In recent years, many businesses are slowly investing in web applications or web apps to accommodate new technologies in cloud and big data.
Web applications provide businesses and content providers with better ways to distribute their content or service over the website. At the same time, it also allows customers of specific businesses an easier time to consume content and access services.
However, the rise of popularity of these web apps also gave rise to a new form of popular cybersecurity threats: the web application attacks. If the web application is not properly coded, hackers might exploit the vulnerabilities in web applications to access database servers and steal sensitive information.
Since obtaining sensitive information is now a lucrative market for hackers and cybercriminals, web application attacks have increased by 70% in the past five years alone. This is why ensuring the security of your web app is very important, and below, we will discuss how.
Web Application Attack
A web application attack is any cybersecurity threat that specifically targets the web application. The idea is that by exploiting vulnerabilities in the web application, attackers can access the database server which contains valuable information.
A typical web application attack goes like this:
- The attacker finds a vulnerability in the web app and sends malicious code to the webserver
- The web server receives this packet and passes this packet to the web application server
- The web app receives the malicious packet from the web server and fails to detect that it is an attack. Then the web application passes this code to the database server
- Finally, the malicious code is executed when it reaches the database server, for example, it may contain an instruction returns data containing user’s information
- The web application follows the instruction given by the database and generates the information provided by the database server
- The web server then displays this page containing user’s information to the hacker
Web Application Security Best Practices
Now that we understood the basic concept of a web application attack, we can figure out how we can improve our web application security, as we will discuss below.
It’s no longer viable to put web application security (and even cybersecurity in general) in the hands of a specialized team. A security team, for example, might not be able to catch up to the company’s growth, and so a specialized security team might end up slowing down the whole business’s security approach.
Instead, a development philosophy we call DevSecOps (Development, Security, and Operations) or SecDevOps, where Security is implemented first before development. With this approach, all three departments are responsible for security. Developers must write secure code, security must oversee developments and operations to ensure web application security, while operations must implement security best practices according to the two other departments.
So, think of software development and deployment as a continuous process to maintain security. Everyone involved must understand the potential vulnerabilities of the web application and look for the best solutions. This might require a long-term education and investment, but will be worth it in the long run.
Create a Web Application Security Plan
Before anything else, develop an actionable web application security plan. In preventing a web application attack, it’s necessary to be proactive instead of reactive, as there are very limited things we can do once a vulnerability has been exposed.
Your web app security plan should include the following steps:
- Determining vulnerabilities and potentially problematic areas
- Constructing data flow and operational logic of the application for manual testing purposes.
- Assigning roles to those involved in the project (as discussed above)
- Organize types of vulnerabilities, and determine types of tests required for each vulnerability (both automated and manual tests)
- Perform automated and manual tests
- Fixing vulnerabilities known in the tests
- Verification and validation that vulnerabilities are resolved
In testing your web application(s) according to the plan above, you may need to decide which vulnerabilities are worth your attention, and which aren’t too pressing at the moment.
Although your goal should be to fix all of these vulnerabilities, most web applications have a lot of vulnerabilities so it’s very important to prioritize your efforts: embrace the fact that it might be impossible and might not be worth your time to eliminate all vulnerabilities from a web application.
Determining which vulnerabilities to focus on would depend on the application itself and its use case(s). Carefully analyze each use case of the web application, list the vulnerabilities, and figure out the priorities.
Keep in mind that as you’ve performed more tests, it’s normal to overlook certain issues here and there. Adjust your priorities accordingly.
Using Advanced Web Application Security Measures
Here are some advanced security measures you can implement after you’ve performed the above steps:
- Real-time monitoring solution: a real-time web application security solutions with behavioral detection capabilities, can significantly help in providing visibility into the blocked vulnerabilities and activities of bots used in the web application attack. This is especially effective against application-layer DDoS.
- Check for unused applications: there might be web apps that serve no purpose at all but are still there in your server. These apps might still have their vulnerabilities and can help attackers get into your database.
- Update passwords regularly: especially for administrator passwords. While this might seem obvious, many system administrators overlooked this. Depending on the potential frequency of attack, you should change your passwords monthly or even weekly.
- Study your security logs: analyzing your security logs might help in detecting attack attempts and new vulnerabilities.
- File System: make sure to use an unwritable file system to prevent various web application attacks.
- Session timeout: maintain a session timeout policy, and also prevent multiple sessions from one user
Maintaining a secure web application should be a collective effort of your whole team. Start by defining a plan to find vulnerabilities, set your priorities, and fixing these vulnerabilities to stop attack attempts. Also, maintain a regular monitoring schedule by checking your security logs and activity patterns.
A real-time bot detection solution can also help in detecting hacking attempts as early as possible, which in turn can be very effective in preventing various web application attacks.