Facebook doesn't have the most stellar privacy and security track record, especially given that many of its notable gaffes were avoidable. But with billions of users and a gargantuan platform to defend, it's not easy to catch every flaw in the company's 100 million lines of code. So four years ago, Facebook engineers began building a customized assessment tool that not only checks for known types of bugs but can fully scan the entire codebase in under 30 minutes—helping engineers catch issues in tweaks, changes, or major new features before they go live.
The platform, dubbed Zoncolan, is a "static analysis" tool that maps the behavior and functions of the codebase and looks for potential problems in individual branches, as well as in the interactions of various paths through the program. Having people manually review endless code changes all the time is impractical at such a large scale. But static analysis scales extremely well, because it sets "rules" about undesirable architecture or code behavior, and automatically scans the system for these classes of bugs. See it once, catch it forever. Ideally, the system not only flags potential problems but gives engineers real-time feedback and helps them learn to avoid pitfalls.
"Every time an engineer makes a proposed change to our codebase, Zoncolan will start running in the background, and it will either report to that engineer directly or it will flag to one of our security engineers who's on call," says Pieter Hooimeijer, a security engineering manager at Facebook. "So it runs thousands of times a day, and found on the order of 1,500 issues in calendar year 2018."
Static analysis tools don't find new types of vulnerabilities on their own; they can only catch things based on the rules they've been directed to follow. But they're a useful workhorse for catching the same types of mistakes again and again, or retroactively pulling out a set of bugs from a single new rule. They're also nowhere near unique to Facebook; static analysis tools are widely used in the security community and broader development industry. But Hooimeijer notes that Zoncolan is especially effective, because it is custom-built to comprehensively map Facebook's specific code. Hooimeijer says that before Facebook disclosed in March that it had accidentally stored hundreds of millions of user passwords in plain text, the company fed a rule about the bug into Zoncolan to scan the codebase for similar issues that could be lurking. And found a few.
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