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Why Running DAST in Production is Not a Good Idea

September 14, 2023
Edward Chopskie

Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST) has long been a cornerstone of application security, helping organizations find and fix vulnerabilities in their applications and APIs. While DAST is typically run early in the software development lifecycle (SDLC), there are some proponents in the industry evangelizing the value of running DAST in production exclusively. Their arguments typically center around DAST scans breaking builds and slowing down the development process. 

However, the practice of running DAST in production environments rather than early in the SDLC presents multiple risks and challenges that can actually hinder your security goals. Here’s why you should think twice before running DAST scans on a live production system.

Risk of Downtime

DAST solutions are designed to find vulnerabilities by simulating attack behaviors. While this is effective for uncovering weaknesses, it can also put a strain on your system resources. Running DAST in a production environment risks causing performance degradation, and in the worst-case scenario, could even bring down the application. System downtime leads to customer dissatisfaction, loss of business, and could tarnish your brand reputation.

Data Sensitivity

DAST tests often include data manipulation to check how an application behaves when faced with unexpected or malicious input. When these tests are conducted in a production environment, they interact with live and often sensitive data. Even if the DAST tool itself is secure, there is still a risk that the test could inadvertently expose or corrupt this sensitive data, which could be a compliance issue.

False Positives and Alert Fatigue

Legacy DAST tools are well-known for not always being precise in their findings to say the least. Running these tools in a production environment will inevitably generate alerts. The notorious problem arises when these alerts include false positives, which need to be triaged and checked manually. This leads to alert fatigue among application security teams, who may then miss genuinely critical alerts amid the noise.

Impact on User Experience

DAST in a production environment can result in degraded performance, leading to a poor user experience. Even short periods of sluggish performance or downtime can result in immediate negative customer feedback, and in today’s digital age, customer experience is paramount. 

Regulatory and Compliance Issues

Regulatory standards like GDPR, HIPAA, and PCI DSS have stringent requirements for how data is handled and secured. Running DAST scans in production could risk non-compliance with these regulations, leading to legal issues and fines.

So what’s the alternative? Here’s a better approach:

Shift Testing Left with Integrated Development Environment (IDE) Integration

Running Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST) from an Integrated Development Environment (IDE) offers several compelling advantages that can significantly streamline the development process, enhance security, and contribute to more robust, resilient applications. Here’s why it’s a good idea:

Early Detection of Vulnerabilities

The earlier a vulnerability is detected in the Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC), the cheaper and simpler it is to fix. Running DAST from an IDE allows developers to find and address vulnerabilities as they write code, essentially “shifting left” in the SDLC. This early detection helps to ensure that security is integrated into the development process right from the start. Industry research clearly shows that fixing vulnerabilities in production can easily cost ten times more than earlier in the development lifecycle. 

Seamless Developer Experience

For developers, the IDE is their main workspace where they spend most of their time coding, debugging, and testing. Being able to run DAST scans directly from the IDE eliminates the need to switch between different tools, thereby providing a more seamless and efficient user experience. This integration also makes it easier for developers to adopt security testing as a regular part of their workflow.

Real-Time Feedback

Running DAST from an IDE allows for real-time, immediate feedback. As developers write or modify code, they can run quick scans to assess the security impact of their changes. This real-time feedback loop enables developers to understand the security implications of their code as they write it, enhancing both the learning process and the quality of the resulting application.

Improved Collaboration between Security and Development Teams

Embedding DAST within the IDE makes security more accessible for developers, which can foster better collaboration between Application Security (AppSec) and development teams. When developers are equipped with the tools to perform initial security tests themselves, it frees up security teams to focus on more advanced threats and vulnerabilities, making the entire process more efficient.

Automation and CI/CD Integration

When DAST is integrated into an IDE, it can also be easily incorporated into Continuous Integration/Continuous Deployment (CI/CD) pipelines. This enables automated security testing as part of the build process, further ensuring that applications are secure well before they are deployed.

Contextual Understanding

Running DAST scans within an IDE allows developers to see security issues in the context of their code. Unlike running scans on a deployed application where the results may be somewhat abstract, scanning within the IDE allows developers to directly relate the issues to the code they are working on, facilitating quicker and more accurate remediation.

Reduced Risk

By catching vulnerabilities early and incorporating security into the daily workflow of developers, running DAST from an IDE significantly reduces the risk of insecure code making it to production. This not only protects your organization from potential breaches but also from the reputational damage and regulatory fines that can come with security incidents.

Integrating DAST into the IDE creates a more agile, efficient, and secure development process. It allows for early vulnerability detection, encourages a culture of security, and ultimately leads to the creation of more secure applications.

Conclusion

DAST remains a vital tool in any application security toolkit but running these tests in production environments poses more risks than benefits and is not a best practice. By taking a more strategic approach that involves early-stage testing, continuous monitoring, and leveraging alternative testing methods, organizations can maintain the integrity and security of their applications without compromising their production environments. Integrating DAST into the IDE creates a more agile, efficient, and secure development process. It allows for early vulnerability detection, encourages a culture of security, and ultimately leads to the creation of more secure applications.

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