Over the years, Software Engineering, as a discipline, has recognized the potential for engineers to make mistakes and has incorporated processes to prevent such mistakes from becoming exploitable vulnerabilities. These processes span the spectrum from using unit/integration/fuzz testing, static/dynamic/hybrid analysis, and (automatic) patching to discover instances of vulnerabilities to leveraging data mining and machine learning to collect metrics that characterize attributes indicative of vulnerabilities. Among these processes, metrics have the potential to uncover systemic problems in the product, process, or people that could lead to vulnerabilities being introduced, rather than identifying specific instances of vulnerabilities. The insights from metrics can be used to support developers and managers in making decisions to improve the product, process, and/or people with the goal of engineering secure software.
Despite empirical evidence of metrics' association with historical software vulnerabilities, their adoption in the software development industry has been limited. The level of granularity at which the metrics are defined, the high false positive rate from models that use the metrics as explanatory variables, and, more importantly, the difficulty in deriving actionable intelligence from the metrics are often cited as factors that inhibit metrics' adoption in practice. Our research vision is to assist software engineers in building secure software by providing a technique that generates scientific, interpretable, and actionable feedback on security as the software evolves. In this dissertation, we present our approach toward achieving this vision through (1) systematization of vulnerability discovery metrics literature, (2) unsupervised generation of metrics-informed security feedback, and (3) continuous developer-in-the-loop improvement of the feedback.
We systematically reviewed the literature to enumerate metrics that have been proposed and/or evaluated to be indicative of vulnerabilities in software and to identify the validation criteria used to assess the decision-informing ability of these metrics. In addition to enumerating the metrics, we implemented a subset of these metrics as containerized microservices. We collected the metric values from six large open-source projects and assessed metrics' generalizability across projects, application domains, and programming languages. We then used an unsupervised approach from literature to compute threshold values for each metric and assessed the thresholds' ability to classify risk from historical vulnerabilities. We used the metrics' values, thresholds, and interpretation to provide developers natural language feedback on security as they contributed changes and used a survey to assess their perception of the feedback. We initiated an open dialogue to gain an insight into their expectations from such feedback. In response to developer comments, we assessed the effectiveness of an existing vulnerability discovery approach—static analysis—and that of vulnerability discovery metrics in identifying risk from vulnerability contributing commits.
Library of Congress Subject Headings
Computer software--Security measures; Computer security; Computer software--Quality control; Debugging in computer science
Computing and Information Sciences (Ph.D.)
Department, Program, or Center
Computer Science (GCCIS)
Munaiah, Nuthan, "Toward Data-Driven Discovery of Software Vulnerabilities" (2020). Thesis. Rochester Institute of Technology. Accessed from
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