Software Security Ideas Ahead of Their Time

Every good security researcher has a well-curated list of blogs they subscribe to. At Trail of Bits, given our interest in software security and its intersections with programming languages, one of our favorites is The Programming Language Enthusiast by Michael Hicks.

Our primary activity is to describe and discuss research about — and the practical development and use of — programming languages and programming tools (PLPT). PLPT is a core area of computer science that bridges high-level algorithms/designs and their executable implementations. It is a field that has deep roots in mathematical logic and the theory of computation but also produces practical compilers and analysis tools.

One of our employees and PhD student at UMD, Andrew Ruef, has written a guest blog post for the PL Enthusiast on the topic of software security ideas that were ahead of their time.

As researchers, we are often asked to look into a crystal ball. We try to anticipate future problems so that work we begin now will address problems before they become acute. Sometimes, a researcher foresees a problem and its possible solution, but chooses not to pursue it. In a sense, she has found, and discarded, an idea ahead of its time.

Recently, a friend of Andrew’s pointed him to a 20-year-old email exchange on the “firewalls” mailing list that blithely suggests, and discards, problems and solutions that are now quite relevant, and on the cutting edge of software security research. The situation is both entertaining and instructive, especially in that the ideas are quite squarely in the domain of programming languages research, but were not considered by PL researchers at the time (as far as we know).

Read on for a deep dive into the firewalls listserv from 1995, prior to the publication of Smashing the Stack for Fun and Profit, as a few casual observers correctly anticipate the next 20 years of software security researchers.

If you enjoyed Andrew’s post on the PL Enthusiast, we recommend a few others that touch upon software security:

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