How to Execute a Secure Code Review as Part of Pen Testing

November 28, 20235 min read


Secure code review is an essential component of penetration testing (pen testing) that involves auditing the source code to identify security flaws that could lead to vulnerabilities in a software application. The process aims to ensure that the application’s code is robust against attacks and complies with security best practices. Below is a detailed guide on performing a secure code review.

Step 1: Preparation

  • Define Scope: Establish the boundaries of the code review. Determine what code bases, repositories, and branches will be covered.
  • Gather Documentation: Obtain any documentation related to the application such as architecture diagrams, design documents, and previously reported issues.
  • Choose Review Methodology: Decide between manual review, automated scanning, or a combination of both. Define the checklist of security aspects to review.
  • Set Up Environment: Create a secure environment for the code review. This could be a separate workstation or a virtual machine with the necessary tools installed.
  • Select Tools: Choose appropriate static analysis tools (SAST) for the languages and frameworks you are auditing. Ensure they are up to date and properly configured.

Step 2: Understand the Application

  • Familiarize With The Codebase: Read through the code to understand its structure, modules, and how they interact.
  • Understand Functionality: Know what the application is supposed to do. This will help to identify logic flaws later on.
  • Identify Entry Points: Find out where inputs are accepted from users or external systems. These often are points where vulnerabilities could be present.
  • Recognize Data Flow: Understand how data flows through the application and track potential points where data could be misused or exposed.

Step 3: Manual Code Review

  • Review Coding Practices: Look for adherence to secure coding standards and practices. Check for common coding flaws.
  • Examine Authentication and Authorization Schemes: Ensure proper controls are in place and correctly implemented.
  • Look for Common Vulnerabilities: Use the OWASP Top Ten as a guide to review for known types of web application vulnerabilities.
  • Session Management: Check how sessions are created, maintained, and terminated securely.
  • Input Validation: Review how user inputs are validated to prevent injection attacks.
  • Error Handling: Ensure that error messages do not leak sensitive information.
  • Encryption Implementation: Verify that encryption is used correctly to protect data in transit and at rest.

Step 4: Automated Scanning

  • Run SAST Tools: Execute the selected static analysis tools to scan the code for patterns that are indicative of security issues.
  • Analyze Results: Inspect the reported findings to determine if they are false positives or actual issues that need to be addressed.
  • Integrate With CI/CD: If applicable, integrate SAST tools into the continuous integration/continuous deployment pipeline for regular scans.

Step 5: Reporting and Remediation

  • Document Findings: Create a comprehensive report detailing all identified vulnerabilities, their severity, potential impact, and remediation guidelines.
  • Present to Stakeholders: Share the findings with developers, project managers, and other relevant stakeholders.
  • Recommend Fixes: Provide guidance on how to resolve the issues. Suggest patches, code changes, or architectural improvements.
  • Verify Fixes: Once changes are made, verify that the fixes have been properly implemented and have not introduced new vulnerabilities.

Step 6: Retesting

  • Retest Code: After fixes have been made, retest the relevant sections of code to ensure that the vulnerabilities are indeed resolved.
  • Update Documentation: Keep the security documentation up to date with the changes and new security measures implemented.

Step 7: Training and Process Improvement

  • Developer Training: Provide developers with training based on the findings to prevent similar issues from occurring in the future.
  • Adjust Guidelines: Update coding guidelines and review checklists as needed to reflect any new security insights gained from the review.
  • Feedback Loop: Create a feedback loop between security reviewers and developers for continuous improvement of the code review process.


A secure code review is a proactive measure in the pen testing process that helps identify and mitigate potential security issues before they become exploitable vulnerabilities. By combining manual and automated approaches, following a structured methodology, and engaging in thorough reporting and remediation, you can significantly improve the security posture of your software applications. Regular reviews, continuous learning, and process improvements ensure that secure coding remains an integral part of the development lifecycle.