Web applications are a common target for cybercriminals, from applications deployed by large enterprises to even small personal projects. Therefore, implementing the necessary security is essential.
- But how do you secure a web application?
- What are the easiest methods of securing web applications?
- and what are the main vulnerabilities web applications face?
Cybersecurity can come at a significant cost, especially if a business has a large attack surface that is made up of a range of technologies and systems. To successfully mitigate any risks, techniques such as input validation, encryption, authentication, authorization, and logging need to be implemented. For the financial services sector in particular, attacks on web applications surged by over 257% last year.
In this article, we will discuss 8 of the easiest practices for securing web applications, consider the most frequent types of web application attacks, and outline common vulnerabilities.
Why is Web Application Security So Important?
Organizations in the financial, retail, healthcare, and government sectors are among the most targeted by cybercriminals, with threat actors using a range of tools and techniques to infiltrate networks and access databases. A major problem is the prevalence of banking fraud, which is why business owners would be wise to look for digital bank accounts that are known for coming with multiple layers of security.
Web application security is vital to protect the data of your business, employees, and customers which cybercriminals could use to perform a range of illegal activities. A breached web application could result in significant downtime for a business, as well as damaging its reputation, and causing distrust among its customer base in terms of keeping their details safe.
Ultimately, anything connected to the internet could be subject to a cyber attack, with network devices of all types and sizes in the aforementioned industries storing and processing information that could prove valuable to criminals. For example, medical clinics have increasingly been relying on third-party software to facilitate direct communication with their patients for handling invoicing, scheduling appointments, and conveying updates from doctors. While certainly convenient, these tools also house very sensitive personal and financial patient data and would be a prime target for cybercriminals.
What Are The Most Common Types Of Web Application Cyber Attacks?
The main target for cybercriminals when it comes to web applications is the network connection, with attackers employing a range of methods to try and breach a system.
Common attacks that may be used by a hacker include:
- Bypassing broken authentication protocols
- Bot attacks that launch automated scripts perform malicious actions
- Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF)
- Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) attacks
- Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attacks
- Local File Inclusion (LFI) and Remote File Inclusion (RFI) Exploits
- SQL Injection Attacks
The Most Common Web Application Vulnerabilities
The attacks listed in the previous section target web application vulnerabilities which can sometimes be overlooked by even experienced developers and system administrators. Unless mitigated by implementing a comprehensive security strategy, a business’s data is likely to be at risk.
Ten of the most common web application security vulnerabilities are as follows:
- Broken Authentication – A lack of multi-factor authentication can make it very easy for a hacker to gain access to a user’s profile.
- Cross-Site Scripting – Phishing attacks are launched to trick users into clicking a link that executes malicious code on a system.
- Cross-Site Request Forgery – Similar to an XSS attack, this attack aims to take over a user’s session once logged in.
- Injection Flaws – Hackers inject malicious data to directly attack unprotected databases and directories.
- Insecure Direct Object References – Enumeration attacks are used to access exposed database files and keys.
- Missing Function-Level Access Control – Misconfigured, broken, or missing server-side authorization can allow hackers to gain access to the backend of an application.
- Security Misconfigurations – This may include unprotected files and directories, outdated software, unpatched flaws, and unused and neglected pages.
- Sensitive Data Exposure – Hackers can access data that is not encrypted.
- Third-Party Components that Contain Vulnerabilities – Some web applications may use third-party components that could have unknown vulnerabilities.
- Unvalidated Redirects and Forwarding – A hacker can use techniques to redirect users to a malicious website in an attempt to steal their credentials and/or data.
The 15 Easiest Practices For Securing Web Applications
Now we have established some of the vulnerabilities that are common to web applications, let’s consider how they can be mitigated by implementing simple security practices.
- Establish Possible Points-of-Entry
Some web applications are client-facing and designed to handle data transactions, for example. This means that a single web application is likely to have a wide number of entry points that could be exploited by a cyber attacker. Therefore, each entry point needs to be identified.
To do this, software features can be broken down into three modules, ranging from critical to normal.
- Normal Modules do not have direct access to the sensitive information contained in the application but still require monitoring.
- Serious modules store sensitive data relating to the organization and its users.
- Critical modules contain client-facing features that can be accessed via the Internet, providing access to critical data. These features can include log-in pages and checkout/ transaction screens.
- Penetration Testing/ Ethical Hacking
Penetration testing is the process of allowing cybersecurity experts to simulate attacks on a system in an attempt to identify any weaknesses. Also known as ethical hacking, varying levels of information and access are provided depending on the overall goal of the exercise. These levels are referred to as white box, gray box, and black box.
White, Gray, and Black Box Penetration Testing
- Black Box Pentesting – In a black-box penetration test, the test assumes the role of a typical hacker and is provided with no information regarding the target system. This means they cannot access architecture diagrams or source code unless this information is publicly available. This type of test aims to identify vulnerabilities outside of the network, mimicking the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) that may be used by a real threat actor.
- Gray Box Pentesting – The next level of penetration testing is a gray box, where the tester again targets a system as an outsider but has been given some level of user access and information regarding the system. This information could include design and architecture diagrams, making this type of testing more efficient than black-box and simulating an attacker that has gained long-term access to a network.
- White Box Pentesting – White box (sometimes referred to as clear or open box) is the opposite of a black box test, providing the tester with full access to any source code, design/ architecture documentation, and other information that needs to be assessed to find vulnerabilities. This is the most time-consuming and comprehensive form of testing and requires the tester to assess large volumes of data to locate any weaknesses, both internally and externally.
This is achieved using an array of tools such as debuggers and source code analyzers.
- Log Software Changes
Applications can change frequently, from new libraries, frameworks, and security updates to additional features that provide more functionality. These changes, however small, must be documented to maintain an effective level of web security. Failing to document software changes can make it extremely difficult to identify the attack point should a data breach occur.
The Benefits of Using Logging Tools
The key benefits of using log monitoring and management tools include:
- Logging tools result in improved detection of any issues
- Response times to any problems are significantly increased
- Better network transparency resulting in great security
- Can provide a better user experience
- Make Log Data Accessible
Implementing sufficient logging processes is all well and good but it can count for little if it cannot be accessed easily. All relevant parties should have access to any log data to develop an effective incident response strategy. The log should show how the data was collected and its context so that the period leading up to the incident can be analyzed to improve current security and assist in any future investigations. Without comprehensive and contextual logs, the ability to mitigate any vulnerabilities if a security incident occurs is diminished.
- Web Application Firewalls (WAF)
Simply, web application firewalls help to filter HTTP traffic between the client and the server, blocking any malicious requests. By analyzing traffic, firewalls are one of the most effective ways of protecting a network without the need for many configurations. However, it should be noted that some attacks such as SQL injections and XSS can bypass basic firewalls.
Implement encryption technologies such as HTTPS, HSTS, and SSL to protect all user data that is sent across the network. Implementing just HTTPS means data would still be vulnerable should anyone gain access to the server.
- Install Updates Regularly
When it comes to security updates, it is not enough to just update the application itself, as any library or third-party services could be exploited if they lack the latest security patches. Third-party services are especially targeted by hackers as they are commonly overlooked from a security perspective.
When updating libraries, refer to your documentation to check whether any of them have become obsolete and apply the latest version updates to any that are needed.
- Real-Time Monitoring
Sometimes, a security breach can go undetected for over six months, emphasizing the importance of monitoring to identify any unusual activity as soon as possible. Real-time monitoring software assesses user behavior and creates alerts if any anomalies are detected.
- Automate Security Tasks
Manually performing the security tasks that are required to identify and mitigate security risks on a network has become practically impossible due to the number of endpoints, devices, and users that may be connected to a system. Thankfully, the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) has made it possible to automate such tasks, allowing security teams to allocate their time and expertise to complete more challenging tasks that require human intervention.
With AI cybersecurity automation, tasks such as daily scans, real-time monitoring, and low-level incident alerts can all be taken care of.
- Manage Permissions
User access needs to be limited based on the user’s needs, ensuring they do not have permission to access any areas of the network that don’t apply to them. Should someone gain unauthorized access to the network with a low-level user’s credentials, then they will be limited in terms of what data they can access.
Furthermore, this can also limit the extent of a revenge attack should a person leaving the company look to inflict any damage or steal information.
Zero Trust or Least Privilege?
The Principle of Least Privilege (POLP) is a concept that enables administrators to restrict what resources, applications, and data a user or device can access. Requiring users to authenticate themselves before being able to access areas of the network that allow them to perform the tasks that they need to complete. Simply, a user only has the access that is needed for them to perform their job or function, giving them the minimum level of access privilege.
By doing so, should a user account be compromised, the malicious actor cannot reach all areas of the network and the amount of damage they can do is limited, preventing a large-scale data breach.
Zero Trust, on the other hand, is focused on authentication and authorization, requiring users to confirm their identity before being able to access any area of the network. These mechanisms that accurately confirm a person’s identity allow administrators to closely monitor what users and devices are accessing and their behaviors. Therefore, any unusual or potentially malicious behavior can be easily flagged and alerts issued.
Authentication checks are performed continuously so each user must confirm their identity each time they wish to access the network. The Zero Trust concept is one of the most effective ways of preventing user accounts and devices from being compromised and is often considered a more comprehensive security methodology than POLP.
However, to develop the best possible security strategy, it is recommended to implement both POLP and Zero Trust methodologies. Zero Trust handles the authorization and authentication, and the Principle of Least Privilege to limit the potential damage of a malicious actor gaining access.
- Establish a DevSecOps Approach
DevSecOps (also known as a shift-left approach) is the process of implementing security testing in every phase of the web application development process. This is achieved with a range of tools and processes that enables collaboration between developers, security teams, and operational teams, creating a streamlined and secure workflow.
By performing security testing at every stage of development, any security risks can be quickly and easily identified and then mitigated, from the initial design stages to the application’s implementation. A DevSecOps approach is growing in popularity, allowing developers to create code quickly, saving time and resources without compromising on security.
- Ensure Accurate Input Validation
A lack of input validation provides an opportunity for hackers and measures should be put in place to ensure all input is syntactically and semantically correct.
Input data should be:
- Include the expected number of characters and digits
- Be validated for length and size
- Whitelisted if possible
- Implement a Secure SSDLC Management Process
The secure systems development lifecycle (SDLC) is a project management concept that refers to securing each stage of a software development project. This starts from the initial concept and feasibility study through to maintaining the web application once it has been deployed.
By implementing SSDLC management throughout a web application’s lifecycle they are:
Built and maintained with security as the primary consideration
- Developed in a secure environment with best practices adhered to
- Delivered to clients securely to protect their data
- Assess Open-Source Vulnerabilities
Many web application development projects make use of open-source tools to reduce costs and reduce the amount of coding required to add various functionality. However, open-source tools present a significant amount of risk if they are not regularly monitored. Zero-day vulnerabilities within the software are one of the biggest risks in web products, requiring the latest updates and patches to be installed as soon as possible before the vulnerability can be exploited.
- Container Management
Containers are software packages that contain all the required elements for a web application to run in any environment. This is achieved by virtualizing the operating system and creating an image that can be run from anywhere, ranging from a personal device to a private data center.
Containerization provides a secure, lightweight, and reliable runtime environment for web applications that offer a level of consistency from host to host. This differs from the concept of serverless technology which gives little to no consideration to hosts.
To secure containers, the image should be signed using a digital signature tool like Docker Content Trust. Automated scans should also be run regularly to look for any open-source vulnerabilities throughout the container’s integration pipeline.
Securing web applications is essential to reduce the attack surface of a network, with such applications providing several entry points for cybercriminals if left unprotected. Fortunately, securing web applications can be very straightforward if best practices are adhered to, including deploying firewalls, real-time monitoring, and regularly updating applications and connected services.