Redundancy Patterns

The following is an excerpt from the book Designing Secure Software: A Guide for Developers by Loren Kohnfelder, Copyright 2022, No Starch Press

Redundancy is a core strategy for safety in engineering that’s reflected in many common-sense practices, such as spare tires for cars. These patterns show how to apply it to make software more secure.

Defense in Depth

Combining independent layers of protection makes for a stronger overall defense.

This powerful technique is one of the most important patterns we have for making inevitably bug-ridden software systems more secure than their components. Visualize a room that you want to convert to a darkroom by putting plywood over the window. You have plenty of plywood, but somebody has randomly drilled several small holes in every sheet. Nail up just one sheet, and numerous pinholes ruin the darkness. Nail a second sheet on top of that, and unless two holes just happen to align, you now have a completely dark room. A security checkpoint that includes both a metal detector and a pat down is another example of this pattern.

In the realm of software design, deploy Defense in Depth by layering two or more independent protection mechanisms to guard a particularly critical security decision. Like the holey plywood, there might be flaws in each of the implementations, but the likelihood that any given attack will penetrate both is minuscule, akin to having two plywood holes just happen to line up and let light through. Since two independent checks require double the effort and take twice as long, you should use this technique sparingly.

Separation of Privilege

Two parties are more trustworthy than one.

Also known as Separation of Duty, the Separation of Privilege pattern refers to the indisputable truth that two locks are stronger than one when those locks have different keys entrusted to two different people. While it’s possible that those two people may be in cahoots, that rarely happens; plus, there are good ways to minimize that risk, and in any case it’s way better than relying entirely on one individual.

For example, safe deposit boxes are designed such that a bank maintains the security of the vault that contains all the boxes, and each box holder has a separate key that opens their box. Bankers cannot get into any of the boxes without brute-forcing them, such as by drilling the locks, yet no customer knows the combination that opens the vault. Only when a customer gains access from the bank and then uses their own key can their box be opened.

Apply this pattern when there are distinct overlapping responsibilities for a protected resource. Securing a datacenter is a classic case: the datacenter has a system administrator (or a team of them, for a big operation) responsible for operating the machines with superuser access. In addition, security guards control physical access to the facility. These separate duties, paired with corresponding controls of the respective credentials and access keys, should belong to employees who report to different executives in the organization, making collusion less likely and preventing one boss from ordering an extraordinary action in violation of protocol. Specifically, the admins who work remotely shouldn’t have physical access to the machines in the datacenter, and the people physically in the datacenter shouldn’t know any of the access codes to log into the machines, or the keys needed to decrypt any of the storage units. It would take two people colluding, one from each domain of control, to gain both physical and admin access in order to fully compromise security. In large organizations, different groups might be responsible for various datasets managed within the datacenter as an additional degree of separation.

The other use of this pattern, typically reserved for the most critical functions, is to split one responsibility into multiple duties to avoid any serious consequences as a result of a single actor’s mistake or malicious intent. As extra protection against a backup copy of data possibly leaking, you could encrypt it twice with different keys entrusted separately, so that later it could be used only with the help of both parties. An extreme example, triggering a nuclear missile launch, requires two keys turned simultaneously in locks 10 feet apart, ensuring that no individual acting alone could possibly actuate it.

Secure your audit logs by Separation of Privilege, with one team responsible for the recording and review of events and another for initiating the events. This means that the admins can audit user activity, but a separate group needs to audit the admins. Otherwise, a bad actor could block the recording of their own corrupt activity or tamper with the audit log to cover their tracks.