Should startups care about security?

Photo by MSH*

Is worrying about security early in your startup just like worrying about scaling, a distraction that will eat up valuable time and increase the chances you’ll fail? That’s something that’s on my mind as I watch the looming issue of Facebook App security. Once there’s a richer set of targets like the Paypal App, there will be a lot more malicious people trying to exploit any holes, and it’s practically impossible to prevent cross-site scripting. It feels like the period when every engineer knew that Windows was horribly insecure, but there hadn’t been enough of a user impact for anyone to care.

That analogy is interesting because Microsoft crushed the competition for over a decade, thanks in part to their fast development process, enabled by reusing old, insecure components as a foundation. It’s a classic worse-is-better scenario, where the unobserved lack of security meant less to the customers than improved features. The very long-term outcome wasn’t so good, the lack of security mauled their reputation and opened the door to a lot more competitors, but their strategy still created an immense amount of value.

If you could go back in time to the early 90’s, I think it would have been possible to avoid a lot of the security holes with some comparatively simple changes to the code that was written then. From the 386 onwards, there was enough processor support to start partitioning user level code from the OS, but there was never a strictly enforced model for security.

I’ve tried to learn from that in my own work. Security planning can easily turn into a tar-pit of architecture astronautics, but it is possible to have some simple principles that don’t get in the way. Most of the exploits that The Harmony Guy and others uncover with Facebook could be fixed if every operation required an authentication token, like a session ID. Make sure you escape all your user input before including it in an SQL query. Drop a feature or technology if there’s a high security risk. There’s no such thing as absolute security, but a little bit of paranoia at the outset will go a long way to safeguarding your customer’s information. Know what the vulnerable areas outside your control are, and make sure they’re on a list somewhere, for once you’re rich and famous enough to get something done about them.

Now Facebook’s in that position, I really hope they’re lobbying hard for a secure foundation for browser-based apps. For example, an expanded and standardized version of the IE-only "security=’restricted’" attribute could prevent a script in one element from touching anything outside itself in the document. They’re trying to build a sandbox through script-scrubbing, but the only sure-fire way to do that is within the browser. They have a window now before they start suffering from bad publicity, I hope they’re able to use it.

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