Application security

Giving executives too many metrics at an early stage can be overwhelming and frankly unnecessary. The main goal is to indicate how the application security program is compliant with internal policies and show the impact in terms of reduction of vulnerabilities and risks and increased application resilience.

Application Security: The Complete Guide

Application security aims to protect software application code and data against cyber threats. You can and should apply application security during all phases of development, including design, development, and deployment.

Web Application Security

A web application is software that runs on a web server and is accessible via the Internet. The client runs in a web browser. By nature, applications must accept connections from clients over insecure networks. This exposes them to a range of vulnerabilities. Many web applications are business critical and contain sensitive customer data, making them a valuable target for attackers and a high priority for any cyber security program.

The evolution of the Internet has addressed some web application vulnerabilities – such as the introduction of HTTPS, which creates an encrypted communication channel that protects against man in the middle (MitM) attacks. However, many vulnerabilities remain. The most severe and common vulnerabilities are documented by the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP), in the form of the OWASP Top 10.

Due to the growing problem of web application security, many security vendors have introduced solutions especially designed to secure web applications. Examples include the web application firewall (WAF), a security tool designed to detect and block application-layer attacks.

API Security

Application Programming Interfaces (API) are growing in importance. They are the basis of modern microservices applications, and an entire API economy has emerged, which allows organizations to share data and access software functionality created by others. This means API security is critical for modern organizations.

APIs that suffer from security vulnerabilities are the cause of major data breaches. They can expose sensitive data and result in disruption of critical business operations. Common security weaknesses of APIs are weak authentication, unwanted exposure of data, and failure to perform rate limiting, which enables API abuse.

Cloud Native Application Security

Cloud native applications are applications built in a microservices architecture using technologies like virtual machines, containers, and serverless platforms. Cloud native security is a complex challenge, because cloud native applications have a large number of moving parts and components tend to be ephemeral—frequently torn down and replaced by others. This makes it difficult to gain visibility over a cloud native environment and ensure all components are secure.

In cloud native applications, infrastructure and environments are typically set up automatically based on declarative configuration—this is called infrastructure as code (IaC). Developers are responsible for building declarative configurations and application code, and both should be subject to security considerations. Shifting left is much more important in cloud native environments, because almost everything is determined at the development stage.

Cloud native applications can benefit from traditional testing tools, but these tools are not enough. Dedicated cloud native security tools are needed, able to instrument containers, container clusters, and serverless functions, report on security issues, and provide a fast feedback loop for developers.

Another important aspect of cloud native security is automated scanning of all artifacts, at all stages of the development lifecycle. Most importantly, organizations must scan container images at all stages of the development process.

Application security definition

Application security is the process of developing, adding, and testing security features within applications to prevent security vulnerabilities against threats such as unauthorized access and modification.

Application security is important because today’s applications are often available over various networks and connected to the cloud, increasing vulnerabilities to security threats and breaches. There is increasing pressure and incentive to not only ensure security at the network level but also within applications themselves. One reason for this is because hackers are going after apps with their attacks more today than in the past. Application security testing can reveal weaknesses at the application level, helping to prevent these attacks.

Application security in the cloud

Application security in the cloud poses some extra challenges. Because cloud environments provide shared resources, special care must be taken to ensure that users only have access to the data they are authorized to view in their cloud-based applications. Sensitive data is also more vulnerable in cloud-based applications because that data is transmitted across the Internet from the user to the application and back.

Mobile devices also transmit and receive information across the Internet, as opposed to a private network, making them vulnerable to attack. Enterprises can use virtual private networks (VPNs) to add a layer of mobile application security for employees who log in to applications remotely. IT departments may also decide to vet mobile apps and make sure they conform to company security policies before allowing employees to use them on mobile devices that connect to the corporate network.

Web application security

Web application security applies to web applications—apps or services that users access through a browser interface over the Internet. Because web applications live on remote servers, not locally on user machines, information must be transmitted to and from the user over the Internet. Web application security is of special concern to businesses that host web applications or provide web services. These businesses often choose to protect their network from intrusion with a web application firewall. A web application firewall works by inspecting and, if necessary, blocking data packets that are considered harmful.

Application security controls are techniques to enhance the security of an application at the coding level, making it less vulnerable to threats. Many of these controls deal with how the application responds to unexpected inputs that a cybercriminal might use to exploit a weakness. A programmer can write code for an application in such a way that the programmer has more control over the outcome of these unexpected inputs. Fuzzing is a type of application security testing where developers test the results of unexpected values or inputs to discover which ones cause the application to act in an unexpected way that might open a security hole.

Application security

Another issue is whether any tool is isolated from other testing results or can incorporate them into its own analysis. IBM’s is one of the few that can import findings from manual code reviews, penetration testing, vulnerability assessments and competitors’ tests. This can be helpful, particularly if you have multiple tools that you need to keep track of.

What is application security? A process and tools for securing software

Back to basics

Application security is the process of making apps more secure by finding, fixing, and enhancing the security of apps. Much of this happens during the development phase, but it includes tools and methods to protect apps once they are deployed. This is becoming more important as hackers increasingly target applications with their attacks.

Application security is getting a lot of attention. Hundreds of tools are available to secure various elements of your applications portfolio, from locking down coding changes to assessing inadvertent coding threats, evaluating encryption options and auditing permissions and access rights. There are specialized tools for mobile apps, for network-based apps, and for firewalls designed especially for web applications.

Why Application Security is Important?

Today’s applications are frequently available over multiple networks and connected to the cloud, they are more vulnerable to security attacks and breaches. There is increasing pressure and incentive to assure security not only at the network level but also within individual applications. One explanation for this is because hackers are focusing their attacks on applications more now than in the past. Application security testing can expose application-level flaws, assisting in the prevention of these attacks.

The faster and earlier you can detect and resolve security concerns in the software development process, the safer your company will be. Because everyone makes mistakes, the trick is to identify them as soon as possible.

Application security tools that integrate with your development environment can make this process and workflow much easier and more efficient. These tools are especially beneficial for compliance audits, as they can save time and resources by detecting issues before the auditors notice them. The changing nature of how enterprise applications are built over the last many years has aided the rapid expansion of the application security industry.

Security requirements for application software types

The kind of measures an AppSec team takes to secure an app depends on the type of application involved and the relative risk. For example, public-facing Web applications with mission-critical or customer data are at a high risk and should be protected by stronger security measures than an internal, non-Web-facing application that doesn’t contain any sensitive data. Some of the most common types of application software that AppSec teams will need to secure include the following:

Data center and desktop application security

  • Remediation process: Organizations should establish a process for remediating or mitigating application security vulnerabilities. This should include an inventory of all applications in use at the organization, a way to track known vulnerabilities and patches, and a method for applying patches such as patch management.
  • Identity management: Experts also advise that enterprises consider a unified identity management solution that requires the use of strong passwords. According to WhiteHat Security’s 2017 Application Security Statistics Report, 81 percent of hacking-related security breaches leveraged weak or stolen passwords.
  • Infrastructure security: It’s also worth noting that applications are only as secure as the infrastructure and networks on which they run. Security teams need follow industry best practices such as deploying firewalls, intrusion detection and prevention systems, and other security solutions.
  • Application security testing: According to the CA Veracode report, 52 percent of enterprises sometimes do AppSec testing, but most don’t consistently test every app. In fact, “83 percent of organizations have released code before testing or resolving security issues.” That’s unfortunate, because the report also found that application security testing increased the number of applications that pass the vulnerability scan by 13 percent. Gartner has predicted that the number of enterprises doing AppSec testing will increase. In a Magic Quadrant report, it said, “By 2019, more than 50 percent of enterprise DevOps initiatives will have incorporated application security testing (AST) for custom code, an increase from fewer than 10 percent today.”
  • Developer training: That CA Veracode report also found that “Developer training has an essential role in reducing flaws. eLearning improved developer fix rates by 19 percent; remediation coaching improved fix rates by 88 percent.” However, to date, enterprises have not been paying a lot of attention to training their programmers on secure development practices. In fact, 86 percent of those surveyed said their employers weren’t investing enough in application security training.
  • DevOps and DevSecOps practices: With their focus on continuous testing and spreading responsibility for security throughout an organization, DevOps and DevSecOps approaches have helped organizations improve their application security. While the data isn’t yet definitive, several reports have found correlations between DevOps and Agile practices and improved application security.
  • Maintain an open source code inventory: Today, most enterprise application development teams leverage open source code in their custom applications, but few of them review that code later on to patch any vulnerabilities that have come to light. In fact, the CA Veracode found that 88 percent of the Java applications tested were using at least one component that has a known vulnerability. In addition, only 28 percent of organizations said they do any kind of composition analysis to see which open source code they are using. If you don’t know what code you’ve used, you probably won’t patch it when a vulnerability comes to light.

Cloud application security

Applications that run in public or private clouds introduce additional security risks above and beyond those associated with on-premises applications. In addition to the measures outlined above, cloud apps merit the following:

  • Cloud application management: Experts say that organizations should invest in monitoring tools that can help them detect which software-as-a-service applications their employees are using. Otherwise, vulnerabilities can creep into the corporate environment through shadow IT. A cloud application security broker (CASB) is one such tool, and next-generation firewalls (NGFWs) have begun to add SaaS application monitoring tools.
  • Due diligence: Before using a particular cloud vendor, organizations need to investigate the security measures the vendor has in place. They need to ensure that the cloud environment will meet their compliance needs and provide adequate security for corporate and customer data. If the vendor has any gaps in its security measures, the enterprise needs to be prepared to step in with additional security precautions to bridge those gaps.
  • Encryption: Any cloud-based apps should encrypt data both in transit and at rest. Otherwise, any data that flows across the public Internet on its way to or from the cloud service could be vulnerable to interception. In addition, cloud data centers represent a valuable target for hackers, so organizations need to make sure that attackers can’t read any data they get off cloud-based infrastructure, even if they do manage to breach the vendor’s security.
  • Strong authentication: Because cloud apps are accessed over the Internet, anyone can access them if they have the right authentication. For this reason, most experts recommend two-factor authentication, at a minimum, to protect cloud applications. Organizations may also want to consider using a unified, cloud-based identity management solution to authenticate users to both cloud-based and on-premises applications.

Application security

Most web application attacks are unpredictable. The COVID-19 outbreak is a significant contributor to the unprecedented rise in such attacks. The pandemic-induced lockdown pushed companies to adopt a remote work framework which became the new norm gradually. Vulnerabilities in web applications raise significant security concerns, which can escalate into a full-scale attack if neglected. Recently, a cyberattack on T-Mobile led to a massive breach of data on millions of customers. The stolen data is being actively sold in the market.

image showing bottom-up approach to reduce security bug volume and impact

Applications and services

Applications and the data associated with them ultimately act as the primary store of business value on a cloud platform. While the platform components like identity and storage are critical elements of the security environment, applications play an outsize role in risks to the business because:

Diagram of Application Models

Modern Platform as a Service (PaaS) applications don’t require the application owner to manage and secure the underlying server operating systems (OSes) and are sometimes fully “Serverless” and built primarily using functions as a service.

Notes: Popular forms of modern applications are application code hosted on Azure App Services and containerized applications (though containers can also be hosted on IaaS VMs or on-premises as well).

Hybrid – While hybrid applications can take many forms, the most common is an “IaaS plus” state where legacy applications are transitioning to a modern architecture with modern services replacing legacy components or being added a legacy application.

Application Code – This is the logic that defines the custom application that you write. The security of this code is the application owners’ responsibility in all generations of application architecture including any open-source snippets or components included in the code. Securing the code requires identifying and mitigating risks from the design and implementation of the application as well as assessing supply chain risk of included components. Note that the evolution of applications into microservices architectures will break various aspects of application code into smaller services vs. a single monolithic codebase.

Application Services – These are the various standardized components that the application uses such as databases, identity providers, event hubs, IoT device management, and so on. For cloud services this is a shared responsibility:

Application Owner – The application owner is responsible for security implications of the configuration and operation of the service instance(s) used by the application including any data stored and processed on the service.

Application Hosting Platform – This is the computing environment where the application actually executes and runs. In an enterprise with applications hosted on premises, in Azure and in third-party clouds like Amazon Web Services (AWS), this could take many forms with significant variations on who is responsible for security:

Legacy Applications typically require a full operating system (and any middleware) hosted on physical or virtualized hardware. The virtual hardware can be hosted on premises or on Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) VMs. This operating system and installed middleware/other components are operated and secured by the application owner or their infrastructure team(s).
The responsibility for the physical hardware and OS virtualization components (virtualization hosts, operating systems, and management services) varies:

IaaS – The cloud provider is responsible for maintenance and security of the underlying infrastructure and the application owner’s organization is responsible for the VM configuration, operating system, and any components installed on it.

Modern Applications are hosted on Platform as a Service (PaaS) environments such as an Azure application service. In most application service types, the underlying operating system is abstracted from the application owner and secured by the cloud provider. Application owners are responsible for the security of the application service configurations that are provided to them.

Containers are an application packaging mechanism in which applications are abstracted from the environment in which they run. These containerized applications fit into either the legacy or modern models above depending on whether they are run on a container service by the cloud provider (Modern Applications) or on a server managed by the organization (on premises or in IaaS). See the container security section below for more details.

Application Security Threats: The OWASP Top 10

There are countless security threats that affect software applications. However, the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) Top 10 list compiles the application threats that are most prevalent and severe, and most likely to affect applications in production.

  1. Injection—code injection involves a query or command sent to a software application, which contains malicious or untrusted data. The most common is SQL injection, but it can also affect NoSQL, operating systems, and LDAP servers.
  2. Broken Authentication—many applications have inadequate or malfunctioning authentication and authorization functions. This can allow an attacker to steal user credentials, or easily gain access without appropriate credentials.
  3. Sensitive Data Exposure—applications and APIs may openly expose sensitive data belonging to the organization or its customers, including financial or payment details and personally identifiable information (PII).
  4. XML External Entities (XXE)—attackers can make malicious use of external entity references in XML documents, due to vulnerabilities in old XML parsers. These can be used to gain access to internal files, scan ports, and execute code remotely.
  5. Broken Access Control—restrictions for authenticated users are not implemented correctly. An attacker could use this to gain access to unauthorized functions or data, access another user’s account, view sensitive files, or change permissions for other users.
  6. Security Misconfiguration—even if an application has security features, they can be misconfigured. This commonly occurs because no-one changed the application’s default configuration. This includes failure to patch operating systems and frameworks.
  7. Cross-Site Scripting (XSS)—allows an attacker to run a malicious script in a user’s browser. This can be used to steal their session, redirect users to malicious sites, or perform defacement of websites.
  8. Insecure Deserialization—faults in the way code is taken from a file and constructed into an object. This can enable malicious code execution, privilege escalation, and replaying activity by authorized users.
  9. Using Components with Known Vulnerabilities—multiple vulnerability databases report known vulnerabilities in software components. Software that uses a vulnerable component (even just as a dependency of one of its components) is exposed to attack.
  10. Insufficient Logging & Monitoring—many applications may not have means of identifying or recording attempted breaches. This can mean that breaches go undetected, and attackers may perform lateral movement to compromise additional systems.

Benefits of Web Application Security in 2021-22

Web application penetration testers responsible for strengthening the security measures consider every possible scenario of a cyberattack and how they should act. Their training empowers them to think like a cybercriminal and produce a quick and effective solution on time. Make sure that you determine the goals of application security in advance. It will ensure that your cybersecurity team is aware of the primary threats and priorities.

Additionally, when hiring a web application penetration tester, ensure they have credible certifications. A certification like EC-Council’s Web Application Hacking and Security Training would revolutionize the status of cybersecurity and vulnerability assessment for your company.

Enhance Safety with Web Application Hacking and Security Training Certification

EC-Council’s Web Application Hacking and Security Training Certification specializes in ethical hackers who wish to add a specific niche to their existing skills. The program doesn’t only focus on web application vulnerabilities through automated tools and techniques, but it goes beyond the conventional cybersecurity programs to enable your workforce to learn, hack, test, and secure web applications.

The course is designed in the style of capture-the-flag challenges. But unlike these competitions, the challenger finds the freedom to follow an instructor as they progress in the leaderboard. The course design and layout cover all the vital web application security best practices. The certification will prove ideal for every aspiring web application penetration tester as well as organizations looking for new ways to strengthen their cybersecurity teams.

Get Certified as a web application security expert! Register Now!

People Also Ask

Web application security is managed by a non-profit OSWAP foundation. The foundation identifies the common web application security threats and lists them in its database. It is used by security analysts, cybersecurity officers, and tools to update their practices and look for new threats in a more elaborate way.