Learn about web application security, including different types and best practices in this comprehensive guide.
Web Application Security Definition
Web application security involves identifying and fixing vulnerabilities across websites, web applications, and web services to prevent internal and external security threats.
What Are Threats to Web Application Security?
In today’s increasingly mobile business environment, safeguarding mission-critical applications from cyberattacks is critical for uninterrupted operations. Testing applications can uncover the security flaws, such as poor design and API weakness, that cause significant monetary and reputational damage to a business. Identifying application security vulnerabilities and their impact and potential remediation measures is the primary focus of testing teams. They implement multiple security tests to prevent common web application attacks, such as:
- SQL injection: A type of attack that allows threat actors to make unauthorized alterations in an application’s back-end database with the stealthy inclusion of malicious SQL code. The underlying motive can be the breach of sensitive data, backdoor creation for an APT attack, or corporate espionage. Attackers can even escalate such attacks to launch a DDoS attack or damage the underlying server.
- Cross-site scripting (XSS): Thisattack vector facilitates insertion of a compromised code into a webpage to gain unauthorized access to the victim’s web browser or computer. When a user lands on a compromised webpage, the attack automatically inserts the malware into their web browser. Common examples of such vulnerable vehicles include message boards, forums, and webpages approving comments without moderation.
- Denial-of-service (DoS) attacks: Theseallow intruders to overwhelm an application server, website, or entire network with unlimited traffic, typically through a botnet—a group of remotely controlled, compromised computers. It can bring down the application server or website, making it inaccessible for end users. Distributed DoS (DDoS)—an advanced version of this attack—strikes the target system from multiple locations, making detection and prevention even tricky. Common DDoS attack indicators include lengthy load times and website unavailability for unknown issues.
- Man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack: This enables intruders to secretly intercept the communication between a web server and client computer using techniques such as IP spoofing and SSL hijacking. The motive involves stealing sensitive information or obtaining unauthorized network access as part of an APT attack.
- Cross-site request forgery (CSRF): Also known as a session riding attack, CSRF tricks users into executing malicious transactions in a web app they’re currently logged in to. Attackers use social engineering tactics to induce a victim to unknowingly run a malicious code or URL during an authenticated session on a web app. This results in unintentional user actions, such as fund transfer in the attacker’s account, email address change, and so forth. Likewise, attackers can gain control of the entire web app if the targeted user has administrative rights.
How to Prevent Web Application Attacks
Outlined below are types of web application security tests that can help prevent such attacks.
- Static application security test (SAST): This white box security testing approach examines the vulnerabilities in application source code. It takes place early in the SDLC to minimize the testing efforts at later stages. Testing source code without executing the application in the production environment is possible with SAST. However, this restricts testing teams from detecting runtime application errors. SAST tools can help identify critical app vulnerabilities, such as buffer overflow and SQL injection, while offering real-time results. However, the probability of false positives is high with such tools. Configuring SAST software by adding new testing rules or modifying existing ones can reduce the number of false positives.
- Dynamic application security test (DAST): Quality control teams investigate the web app flaws like an ethical hacker. They look out for potential vulnerabilities an attacker could exploit to control or damage the app. DAST examines the security flaws in runtime and doesn’t necessarily require access to the app source code, unlike SAST. DAST also has fewer false positives and can detect configuration issues quickly, making it better than most other web application security testing methods. Further, DAST tools can test different web apps as they don’t rely on source code like SAST.
- Application penetration test: Security experts implement a mock cyberattack to determine the most critical security vulnerabilities in the application under test using penetration testing tools. A mix of manual and automated penetration tests helps QC teams effectively troubleshoot security flaws in mission-critical applications. However, penetration tests are often costlier, lengthy, and require significant human involvement. They tend to be more comprehensive than DAST in terms of the testing coverage offered.
- Runtime application self-protection (RASP): This modern, server-based security technique detects and prevents attacks with real-time application monitoring. RASP overcomes the limitation of traditional, network-based web app security products by establishing security controls within the applications. It validates data requests directly inside the app instead of blocking harmful traffic or malicious connection requests at the network edge. RASP security technology can protect both web and desktop apps as it operates directly on the server.
What Are Web Application Security Best Practices?
- Real-time threat assessment: Frequent monitoring of network devices and applications is critical to prevent security vulnerabilities. Security teams can leverage automated threat detection tools, such as security information and event management (SIEM), to investigate the organization’s IT infrastructure, including servers and web applications. SIEM tools automatically gather, normalize, and visualize the log data of network devices and applications to identify unusual traffic patterns or suspicious activities. Having real-time threat information enables security teams to curb attacks quickly and stay compliant with data security regulations. Modern SIEM tools also provide advanced features, such as threat intelligence feeds, automated threat response, and real-time alerts, for comprehensive vulnerability management.
- Role-based access control: Monitoring privileged user activities can minimize the impact of insider threats in a business. It can also help demonstrate compliance with data privacy regulations, such as GDPR and HIPAA, that require constant oversight of user accounts with access to critical data or applications. With automated access rights management (ARM) tools, security teams can quickly audit and modify user permissions to minimize the threat of unauthorized application access and data breach. Such software also helps control the attackers’ lateral movement by impeding privilege escalation.
- Patch management: Installing regular updates and patches can minimize application vulnerabilities. However, native vulnerability and patch management solutions, such as Microsoft WSUS, often have limited functionalities and don’t support third-party application patching. In such cases, organizations can rely on commercial patch management software that seamlessly integrates with native tools to deploy updates to target applications or systems. Automated tools also provide timely software update alerts and built-in compliance tools for effective vulnerability patching.
- Robust data encryption: You need to safeguard web apps from advanced threats such as MITM attacks. Storing and transmitting application data in an encoded format can restrict malicious actors from stealing it. IT teams should enable strong authentication measures while securing web services and APIs. Threat detection tools such as a SIEM solution can provide continuous application security with effective encryption capabilities.
- Vulnerability prioritization: By classifying threats into different categories for effective risk mitigation, security teams can focus on application threats requiring immediate attention. With automated vulnerability detection tools, security teams can quickly identify, classify, and remediate the most threatening security flaws in web apps.
- Web application firewall (WAF) implementation: Block malicious connection requests or harmful traffic directed towards an application server. WAF installation at the network edge protects applications from various attacks, such as cross-site forgery and SQL injection. It acts as a reverse proxy that shields the host server by scrutinizing every connection request. However, traditional firewalls cannot prevent advanced threats such as zero-day malware and DDoS attacks. Organizations should implement next-gen WAF solutions that seamlessly integrate with other network security solutions, such as a SIEM solution. Modern WAF provides better threat coverage, minimizes false positives, and supports policy customization for robust app security.