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Cover image for Secure code review: Part 6 - Handling sensitive data

Secure code review: Part 6 - Handling sensitive data

brianverm profile image Brian Vermeer πŸ§‘πŸΌβ€πŸŽ“πŸ§‘πŸΌβ€πŸ’» ・3 min read

Code reviews are hard to do well. Particularly when you’re not entirely sure about the errors you should be looking for! The DevSecOps approach pushes security testing left so that vulnerabilities can be found and fixed earlier, in the design, development, or CI/CD stages of the workflow. It’s always a good idea to check for security issues in code that you review. In case you don’t know what to look for, check out this series to give you pointers for your next code reviews!

Handle sensitive data with care

Exposing sensitive data β€” like personal information or credit card numbers of your client β€” can be harmful. But even a more subtle case than this can be equally harmful. For example, the exposure of unique identifiers in your system is harmful, if that identifier can be used in another call to retrieve additional data.

First of all, you need to look closely at the design of your application and determine if you really need the data. On top of that, make sure that you don’t expose sensitive data, perhaps via logging, autocompletion, transmitting data etc.

Storing sensitive data

If you need to persist sensitive data like Personally Identifiable Information (PII) or financial details, be aware that proper encryption is used. You probably want and need to be GDPR compliant but, first and foremost, you don’t want your clients data to be compromised. The encryption should either be a strong 2-way encryption algorithm, if you need to retrieve the data in its original form, or a strong cryptographic hashing algorithm, if you need to store passwords. Don’t fall into the trap of writing your own encryption β€” find out what encryption you need to use and use a well-vetted library to handle the encryption for you. For instance, use BCrypt for password hashing and encryption algorithms Triple DES, RSA and AES to encrypt the data you need to retrieve. Most importantly, keep reviewing if the algorithms you use are still secure enough. What is perfectly fine today, might be compromised tomorrow.

Also keep in mind that sensitive data can live in memory. If you change a password in your system prevent temporary storage in an immutable data type. For example, if you use a String in Java to store your password in memory, the original value will be in memory until the garbage collector removes it as String is immutable. A byte array would be a better choice in this case.

Transporting sensitive data

If you need to transfer sensitive data, check if the connection is secure. Sensitive data should only be transferred encrypted and over a TLS. You need to also make sure that the TLS version is up to date. Obviously sending somebody’s credit card details as a query parameter or as plain text in the payload over HTTP is not considered safe at all.

Session data

Last but certainly not least, consider session data also as sensitive data. The advice is not to store sensitive data in cookies at all, but rather use a session identifier and store the data in a server-managed session. Also, make sure that cookies are encrypted and have a decent length (eg. 128 bits). Check if attributes like HttpOnly, Secure, and SameSite on the cookie are set correctly and that they expire in a reasonable amount of time. Note that if a user logs out client-side, the session must be invalidated so it cannot be used elsewhere.

Want to know more

Check the complete Secure code review cheat sheet

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