The importance of web application security cannot be overstated.
As organizations move towards web-based applications and services to run their business and connect with customers, it is becoming more vital than ever to secure those systems from malicious attacks.
Furthermore, as application release cycles accelerate with the wide adoption of agile development and DevOps methodologies, the window of opportunity for attackers to exploit vulnerabilities expands.
Web app attacks can have far-reaching consequences, from data theft and loss of productivity to reputational damage and legal liabilities. At the same time, web application attacks are becoming more sophisticated and common.
According to the 2022 Verizon DBIR report, compromising a web application was the top cyberattack vector in 2021, accounting for roughly 70% of security incidents.
Unsurprisingly, the most targeted industries are banking and finance, which, together with SaaS providers, accounted for nearly a third of all web application attacks.
What do these numbers tell us?
This is a wake-up call for all organizations, big and small, that have not yet put advanced measures in place to protect their web apps.
Organizations of all sizes must implement adequate security controls and monitoring to prevent, detect, and respond to web application attacks.
The challenge of web application security
Web applications have become a prime attack vector as they become increasingly easy to build but harder to secure. There are several reasons why web applications are increasingly difficult to secure:
Web applications are becoming ever-more complex
The use of open source components, third-party services, containers, microservices, and APIs has increased the attack surface of web applications. As web applications grow in complexity with more dependencies and moving parts, they are becoming increasingly difficult to secure as attackers can exploit even a tiny flaw in the codebase to gain access to sensitive data.
The rise of DevOps and continuous delivery
Accelerated release cycles make it harder to find and fix security issues before deployment to production. Businesses release new features and functionality faster than ever, leaving little time for adequate testing and security hardening.
The always-on era
External web applications are built to be accessible from the internet and anywhere worldwide, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, making Identity and Access Management (IAM) a critical security concern.
Web app sprawl and rouge apps
The ease of web application development has led to web app sprawl, making it challenging to keep up with penetration testing, patching, maintenance, and updates. There is also a widespread proliferation of “rogue” applications built by business users without the knowledge of IT and security teams. These applications are often inadequately tested and pose a significant security risk.
Now that we’ve discussed web application security challenges let’s look at some best practices for keeping your web apps safe.
Best practices for web application security
So, what’s the best way to secure your web applications? The answer is: it depends. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to web application security.
However, there are general principles and best practices to guide your web application security strategy:
Fixing a vulnerability in production is infinitely more risky and expensive than fixing it during the development or testing stage. If your organization develop web applications in house, the key is integrating web application security testing into the software development life cycle (SDLC) to identify and fix vulnerabilities early in the process.
Attack surface discovery
The first step in securing your web applications is to know what you have. You’ll need to inventory all the internet facing web applications in your environment, both in development and production.
Application scanning and discovery solutions can help you visualize your external attack surface, discover rogue apps, and identify potential security vulnerabilities in your web applications. This will help you determine which web apps need to be tested, and it will also help you track which web apps need to be patched and updated.
Prioritize your applications by risk
Not all web applications are created equal. For a security program to be effective, you need to prioritize web application security testing based on risk. Some factors to consider include:
- How sensitive is the data handled by the web app?
- How business-critical is the app?
- How frequent are release cycles and updates?
- What does your threat landscape look like?
Automated web application security scanning
Once an application is live, web application security is a continual process. To ensure that you are continuously scanning for new vulnerabilities, you must automate web application security testing.
Automated web application security scanners can help you keep pace with the speed of Agile development by quickly and accurately testing for vulnerabilities in your web applications.
The productivity advantages of automated DAST scanning are twofold:
- Scanning many applications simultaneously (economies of scale)
- Scanning without human interaction (continuous coverage)
Automated web application scanners have their limits, however. They can help you identify common vulnerabilities and OWASP top 10, such as SQL injection and cross-site scripting (XSS). Still, automation falls short when it comes to detecting more complex security and logical flaws. Therefore it’s commonly advised to limit its use to agile apps that aren’t critical or have sensitive data.
Manual penetration testing
In addition to automated scanning, manual testing are essential for comprehensive web application security.
Manual application penetration testing is a process in which ethical hackers (white hats) attempt to break into a system to find security weaknesses. Black box testing can help you identify vulnerabilities that are not detectable by automated scanners, such as business logic flaws and authentication bypasses.
In addition, manual testing eliminates false positives generated by automated vulnerability scanners. This is important because web application security testing is often resource-constrained, and you must prioritize your efforts on patching the most critical vulnerabilities first.
The downside of manual testing is that it’s time-consuming and expensive, and it can be difficult to schedule testing around Agile development cycles. Moreover, results take time to deliver, and they may be outdated by the time they’re received.
Pentesting-as-a-Service: combine manual pentesting with automated scanning
Securing your web applications is a never-ending task. You must prioritize your activities depending on the level of risk. In the age of agile development, combining automated scanning with manual pentesting is critical to successful web application security.
This might be challenging to do in-house due to the lack of resources (time, manpower, budget). One option to consider is Pentesting-as-a-Service (PTaaS). This approach can help you get the most out of your web application security program by combining the benefits of automated scanning with the advantages of manual pentesting, delivered as an on-demand service.
PTaaS is a cost-effective way to get the benefits of both manual and automated web application security testing to secure your web applications, helping you protect your web applications continuously without having to invest in expensive security tools or hire dedicated security staff.
Continuous Application Security Testing Cycle
Web application security is a complex and evolving problem. According to Forrester, applications are the top cause of external breaches, contributing to 35% of breaches in 2021 – a frightening statistic that should give pause to any security team.
Security must be built into the software development life cycle (SDLC) from the very beginning. And to properly secure your live web applications, you need to monitor continuously for vulnerabilities and attack surface changes.
It’s important to remember that even if you fix a vulnerability today, new ones will crop up tomorrow. So it’s critical to have a continuous application security program that combines automatic scanning and manual pentesting to identify and fix vulnerabilities as they arise.