Software applications are integral components of an organization’s success. Unfortunately, while applications are built to support faster growth and enhanced user experience, these are also prone to security incidents in the absence of appropriate security mechanisms. This article delves into application security and why it is vital to adopt the proper practices and tools to ensure attack vectors do not exploit inherent application vulnerabilities.
With the rising adoption of software applications in business, an increase in cybersecurity attacks shows an upward trend. Out of all such attacks, Perforce.com projects that approximately 84% of such cybersecurity attacks are carried out in the application layer.
To tackle such attacks, an efficient Application Security (AppSec) mechanism requires a combination of tools and practices for identifying, remediating, and preventing security vulnerabilities throughout the application development life cycle. By proactively fixing vulnerabilities, security teams improve the application’s security posture since threats are mitigated before being exploited in production.
Modern software development primarily emphasizes agility, where most of the efforts are concentrated on streamlining the CI/CD pipeline. AppSec, on the other hand, blends security seamlessly into development and operations workflows to build safe applications while keeping development costs low.
Data security and privacy are core aspects of every application security approach. Every application processes and stores sensitive business information and customer data, often the prime targets in a breach. A data breach leads to loss of confidence and trust of valuable customers and tarnishes business reputation in the longer run. On the contrary, administering appropriate AppSec mechanisms and data privacy policies also helps boost brand value since consumers associate with businesses that comply with robust data security safeguards.
Most users are concerned by how systems handle their data. With proper data privacy regulations in place, customers are guaranteed safety against identity theft and credit card fraud to trust the platform. Adopting data protection policies also enforces an effective ethics code since handling data responsibly is considered general ethical practice. Failure to protect sensitive customer data also attracts penalties from regulatory authorities, leading to loss of revenue or operating licenses.
As the cybersecurity landscape evolves, so do the tools and techniques used to secure applications. To mitigate cybersecurity threats, there are several commonly referred to best practices and application security tools. AppSec Reports are one of the most widely used tools that are used as a reference to manage, monitor, and mitigate security threats throughout an application’s lifecycle.
Cybersecurity researchers and ethical hackers prepare an application security report to highlight top attack vectors, key security risks, and gaps. The document requires cybersecurity experts to take an in-depth look at how an organization implements system and network security, performs ethical hacking and penetration tests, and then record their findings. The report documents the latest AppSec trends, tools, and best practices to protect network infrastructure, system, and user data through comprehensive surveys. Due to the significance of its real-time data points, an AppSec Report is considered a valuable source to help any security teams prioritize identifying, fixing, and eliminating attack vectors at the application level.
Application security in itself is a broad subject that requires multiple practices and tools to work in sync. An entire Application Security strategy encompasses several steps and can be categorized into different types depending on the features covered. These include:
Authentication – Authentication involves the creation of rules that define who is able to access an application or underlying resources. Some common authentication mechanisms include username-password combinations, biometrics, devices, and access tokens.
Authorization – Once a user has been authenticated to use an application or its related services, authorization determines what permissions they have during their session. Authorization mechanisms use roles and access control lists to verify access permissions.
Encryption – Encryption safeguards sensitive data by converting plaintext into unreadable ciphertext. Authenticated users are given cryptographic keys which are used to decipher the data.
Logging – Logging involves recording application events, making it an efficient approach to keep a log of historical data and identify who had access to a service.
Testing – The use of automated tools and manual mechanisms to evaluate the effectiveness of a security measure.
With more workloads moving to the cloud, it is vital to choose a cloud service provider whose platform includes reliable security solutions and is compliant with regulatory standards to prevent data misuse. Apart from choosing the right service provider, it is also common to use tools that form the first line of primary defense. These include application firewalls, Role-based access control (RBAC), multi-factor authentication, and input validation for incoming traffic. As a recommended practice, cloud service providers also require the use of service tags to enable fine-grained control for network access.
Depending on the stage in the SDLC, there are different approaches to ensuring application and network security. Some standard methods include:
This phase typically encompasses threat modeling practices where security teams review the design and architecture of the application, checking for security flaws before beginning the coding process.
Manual inspection of course code in search of security issues enables security teams to detect software vulnerabilities unique to the application.
This testing mechanism involves testing the application source code for security flaws during runtime. In addition, the approach gives teams insights into how an attacker can compromise the production environment without using access privileges.
Involves security experts and researchers act as consultants, performing penetration tests and ethical hacking to identify and report on vulnerabilities.
Leverages automated tools for security testing and is categorized into various focused approaches, including:
SAST tools aid in analyzing source code, byte code, and binaries during application design and coding. As these tests are performed before code is compiled, they are also commonly referred to as white-box tests. With static analysis, developers can identify vulnerabilities early in the SDLC without disrupting CI/CD workflows or passing vulnerabilities to the next phase. SAST tools are most commonly used to detect issues such as SQL injection, buffer overflow, and broken authentication.
Since web platforms contain easy to explore vulnerabilities, web application attacks are widely prevalent in today’s tech landscape. The complexity of a dynamic application’s internal systems makes it easy for hackers to conceal their identity once they have compromised the system. To help mitigate such risks, DAST tools are used to test security vulnerabilities in production before these are exploited in the real world. DAST tools are built to search for weaknesses while the application runs and raise alerts of potential threats. Dynamic analysis helps prevent runtime attacks and is most commonly used for identifying vulnerabilities such as unauthenticated access, code injection, and cross-site scripting.
SCA tools use automated techniques to identify the vulnerabilities within an application’s tech stack. To comprehensively benchmark the system’s security posture, organizations need to be aware of open-source license obligations and security issues. Automating this analysis makes sure that no component or vulnerability is overlooked. SCA tools inspect source code, binary files, container images, package managers, and other critical components against a database of common weaknesses. In addition, these tools help to identify whether the application is developed on components with known vulnerabilities.
RASP tools analyze application and user behavior to help detect attacks in real-time. These tools are deployed on the application servers and operating systems and then monitor events and actions. RASP tools intercept inbound and outbound traffic, making sure that system calls are secure. In case of malicious behaviors, the RASP tool alerts security teams (diagnostic mode) then takes control of the app (protection mode) to avoid further penetration by the attack vector.
The Online Web Application Security Project (OWASP) is a non-profit foundation that publishes free resources based on real-world events in web application security. The foundation’s research papers are considered the perfect first step for organizations or security professionals looking to get started on software security. In addition, the OWASP website features community-led open-source projects that help develop articles, methodologies, tools, and use cases on improving application security. OWASP also offers a structured project catalog and training materials that address crucial topics in the AppSec learning curve.
Some of OWASP resources include:
This is a standard awareness document that identifies the most crucial vulnerabilities for web applications. The document represents a global consensus and is recommended by every organization that relies on technology to embrace its shared knowledge of security measures.
This project offers a comprehensive guide for testing web services and applications. Dedicated volunteers and cybersecurity experts created the WSTG to provide a template of best practices for ethical hacking and penetration tests.
The SAMM project aims to provide an effective and measurable method for the optimization of securing a CI/CD toolchain. Instead of being dependent on any tech stack, SAMM supports the entire software development life cycle by leveraging real-world security assessments and benchmarking. Being risk-driven and progressive, SAMM can also be customized for different use-cases and business processes.
OWASP offers MSTG as a security standard specifically focused on mobile applications. The comprehensive testing guide recommends tools, techniques, and processes to evaluate application vulnerabilities throughout the mobile app development lifecycle. The guide also includes numerous test use-cases and static and dynamic testing mechanisms based on innovative reverse-engineered assessments.
An open-source web app that guides users on secure coding principles for any programming language. The SKF helps businesses secure the application layer by integrating security since the initial phases of application design. In addition, the framework aims to train application developers by providing checklists and security verification labs for keeping security at the center of an application lifecycle.
While applications are core components of a business relying on technology, the underlying security threats remain a point of significant concern. Modern applications are highly distributed, with most of them being connected to the cloud. This further increases the attack surface available for malicious actors.
Recent research projected that roughly 83% of 85,000 applications tested had at least one security flaw. Out of which, some of the most common deficiencies in production included cryptographic issues (62%), code quality (62%), information leakage (64%), and CSRF injection (61%). While this data is alarming, it is also notable that all of such vulnerabilities can be mitigated by adopting exemplary practices and tools.
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