Web Application Security 101: The Essentials to Stay Safe Online

Semen Petrenko
Semen Petrenko (CEO at Fruitful Code) 06 June, 2021
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web application security

Whether you are a 500-fortune company or a small local business trying to go online ASAP, cybersecurity is or will be one of the daily concerns for you.

So without further introductions, let’s dot the i’s for everything related to the web application security industry: its definition, trends, top app vulnerabilities, and ways to protect your product.

Definition of web application security

What is application security?

There are two components to the definition of application security. On the one hand, this is a process for securing a web-based solution from external attacks. On the other hand, this is an indispensable element of web development operations; it aims to identify and eliminate code vulnerabilities and hence prevent any hacker attack in the future.

Generally, web application security best practices state that the process needs to be proactive and continuous: development teams should adhere to security features and practices at every app development stage, cycle, and build, even after the release.

Why should you care about app security?

Business is about making money, not losing it. Application security is one way to keep the money within your business and not give it up due to security breaches and hacker attacks. Statistics by WhiteHat Security show that most industries with mobile apps always have a window of exposure throughout the year. This means that at all times, these companies are at risk of data breach. The most common risk is data leakage, which is also in the top-three app security concerns, according to OWASP. But let’s talk numbers a bit more.

Only 2021 has already seen more than 30 major data leaks in Facebook, ClubHouse, Microsoft Exchange, and other platforms. The companies suffered severe reputational loss, but due to their size, they recovered fast, and some got on their feet even too fast. Mid- and small-business owners believe that such web application security principles promoted by the moguls are not something they should care about because who would want to steal the data from a 30+ employee company, right?

Well, wrong. 28% of all security breaches happened to small businesses in 2020. So, it does not matter how small or big your DBs or servers are; malware and hacking attacks are still your reality. If you ignore the implementation of web application security solutions daily, you risk losing millions of records and clients’ private data.

Just consider that, on average, a cyberattack costs small businesses around $200,000, and many companies simply cannot survive such a budget line. Review your budget and think about whether you have an extra $200k there. If no, then continue reading the article to make your app as secure and safe as possible.

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Web application vulnerabilities and how to treat them

It is worth mentioning that the application security industry differs depending on the application type (cloud, web, mobile, desktop). This means that approaches, methodologies, and vulnerabilities will differ as well.

Web applications on the scale of vulnerabilities take up the highest place. They have the biggest and most dangerous exposure points that cybersecurity departments need to constantly monitor. The danger stems from the multiple vulnerable points that can fail the whole system through a minor leak. So let’s take a look at those points and define the strategy for protecting them.

Top web application risks

Not to play hypocrite, we will state that the vulnerabilities listed below are based on the OWASP top 10 (a list of web app vulnerabilities developed by the matter experts and regularly updated to match the reality; the project is designed by a non-profit organization, so you can always visit their website for more details). We provided a bit more details on each issue, explained it in simpler terms for non-tech experts and defined some steps for improvement.

1. Injection flaws

This risk happens whenever the received information is not filtered or vetted properly before the interpreter gets it. This means that any unverified information that is passed to the SQL server, browser, LDAP server, or anywhere else can put your web application at risk. Injection of the attacker’s data into any of these entities can make the interpreter execute a particular command without the proper authorization; this can result in data loss and hijacking of your clients’ browsers.

What to do?

Filter every piece of data that comes to you, and do it through white-listing as blacklists tend to fail majorly. Proper filtering setup is a challenging goal to reach, so we advise relying on the framework’s functions when it comes to filtering. If you have no framework in place, consider improving web application security by implementing one because by missing only 1 out of 100,000 malicious inputs, you risk losing everything in a split second.

2. Broken authentication

Session management and authentication are among the most complicated processes  in web application security. There are many things that can go wrong: passwords are not encrypted, sessions get fixated, session IDs are predictable, etc. While the vulnerability is called “broken authentication,” there are many reasons (read pitfalls) why this may happen. All of them compromise users’ passwords and keys, app sessions and session data; this risk may lead to identity theft and severe personal data leakages.

What to do?

Ensure that every session ID is unique and randomly assigned to prevent predictability. Besides that, do not put session IDs into URLs and implement session timeouts whenever possible. Double-identification upon login and password check (coupled with regular mandatory password change) can also prevent identity and data theft in your application. And keep in mind that a properly selected framework can facilitate session security practices in your application.

3. Sensitive data exposure

It is a common thing that you protect data; however, hackers frequently attack it while it is in transit and transferred from the user’s browser, or they aim for the crypto keys. The biggest problem is that once any piece of data is compromised, all of it is affected. So, the rule of thumb here is simple – to prevent sensitive data exposure from your list of web application security issues and apply special precautions when data is exchanged with the browser.

What to do?

For the transitioned data, ensure to use only HTTPs with a proper certificate and PEFs. This should be sufficient enough for data protection. Yet, storage data protection is more complicated. Rule #1 here is to drop any data you don’t need; do not store more than required for basic operations as you cannot lose data that you don’t have. If there is data you actually need, ensure it is encrypted and the passwords are hashed. Caching disabling for response helps here as well.

4. External entities (XXE)

Older XML processors are frequently poorly configured, allowing external data to be inserted into the XML. By this means, hackers can exploit such code vulnerability to extract any information from this document; they can also perform a denial-of-service attack (make your service unavailable to the end-users), or send a malicious remote request from the server. The risk here is that perpetrators get access to your internal documents that allows them to manage your data and even block the service entirely.

What to do?

The top tips to prevent the XXE vulnerability include blocking of the blind external uploads acceptance in your XMLs. Consider also removing the SSO since they are vulnerable to penetrations. We also recommend disabling DTDs in your web services and updating your SOAP to 1.2 or higher versions. Monitor your libraries and XML processors to ensure they are using the latest versions with the highest levels of security patches. The introduction of white-listing and server-input validation will also help.

5. Broken access control

Access control is crucial for building secure web applications. You need to ensure that a guest user cannot access the admin’s data and account. This vulnerability is evidenced when functional tests are not performed thoroughly or when all tests are automated. Through the gaps in access control, attackers can connect to high-level accounts and hence get the sensitive data available only for such users.

What to do?

First, check if you have access control through SAST and DAST. The tools can tell you if it’s missing altogether, then you will have to act quickly in order to fix the missing element. If this feature is present but seems not to work as expected, give your developers a task to manually verify the system’s efficiency and ensure that access control is introduced via a trusted server-less API (or server-side code).

6. Security misconfiguration

Improper setup of website security is among the top web application security issues. Misconfiguration frequently comes from on-the-run arrangements, cloud storage insecurities, usage of legacy systems, wrong settings configuration in different parts of an application. The risk here is huge as every misconfigured part of an app is yet another door for attackers into your users’ data.

What to do?

Every external and internal system in your web application must be upgraded, updated, and patched whenever needed. Monitor certification and the current state of systems to stay on top of prospective risks. Go over your web pages and remove any parts that are not used (accounts, pages, services, etc.); the fewer elements there are, the lower the risk is. And set up automated tests to control system state and identify vulnerabilities.

7. Insufficient logging & monitoring

Incomplete logging, ineffective integrations, and monitoring that misses out – all these give hackers a way to breach your system or stay inside undetected. Logging here means that incidents and discrepancies do not get logged by your system; hence, reviews and monitoring become ineffective as such issues do not get detected by the system at all.

What to do?

Efficient web application security guidelines say that you need to have a centralized log management solution that would accept and understand log files of different formats and sizes. Ensure that your web application creates logs for every step, change, addition, extraction – any action done by the user or the system. The records must be written, then generated, and sent to the centralized tool that would analyze and create log reports for more efficient human evaluation.

How to secure my web application?

This is the question you need to ask yourself daily. If you have a third-party team handling your application, ensure that you transform it into “how you secure my web application.” Besides the tips provided above for every vulnerability, there are specific tools and security techniques that can help you keep the systems protected at all times. Here is a shortlist.

  • Access control. You can learn more about this technique here, but in short, it investigates, establishes, controls, and monitors who and how can access your web application.
  • Data loss prevention (DLP). This collection of policies helps to protect users from information misuse. Considering that humans are frequently the weakest point in web security, DLP assists users with keeping their data in the system.
  • Endpoint security. This practice adds a layer of defense for the business network on a remote device. It is among the essential web application security principles for companies promoting BYOD in the work environment.
  • VPNs. Remote access through a trusted and secured virtual private network is the easiest way to protect internal data.
  • Firewall. This is a must-have gate that protects your internal system from any external (within-the-internet) piece of data or intruder.
  • SAST. Static application security testing scans your application code to detect any vulnerabilities, risks, and gaps. Here is a list of SAST tools that can help with these tests.
  • DAST. Such testing is performed in a dynamic environment of a running application. We advise working with both manual and automated tests with a tool of your selection.
  • XDRs. Extended detection and response tools are a new generation of web application security solutions. They have a unified interface to detect threats on any layer of your web solution (server, cloud, code, endpoint, etc.). Such XDR tools automate threat analysis and provide clear data on the new and existing vulnerabilities of a system. Furthermore, by integrating those with other security tools, you can effortlessly address many threats.

The primary trend in web application security principles is to embed security processes into the traditional application development lifecycle. The idea of faster app development and delivery turned the industry upside down and basically left no time for the thorough individualistic practice of security teams. As a result, the new approach is to combine development and security (or insert security into the existing development lifecycles), hence uniting the two into DevSecOps. Such a solution allows teams to stay more agile and proactive rather than fix newly identified breaches and patch up the holes. This approach can majorly impact budget allocation, promoting cost savings and more efficient app delivery.

Another web application security trend in 2021 is the integration of SAST and DAST. As the continuation of process consolidation, many security agents say that it makes more sense to perform dynamic tests on lower environments in order to deliver a more secure and effective application to production. Static and dynamic application security tests performed in the development stage help identify and fix a greater number of vulnerabilities, making the dev process even more economically efficient.

The most important trend that has already been common for a long time is the implementation of the continuous approach to app security by a web app development company. Since the overall tendency of the development teams is to move away from local to cloud storage facilities, it only makes sense to control and maintain a high level of security for data transfers between the company and the cloud. While cloud vendors monitor the security protocols of their services, there is still a moment of data transfer that remains vulnerable to external attacks. We advise following this trend and scrupulously scan your IaC to detect any structural/flow/configuration discrepancies.

Web application security guidelines

Following the OWASP top 10 vulnerabilities in the application security industry is considered good manners. This means that the team has created a list of vulnerabilities not just to make you aware of them but to do something about these issues. For this reason, the list of web application security guidelines should always begin from the must-read and must-implement security elements collected by the non-profit. Some of them have already been mentioned in this article (section about vulnerabilities), so these seven good practices serve as the solutions at the same time.

The next one should become your mantra – regular independent system audits. Developers working with the code get used to it and often miss out on the crucial errors that cause breaches. Moreover, their view of the code is always subjective and might omit some essential elements. Instead of trying not to offend your workers, just include independent audits into your standard process to ensure the sufficient level of app code security. You can easily outsource this service to avoid any biases.

Process automation saves time, money, and brain cells. Do not make your valuable employees go over and over the same piece of code in manual tests. On the contrary, spare their time for some more complex and important tasks; for example, allow bot detection systems to identify and block malicious activities, integrate SEIM tools, and enable auto-scanning every second of your website’s life. Automated processes minimize human errors and detect any discrepancies much earlier in the process when there is still time to fix those.

Use everything that the external services can offer in terms of security, and don’t get embarrassed about cloud-based security tools. As a rule, cloud vendors have their own security protocols and features that don’t require you to work hard. So instead of inventing the wheel, just install them and run. It is fast, cheap, and reliable.

Data encryption has already been mentioned in this article. However, it’s worth stressing the importance of such web application security best practices. Encryption allows you to protect your sensitive data even if it gets stolen. Hackers will be able to access your data, but they won’t have a chance of deciphering and using it. And this is your ultimate goal.

Get your system a dry run and use the pentesting services. No matter how great automated tests can get, they are still machines that can be tricked. An actual hacker who gets paid for a security breach is called a pentester. Such guys are brilliant and inventive. After their tests, you will get another list of system vulnerabilities to fix. The good news is that you can address them all before the actual website release.

Expert look on web application security from the Fruitful Code Team

The Cybersecurity Workforce Study in 2020 revealed that the market of cybersecurity skills remains significantly understaffed: even though it gained 25% more workers than the year before, there is still a need for 3.5 million employees worldwide. And this is the greatest challenge that companies see on the way to improving their web application security.

If you are one of those teams whose knowledge in web app security still needs improvement, you have two options: upskill your staff or go outside of your company – outsource. Upskilling is a perfect strategy for companies that have time and budget. Whenever your resources are limited, getting an external expert on board is usually a faster and more affordable solution. The critical idea you need to remember for either path is that your application is a dangerous and insecure place. It requires regular verifications, audits, and constant maintenance to protect your data efficiently.

Our take on web application security is that it is a complex and complicated element of the web application development process. It is demanding in time and resources, and you can never say that an app is 100% secure. You have to accept this thought and live further. To maximize the efficiency of your cybersecurity efforts, the prioritization of tasks, vulnerabilities and crises is an obligatory process to stay sane among critical and normal threats that appear daily.

At Fruitful Code, we have been handling cybersecurity for our customers for over a decade. We mastered the skill of risk management and can help a team tune up security processes with their web application. We can share our knowledge, advise on the next steps, or build web application security protocols from scratch.

Write to us about your cybersecurity concerns, and we will be happy to address them with a future plan of action right away.

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