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Finding and Understanding Shadow Code

The risk of unsolicited deployments in agile development and how to detect and manage shadow code 

In today’s business world of fast-paced software development, “Agility is fundamental to leading a team through times of change.” [Sandra E. Peterson]. Developers are always under pressure to quickly push new features, fix bugs, and update applications to meet users’ evolving needs. But sometimes, in their quest for speed, developers bypass standard operating procedures and deploy unsanctioned code. This unapproved, often undetected code is known as “shadow code.”  

What is Shadow Code?  

Shadow code refers to any code that is introduced into production applications without undergoing the usual review or approval processes. This can include snippets of JavaScript, third-party libraries, plugins, or any other software code. Just as “shadow IT” refers to unsanctioned IT systems and solutions used within an organization, shadow code represents the elements within these systems that haven’t been formally vetted.  

Why does Shadow Code Exist?  

  • Pressure to Deliver Quickly: Often, the competitive market necessitates rapid product launches. Developers might feel that the standard code review process is too slow, prompting them to take shortcuts.
  • Lack of Awareness: Sometimes, developers might not even be aware that they’re introducing shadow code, especially when using third-party libraries or plugins. 
  • Decentralized Teams: In large organizations or those with distributed teams, it’s possible for communication gaps to lead to the introduction of shadow code.  

Risks Associated with Shadow Code  

  • Security Vulnerabilities: Unvetted code can introduce vulnerabilities into the system, making it a potential target for cyberattacks.  
  • Performance Issues: Shadow code might not be optimized for performance, leading to slower load times or system crashes.  
  • Compliance Violations: For industries that need to adhere to strict regulations, introducing unapproved code can lead to non-compliance, resulting in hefty fines.  
  • Maintenance Challenges: Since shadow code isn’t part of the official codebase documentation, it can create issues when future updates or changes are needed.  

Detecting and Managing Shadow Code  

  • Regular Audits: Periodically review your applications and systems to detect any unauthorized code. Tools like static application security testing (SAST) can help identify unapproved code snippets. 
  • Educate Your Team: Ensure that your developers understand the risks associated with shadow code and the importance of following the approved code deployment process.  
  • Streamline Code Review Processes: If developers bypass the review process because it’s too slow, consider ways to streamline it without compromising on code quality or security.
  • Use Sandboxed Environments: Before deploying any code, run it in a sandboxed environment. This will not only catch shadow code but also allow you to identify potential vulnerabilities or performance issues.
  • Establish Clear Communication Channels: Ensure that all teams, especially if distributed, have clear channels for communication. This can prevent the unintentional introduction of shadow code due to miscommunication.  

Addressing shadow code is essential because it can introduce vulnerabilities and other risks. Here’s how a platform like TrueFort® can help in finding and understanding shadow code:  

  • Real-time Application Visibility: TrueFort offers real-time visibility into the behavior within applications running across an enterprise’s infrastructure. This visibility can be instrumental in spotting unfamiliar or unauthorized activities—potential indicators of shadow code.  
  • Behavior Analytics: TrueFort’s platform uses behavior analytics to understand the ‘normal’ behavior of applications and their associated components. Any deviation from this normal and benchmarked behavior, such as an unauthorized piece of code executing unexpected actions, is automatically flagged for investigation. 
  • Integration with DevOps Tools: By integrating with CI/CD pipelines and other DevOps tools, TrueFort can monitor and alert on unauthorized deployments or changes to the application stack. This can help in catching shadow code before it even becomes operational.  
  • Configuration Monitoring: TrueFort’s ability to monitor changes in files, configurations, and binaries can help in identifying tampering or unauthorized changes, often symptomatic of shadow code. 
  • Granular Policy Controls: TrueFort allows organizations to set granular policies regarding what can and cannot run, and who can make changes. By enforcing these policies, organizations can ensure that only approved code gets executed. 
  • Historical Analysis: With TrueFort, organizations can retrospectively analyze past application behaviors and changes, providing insights into when and where shadow code might have been introduced.  
  • Collaborative Remediation: Upon detecting shadow code or any anomalous behavior, TrueFort facilitates collaborative remediation. This means bringing together the security, IT, and development teams to understand the nature of the code, its purpose, and whether it poses a risk.  
  • Reporting and Compliance: Shadow code can often lead to compliance violations, especially if it processes or accesses regulated data. TrueFort’s reporting capabilities can help organizations maintain compliance by ensuring only authorized and known code interacts with sensitive data.  

 While shadow code poses a significant risk to organizations, leveraging a platform like TrueFort can provide the visibility and control required to identify, understand, and manage this risk. If your organization is considering TrueFort or another solution for this purpose, it’s essential to consult with the vendor directly to understand the specific capabilities and how they relate to your environment and needs. 

Moving Forward with Shadow Code Awareness  

The discovery of shadow code in your environment shouldn’t be a reason for panic. Instead, use it as a learning opportunity. Understand why it was introduced, educate your team, and refine your processes.  

While agility in software development is essential, it shouldn’t come at the cost of security or performance. A balance needs to be struck between rapid development and maintaining code integrity. By staying vigilant, educating teams, and leveraging the right tools, organizations can significantly reduce the risks associated with shadow code while still meeting their agility goals.  

In a world where software rules, understanding and managing shadow code is not just a best practice—it’s a necessity. Adopt a proactive approach, and ensure that your applications remain secure, compliant, and efficient. 

If you would like to know more about how the TrueFort Platform facilitates the discovery of shadow code, please contact us for a no-obligation consultation and demonstration. 

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