How to make agile app development more secure


Agile development is an iterative approach in building software, where the output is completed incrementally instead of delivering the final product by the end of the project timeline.

It entails a flexible process that provides room for changes and encourages continual improvement. It may involve the collaborative work of multiple self-organizing teams composed of members who have different functional expertise but are working for the achievement of a common goal.

This methodology started with the emergence of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, which seeks to put more importance on the developers and their interactions (instead of the tools and processes).

The manifesto also wants to prioritise the creation of working software, not the generation of documentation; collaboration with the client instead of spending more time on specs and contract negotiations; and appropriately reacting to changes over strictly sticking to an established plan.

Companies adopt agile development because it results in early delivery while promoting rapid response to changes. It promotes adaptive planning, which means that planning is not necessarily scrapped, but it is made flexible to allow for modifications and corrections as the need arises.

Additionally, it supports evolutionary development and the introduction of improvements not bound by rigid targets. Ultimately, agile development is expected to produce a quality software product at a faster turnaround and with reduced risks, lower costs, and happier developers.

Not everything about agile development is positive, though. For one, it is not applicable to all kinds of organizations and projects. For larger companies, for example, agile principles may be deemed hindering as they can be unnecessarily meticulous and too focused on people and interactions.

There’s also the issue of less predictability. Businesses prefer scenarios with very minimal contingencies, so the flexibility in planning and the presumption that changes will inevitably be encountered, hence the aversion to strict plans and targets, would appear counterintuitive. This creates a high likelihood for a project to fall off track. Additionally, agile development tends to require more time, commitment, and effort on the part of the developers and the client.

Moreover, agile development is notorious for its disruptive relationship with security. Agile’s prioritization of flexibility and responses to rapid changes is not the best match to the need for rules, protocols, and a systematic approach in keeping systems secure. As such, it’s important to become familiar with the best practices in securing the agile app development process. Go over the following guidelines.

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Make use of automated security tools

How do you reconcile the need to be dynamic and having strict rules to guarantee security? One way to do it is by integrating automated security tools.

There are software solutions designed to be configurable but stringent when it comes to detecting and blocking threats. One good example is the use of runtime application self-protection (RASP) software.

Using automated security can minimize or even eliminate the possible friction between security and app development teams. Integrating configurable automated tools with the development process means the development and security teams will have to agree on how to make things work.

It facilitates consensus and takes away the possibility of one team offending the other over violations of security protocols or restrictions over creative and emergency response actions.

Automated security tools are advantageous in promptly detecting and remedying vulnerabilities, bugs, or attacks that may disrupt the development process.

While this entails the use of tools, it does not necessarily violate the agile principle of prioritising the work of developers and their interactions with each other (over the use of tools) since what it does is simply to reduce the involvement of the security team with the development team to expedite processes without compromising security.

The security team is not ignored or disregarded. They may be called on during major testing phases so they can evaluate the security of the partially completed app instead of being required to provide inputs in every step of the development process. Besides, they will have a say on which automated security tool to use and how it is configured.

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Agile developers must be trained to always anticipate attacks

The modern cybersecurity landscape is significantly different from how it was before. Now, attacks are in multitudes and much greater sophistication. It’s only logical to train agile developers to think the way hackers do.

If app developers want to do away with the constant involvement of the security team in testing and verifying the app’s security, they need to demonstrate the ability to produce something that does not require rigorous security evaluation every so often. They need to learn to look at their codes from a cyber attacker’s perspective.

Developers have a tendency to be too focused with the functions and features they want to implement, that they may forget about security concerns, even the basics. This shouldn’t be the case in an agile development ecosystem. A workshop or structured training may be needed to inculcate a security mindset among agile developers.

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Come up with code conventions

Agile development supports flexibility and creative ways to enable rapid response to changes. It does not mean, however, that code conventions are not allowed. To make sure that security issues are reduced, it’s a good idea to implement guidelines for coding. The security team will have to play a major role in the development of the code conventions.

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Create an efficient incident response plan

Everybody knows that security issues should be addressed promptly. However, this basic idea is useless without the specifics. It’s important to develop a solid response plan whenever security problems are detected.

Again, this does not go against the agile development’s attributes of being flexible and not fixated on plans. An incident response plan is different from the app development process. It only emerges when problems arise. It does not interfere with the flexibility or dynamic nature of agile development. Thus, there’s nothing wrong in having a detailed and exacting plan to resolve security breaches.

A good incident response plan should specify who will be involved in addressing a security issue. It should also provide details on the steps to be undertaken including the alerts to be sent to people who will be involved. It’s not as simple as alerting the security department to do something about the problem. Information on who should be responsible as well as a timeline for the implementation of solutions should be included.

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Adapt and improve

Agile development advocates continuous improvement and evolutionary development. It only makes sense to make use of these concepts in fortifying security. Always be on the lookout for new problems not covered by the current security protocols in place. Take note of findings reported by the security team during testing and review procedures.

Learn from everything that comes out of the iterative process of agile development. Eventually, you will realize that it’s also possible to make the security aspect of app development agile to some extent.

Agile development is far from perfect or foolproof. It also does not refer to just a single methodology, framework, or model. It does not provide a 100% guarantee of success but it’s definitely worth implementing across your organization or development team. Security should not be a deterrent in adopting it, as there are ways to make security compatible with development agility.

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