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Language vulnerabilities TR published

October 28th, 2010

ISO has just published the first Technical Report from the Programming Language Vulnerabilities working group (ISO/IEC TR 24772 Information technology — Programming languages — Guidance to avoiding vulnerabilities in programming languages through language selection and use). Having worked on programming language coding guidelines for many years I was an eager participant during the first few years of this group. Unfortunately this committee succumbed to an affliction that effects many groups working in this area, a willingness to uncritically include any reasonable sounding proposal that came its way.

Coding guidelines are primarily driven by human factors with implementation issues coming to the fore in some situations and guideline selection involves a cost/benefit trade-off. Early versions of the TR addressed these topics directly. As work progressed many members of WG23 (our official designation is actually ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 22/WG 23) seemed to want a concrete approach, i.e., an unstructured list of guidelines, rather than a short list of potential problem areas derived by careful analysis.

A major input came from Larry Wagoner’s analysis of fault reports from various sources; he produced a list of the most common problems, and it was generally agreed that these be used as the base from which to derive the general guidelines.

Work began on writing the text to cover the faults listed by Larry, coalescing similar constructs where appropriate. Many of the faults occurred in programs written in C and some attempt was made to generalize the wording to be applicable other languages (the core guidelines were intended to be language independent).

Over time suggestions were sent to the group’s convener and secretary for consideration (these came from group members and interested outsiders). Unfortunately many of these proposals were accepted for inclusion without analysing the likelihood of them being a common source of faults in practice or the possibility that use of alternative constructs would be more fault prone.

Some members of the group were loath to remove text from the draft document if it was decided that the issue discussed was not applicable. This text tended to migrate to a newly created Section 7 “Applications Issues”, a topic outside of our scope of work).

The resulting document is a mishmash of guidelines likely to be relevant to real code and others that are little more than platitudes (e.g., ‘Demarcation of Control Flow’ and ‘Structured Programming’) or examples of very specific problems that occasional occur (i.e., not common enough to be worth mentioning such as ‘Enumeration issues’).

I eventually threw up my hands in despair at trying to stem the flow of ‘good’ ideas that kept being added and stopped being actively involved.

Would I recommend TR 24772 to people? It does contain some very useful material. The material I think should have been culled is generally not bad, it just has a very low value and for most developers is probably not worth spending time on.

Footnote. ISO makes its money from selling standards and does not like to give them away for free. Those of us who work on standards want them to be used and would like them to be freely available. There is a precedent for TRs being made freely available and hopefully this will eventually happen to TR 24772. In the meantime there are documents on the WG23 web site that essentially contain all of the actual technical text.

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