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Report: Regulatory and monetary incentives needed to adopt safer programming languages

Companies have been urged to create plans on how they intend to get rid of memory-unsafe code in their products

A new report recommends using regulatory and monetary incentives to encourage the adoption of safer programming languages to build more cyber-secure software.

Estimates made in research carried out by Consumer Reports contended that around 60-70% of browser and kernel vulnerabilities are discovered in codebases largely comprised of C and C++ code - two languages known for poor memory safety. 

One of the report's chief conclusions was that monetary or regulatory incentives could be needed to convince an industry notoriously reliant on older, less memory-safe languages to make the switch to newer languages such as Go, Ruby, and Rust.

Both the private and public sectors could also benefit from enacting policies that promote the creation of memory-safe code, the report suggested.

"As much as possible, companies, government organisations, and other entities should commit to using memory-safe languages for new products and tools and newly developed custom components," the report read.

There are numerous barriers to adoption when it comes to memory-safe languages. Government agencies, for example, can't just purchase memory-safe solutions out of the box, the report noted, so the issue also requires strong advocacy from engineers to move towards memory safety as a priority.

"The carrot approach for memory safety may include not just decreased future costs in cyber security, but also reliability and efficiency. Ideally, memory safety will be viewed as a proxy for funded, competent risk management strategy and for software that's currently evolving and malleable."

Such a transition is likely to take substantial amounts of time given the inherent complexity of rewriting large codebases in newer languages with different functionalities and performance levels, the researchers noted.

Other suggested steps forward the report made included: asking engineers to list memory safety mitigations as part of a software's feature set; training development teams on how to program memory-safe code; and developing public awareness campaigns.

"Languages such as C and C++, which are older than more modern programming languages, lack memory management being built-in," said Eleanor Watson, IEEE fellow, machine intelligence researcher, and AI singularity expert to IT Pro. 

"Competent coding of an embedded system with limited updates may be reasonably safe, especially if combined with tools for the formal verification of the system and its functionality. Personally, I feel that the phase-out of memory unsafe programming in applications makes sense, but that there should be different rules for embedded systems which are bounded in a limited range of activity and which require high performance."

What is memory safety?

The US' National Security Agency (NSA) has been vocal on the topic of memory-safe programming languages recently.

In November 2022, it made a public call to move away from languages like C and C++ due to the proportion of exploitable security vulnerabilities being attributed to sub-optimal handling of memory in software.

As yet, the NSA's stance hasn't been enacted in the form of regulation or legislation, but as calls grow for a transition towards safer languages, the report's suggestions could feasibly become reality.

Use-after-free and out-of-bounds read/write bugs are among the most common affecting systems presently and both would be automatically ended by using memory-safe languages, rather than having to rely on a developer to code the necessary safeguards.

"While developers using memory-unsafe languages can attempt to avoid all the pitfalls of these languages, this is a losing battle, as experience has shown that individual expertise is no match for a systemic problem," the report read.

"Even when organisations put significant effort and resources into detecting, fixing, and mitigating this class of bugs, memory unsafety continues to represent the majority of high-severity security vulnerabilities and stability issues.

"It is important to work not only on improving detection of memory bugs but to ramp up efforts to prevent them in the first place."

Barriers to adoption

A number of barriers exist when it comes to transitioning away from older, memory-unsafe languages. The report suggested it all starts with education and the professors in charge of some computer science courses displaying reluctance to transition from C and C++. 

"Professors have a golden opportunity here to explain the dangers of C and similar languages, and possibly increase the weight of memory safety mistakes on exercise grading, which proliferate in student-written code just as they do outside of the classroom.

"Another opportunity is to switch languages for part of those courses."

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The researchers conceded that teaching in languages such as Rust could lead to "inessential complexity", so a balance needs to be struck between teaching languages that have real-world value while raising awareness of their dangers and possible alternatives.

This reluctance for change is also replicated in the executive levels of a company where management might not trust new languages or their ability to maintain the same functionality.

“Perhaps the tools are workable but there is the sense that C/C++ equivalents are more reliable or easier to use,” read the report.

There are also inherent challenges when it comes to actually rewriting large and complex codebases in new languages. 

Considerations when embarking on such a change include balancing tradeoffs between cost of implementation, runtime performance, toolchain complexity, and overall safety. In some scenarios, factors such as runtime performance may outweigh safety in some organisations, for example.

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