Web applications are everywhere. If you do any business online, you probably use a web application (or several) to interact with customers and provide ongoing support.
You likely use web applications for internal operations as well, email platforms, Microsoft 365, and Google apps are some common examples.
Web applications make operations easier and more streamlined and can effectively improve the customer experience. However, applications come with significant security risks.
Because applications are often provided by a third-party, they may have security vulnerabilities you’re not aware of. Hackers, however, are increasingly targeting web apps to steal sensitive user data and get access to your systems.
Fortunately, if you follow web application security best practices, you can protect yourself from the majority of attacks. You’ll be able to safeguard your brand reputation and avoid costly hacks that drain your resources, time, and money.
To stay safe from web application breaches, you need to be proactive.
In this article, we’re covering best practices to help you stay safe. We’ll examine the most common web application security risks and how you can mitigate each threat, and we’ll give your our top tips for effectively securing your applications.
Finally, we’re discussing how to best test vulnerabilities in your applications.
What are the top 10 web application security risks?
To effectively secure your web applications, you need to know the risks you’re fighting against.
The OWASP Top 10 List compiles the biggest risks to be aware of when you’re considering application security. Here are the potential problems to look out for:
This is one of the biggest application security vulnerabilities.
In injection, a hacker uses a vulnerability to “inject” their own code into your systems.
Hackers can use their code to fool your system and gain access to confidential information.
You can fight against injection vulnerabilities by creating a secure code. Limit special characters and use defined and stored procedures to limit a hacker’s ability to tamper with the code.
If your authentication practices are weak or outdated, hackers can take advantage, mimicking a trusted user to get insider access.
Protect against this possibility by using multifactor authentication whenever possible. For more information on implementing MFA for your business, explore our article here.
Sensitive Data Exposure
Application programming interfaces (APIs) let you connect your site or program to a third-party service, whether it’s social media, Google Maps, or some other integration.
The trouble comes with using an insecure API, which can risk exposing your sensitive data.
Choose your API with care and stay up-to-date with your tokens and data encryption to mitigate the possibility of sensitive data exposure.
XML External Entities
Hostile XML content can enter your systems through a variety of means.
Bad code, integrations, and other weaknesses can get exploited in an XML-based attack.
A great way to mitigate the effects of hostile XML content is to disable XML external entity processing.
Broken Access Control
This type of risk happens when incorrect access restrictions and control flaws give hackers easy access.
Broken access control allows malicious actors to use an application outside of its intended purpose or permissions. This can be a result of configuration errors or other issues in the code.
Secure coding and multifactor authentication can help you avoid hacks due to broken access control.
This risk is similar to broken access control but more broadly applies to any security measures that aren’t adequately configured.
This can happen any time you make a configuration change that isn’t well documented, or it can result from a technical issue.
Ethical hacking or penetration testing can help you discover and fix security misconfigurations.
This allows them to mimic a valid user and get access to a critical web application or system.
To protect against cross-site scripting, you should make sure your application validates all input data.
You should also make sure all your variable output is encrypted before it’s sent back to the user.
While serialization “flattens” complex data so it can be more easily sent and received, deserialization restores the data to its original form once it’s been transferred.
When a website deserializes user-controlled data, hackers can exploit that, manipulating items that have been serialized or even replacing them with a completely different object.
Use penetration testing to make sure your deserialization process is safe and be careful about what serialized objects you accept.
Using Components with Known Vulnerabilities
It’s self-explanatory, but never use software, APIs, or third-party vendor systems if you know their security isn’t top-notch.
The money and time you might save in the short run are not worth the overwhelming cost of a potential breach!
Insufficient Logging and Monitoring
If your team discovers a vulnerability or security breach—even a very minor one—they should always report the incident and log what steps they took to fix it.
You should continue to monitor all areas of security, conducting periodic reviews. This helps make sure you’ll find an issue before a hacker does.
How do you secure web applications?
The possibilities for web applications are nearly limitless.
You can use them to interact with customers, give buyers ongoing support, and even do marketing with them. However, our increased reliance on web applications means they’re a target for malicious actors.
It’s critical, then, to secure your web application development and monitor app security best practices and possible breaches.
Below are our top tips for web application security best practices:
Encryption encodes your sensitive data to make it unreadable to people without proper access.
Encryption helps ensure that transferred data isn’t easy to read for anyone without the right tools.
While hackers can still access the transmitted data, they won’t be able to decipher it. Ideally, you should use encryption in conjunction with other safety measures to ensure that hackers never get access.
However, if they’re able to steal your data, encryption makes it challenging for them to use it.
Many hacks, especially malware attacks, can go undetected for days, weeks, or months.
Moreover, technological advances can make formerly secure systems and applications vulnerable to attack.
Keep a constant lookout by auditing your applications frequently, and follow up on your audits with action items and checkups to make sure the issue is resolved correctly.
Keep the development process secure
The best way to stop vulnerabilities is during the actual application development process.
79% of companies intentionally release vulnerable code, usually because they don’t think the issue is big enough, or because they’re pressed to meet a deadline.***
Prioritize security in your web app development to mitigate any later fixes.
Never release code if you know it has a bug—no matter how small or how tight your production deadlines are. It’s so much easier to fix the code in development than to patch it later or deal with the fallout from a hack.
Use strong authentication
One of the easiest ways for hackers to access sensitive data is through weak authentication.
They simply need to guess an employee passcode, and they can corrupt your web application however they want. You can strengthen your authentication practices to mitigate this risk.
First, don’t give users too many privileges. Just give them access to the services that they need. This minimizes the access a hacker can get with login credentials.
Second, implement multi-factor authentication. All users should have to provide some other type of authentication besides a password, such as voice recognition, a facial scan, or a code sent to their phone or email account.
This makes it harder for hackers to bypass your authentication requirements.
Avoid security misconfiguration
Stay vigilant against misconfigurations by regularly updating plugins and other features, keeping your digital certificates up to date, and limiting your use of open-source code.
While it can be a convenient shortcut, it’s easy for hackers to discover the vulnerabilities of your application’s open-source material.
When your application returns an error code to the user, it’s common for the message to include long stack traces.
This information is incredibly valuable to hackers. Limit your error messages to the basic information a user needs to know.
Additionally, you should anticipate foreseeable errors in your web application and set up procedures for dealing with those issues.
Scan your code
When possible, you should use a security partner to carefully scan your source code and third-party libraries to discover any issues.
Ideally, you should scan any new code before you deploy it so you don’t get any unexpected surprises later. Yet 45% of companies who release vulnerable code do so because they didn’t discover the issues in time.***
Avoid this problem by scanning your code in advance.
It’s becoming more and more popular for applications to run on containers. Yet without proper management, containers can become a major threat.
Mitigate possible vulnerabilities by never granting container root access.
You should also segment your network, only giving the container access to systems it needs.
Finally, use secrets—don’t save sensitive information to a container image, as it can easily be breached.
Cookies can be stolen, and you don’t want hackers getting access to things like usernames and passwords.
If you want to store this data on cookies, make sure it’s encrypted so thieves can’t read the information.
Cookies can easily be stolen via an unencrypted Wi-Fi connection, so play it safe and keep sensitive data off your cookies entirely when possible.
Test updates before deployment
While you might remember to test your initial code release, it can be easy to deploy patches and updates before fully testing them.
Make sure you’re testing your updates just as rigorously as you tested the initial code!
Use penetration testing
A major web application security best practice is penetration testing.
This type of testing actively probes for vulnerabilities, as the tester acts like a hacker to see what areas might be easily exploited. No matter what web application you use, you should use scrupulous penetration testing to keep it safe.
There are multiple types of pen testing, so we’re covering the uses of each in the next section.
How do you test the vulnerability of a web application?
When it comes to web application security best practices, testing is key. Below are a few of our top testing suggestions.
Pen testing, or ethical hacking, is one of the best ways to discover and mitigate application security web issues.
In its most basic form, penetration testing is carried out by a team of professionals who mimic the ways a hacker would probe for vulnerabilities.
The goal is to find issues before a real hacker can discover them and exploit the loophole. Within penetration testing, there are several different options to help you mitigate risk and follow web application security best practices:
External Penetration Testing
This type of testing covers assets that are visible on the internet. This includes your website and any other external-facing web applications, such as email.
External testing checks to see if a random hacker with access to only your external-facing assets could launch an attack on a vulnerability.
Internal Penetration Testing
Internal testing simulates an attack from inside a web application firewall or another safety measure.
It assumes a hacker has gained internal access by stealing employee credentials or exploiting a vulnerability.
Web Application Penetration
This type of testing is specifically tailored to web applications and focuses on securing your most critical applications from attacks.
All the above types of penetration testing play an important role in application security best practices.
If you’re worried about web application security, you’re not alone.
Fortunately, there are concrete steps you can take to keep yourself and your users safe from security threats.
When you follow best practices, you’ll be able to stop many attacks from happening, and you’ll mitigate the damage if a breach occurs.
To keep your data safe, understand the biggest risks your company faces when it comes to web applications. Identify specific weak areas in your operations and get a trusted third-party security service to help you follow best practices and create a workable solution.
Additionally, you should constantly monitor your applications through ongoing audits, scans, and testing. Keep your certificates and programs up-to-date and protect user data with multifactor authentication.
While these extra steps take time and effort, the payoff is worth it. You’ll avoid costly attacks and develop a brand reputation for secure web applications, responsible practices, and good data management.
If you want to implement web application security best practices but aren’t sure where to start, we’re here to help. Our team at Expedient Technology Solutions offers comprehensive security services.
We can conduct a risk assessment, do targeted penetration testing, and encrypt your sensitive data. We’ll develop secure multifactor authentication process for your business and provide ongoing monitoring and logging.
Contact us today to start your security journey.
* 2022 Positive Technologies report
** Verizon research