read a lot more about it in my book, Alice and Bob Learn Application Security.

Thank you

Thank you for reading my first blog series; this is the end. When I started my blog I honestly wasn’t sure anyone would read it, but I wanted to share all of the things I had learned so I went for it. Thank you for coming on this journey with me, I hope you follow me on many more.

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