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Developers Held Liable for Software Bugs?

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Hold software developers liable for security defects in their products!

Well, that's what former White House and Microsoft security advisorHoward Schmidt says, anyway.

For sure, I've seen so many buffer overflow bugs that resulted in theremote execution of arbitrary code -- the penultimate software securitydefect -- I've wanted to scream. But hold the developers liable? That's asmall word with huge ramifications in these United States.

No, I don't believe we're anywhere near ready to take such a drasticstep. Let's make sure we point the car in the right direction before wehit the gas.

Allow me to explain.

I'll bet Mr. Schmidt was thinking about other engineering disciplineswhen he made the suggestion at ISC2's SecureLondon conference recently.And it's true in some engineering disciplines, we do hold theprofessional engineers liable for their design failures, particularlywhen public safety is involved. However, we mustn't forget there's aworld of difference between the practices in use in software engineeringthan in, say, civil engineering.

When a civil engineer sets out to design a bridge, he calculates theloads the bridge is likely to have to withstand (e.g., cars, trucks,pedestrians, wind, temperature changes). At the end of the analysis, afactor of safety is applied to the estimate and he looks up what sizebeams and such to use for the structure. Neglecting to use the minimumstrength beams exposes the approving professional engineer to liabilityfor the structure's failure.

In that engineering world, the beam sizes and such are published in theform of structural codes -- standards to which the engineers base theirdesigns on. These tables were developed over decades of use and analysis,as well as trial and error. What physics student can forget the filmfootage of the famous Tacoma Narrows Bridge that collapsed due toharmonic loading generated by wind?

Even if one looks at the latest advances in software security bestpractices -- and there are several that are worthy of note -- we're a farcry away from any sort of published standards that can hold a candle towhat civil engineers use.

And yes, as I said, there has been significant work done in the bestpractices arena for software engineers to learn from. This includes theDepartment of Homeland Security's