A day rarely passes without a headline announcing a new ransomware demand or security breach. With that fact, it’s no surprise that professional programmers ask, “What is the most secure programming language?” There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but a look at the current language landscape can guide an organization’s near-term strategy.
The Benchmarks: No Easy Answer
There is no tidy industry-wide yardstick for evaluating programming language security, but three resources provide a starting point.
The federal government’s National Vulnerability Database serves as a clearinghouse for software security issues. The NVD assigns Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures code numbers to each documented security issue, enabling precise apples-to-apples comparisons of security issues.
The Open Web Application Security Project issues a report every four years. The OWASP report combines a comprehensive analysis of CVE reports with a survey of industry professionals. This combination makes the OWASP Top 10 function as both a report card for industry security efforts and a valuable heads-up for developing threats.
GitHub’s massive database offers another way to compare languages on an issue-by-issue basis.:
- Type a security concern in the main search field, for example, “XSS.”
- Select one or more languages from the options box.
- Click on “Advanced Search” to tailor the search by date, stars, and file extension.
The Languages: Tools of the Trade
Let’s look at each major language individually to see the pros and cons of each as the most secure programming language.
The C Family
It is no exaggeration to say that the world runs on compiled C code. C made the programming scene in 1972. C++ followed in 1985, introducing objects and classes for more portable code. Programming with C and C++ is like driving a manual transmission car with an unforgiving clutch: Coders must know what they are doing.
The C languages shine in execution speed and mathematical precision. Unfortunately, C also accounts for a high number of CVE reports. With the C family, programmers must take full responsibility for memory management, opening the door to numerous vulnerabilities. Owing to this fact, Microsoft openly urges developers to use memory-managing languages if the mission does not require C’s speed and precision.
Introduced in 1995, Java is an object-oriented language that offers many of the advantages of C++ but takes over the tedious memory management tasks. The annual Stack Overflow survey indicates programmers have a love-hate relationship with the language. Nonetheless, pull requests show Java gaining market share after a multi-year plateau.
Born in the mid-1990s, Ruby was an effort to combine the best features of interpreted languages such as BASIC, Lisp, and Perl. Ruby syntax resembles C++, but automatic memory management slashes lines of code and aids readability. Ruby has a small but passionate following in the development community and works well for database interfaces.
The Application Layer: A Primary Point of Attack
The seven-layer Open Systems Interconnection reference model describes the processes of computing and telecommunications. Each OSI layer moves farther away from the physical computing hardware until reaching the Application Layer, the point where users interact with the programmer’s code. The Application Layer confronts programmers with several security perils.
Structured Query Language is the modern way to modify and access the information stored in databases. To harness the power of SQL, programmers concatenate — build up — their queries inside their code. When programmers fail to exercise due diligence, attackers can sneak malicious code into this process and access a remote database.
XSS exploits happen when attackers trick a web browser into executing malicious code. When successful, attackers can execute commands, change user passwords, and even initiate SQL injection attacks. XSS exploits come in two flavors. Reflected XSS attacks aim at vulnerable website search fields. More dangerous Stored/Permanent attacks park malicious code on servers. With this code safely stored, a hacker can execute a few POST requests to gain access to a user’s account.
Java earned unwanted headlines in 2021 with vulnerability to deserialization attacks. Serialization is the process of converting objects into byte strings for transport across a network. Deserialization converts the string back into an object. If an attacker can sneak a malicious deserialized object into a network, calamities ranging from denial of service to full-scale code execution become possible.
Frameworks: A Valuable Backstop for Coders
With the vulnerability of the application layer in mind, making a wise choice of programming language can enhance development time and security for new applications. When maintaining an already-deployed application, the choice of programming language is already locked in, or as Texas code slingers say, “Ya dance with them what brung ya.” In either situation, a well-chosen framework can help developers meet the twin goals of security and rapid deployment.
Popular frameworks include:
The premier framework for Python, Django leverages Python’s admirable mix of execution speed and security features. This framework’s templates make for some of the safest coding around and offer near bullet-proof protection against XSS attacks if coders use the built-in Django engine. If developers opt for a different server-side solution, these protections go out the window. In this case, scanning with a software compatibility analysis tool is essential.
Ruby on Rails
Microsoft’s ASP.NET Core is a cross-platform successor to the original ASP.NET and boasts a sky-high popularity score with Stack Overflow survey respondents. Accounting for that enthusiasm is ASP.NET Core’s ability to accommodate a wide variety of languages. Microsoft’s default settings yield very secure applications, but the Redmond giant does not compel compliance and envelope-pushing coders can open the door to attacks.
In the end, the safest programming language depends heavily on programmer talent, development time, and a strategic selection of framework.
The answer: There isn’t a most secure programming language.
SOOS: The Safest Choice for SCA
Wise decisions on programming language and frameworks can nip security problems in the bud. The same fact holds for software composition analysis tools. Unlike languages and frameworks, the choice for SCA could not be simpler: SOOS.Engineered to integrate with popular frameworks and languages, SOOS slots in seamlessly with existing CI/CD pipelines. SOOS’s intuitive dashboards highlight software vulnerabilities and license status before these issues can derail deployment. Capable and cost-effective, SOOS is the easy choice for SCA.