By Oren Rofman
What are web applications? They are apps that operate on web servers. In contrast to client-based software that needs to be installed on local devices, web apps can be accessed and used through web browsers.
This very nature of web apps makes it crucial to ensure their security. Since they operate online, they are largely centralized. An attack on the server where the web application is hosted can mean the unavailability of the service to all users. Cybercriminals do not need to deploy attacks to numerous users. They can disable the app by focusing on its server or servers.
To protect web applications adequately, considering the pointers below should be a good start. The measures listed here are not comprehensive, but they present crucial defenses to ascertain that web apps have sufficient protection.
The first and foremost security measure to ensure the security of web apps is the review of its code. Security controls are rendered ineffective or less effective than they should be if the app’s code itself is mired by vulnerabilities that allow bad actors to penetrate cyber defenses.
“Almost all software development life cycles include testing and validation, which is often accomplished as a code review by either a peer or an external entity. The review verifies that the application functions as expected and that required features have been implemented correctly,” explains MITRE, a US government-funded security organization.
Code reviews, however, do not guarantee that all vulnerabilities or software bugs are discovered and addressed. However, undertaking it is a crucial step in minimizing the potential problems that may be encountered later on.
It is important to conduct code reviews strategically and with best practices in mind. For instance, doing too much review all at once can be counterproductive. As revealed by a case study for a Cisco Systems programming team, reviewing more than 400 lines of code at a time is not compatible with human cognitive function. It can only lead to missed errors or an overall less-than-effective undertaking.
Deploying a web application firewall
One of the top solutions for securing web applications is the web application firewall (WAF). This can be a combination of software and hardware solutions designed to keep app security threats at bay. Basically, what it does is to evaluate incoming traffic to let in those that are deemed safe while blocking those considered malicious or harmful.
WAF is generally deployed without the need to implement changes in the applications being secured, since it only serves as a gateway for incoming traffic. It employs various heuristics that have to be regularly updated in order to detect the most recent threats. WAFs can be integrated with other cybersecurity products such as DDoS protection to establish a more formidable cyber defense.
WAFs usually get a Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) certification, which entails the assurance that card data is properly secured and that debit and credit card transactions are protected against fraud. This certification is governed by the Payment Card Industry Security Standards Council (PCI SSC).
A PCI DSS certification is not legally required, but it is necessary for businesses involved in debit and credit card transactions to have it. This certification is regarded as the optimum solution for safeguarding sensitive customer data.
WAFs are affected against cross-site scripting (XSS) or the injection of client-side scripts into web pages to bypass access controls and execute malicious scripts. They are also excellent against SQL injection, an attack against data-driven applications wherein malicious SQL statements are introduced to a system to interfere with database queries and allow the attacker to retrieve query results that are supposedly not available to third parties or non-admins. It also works well versus cookie poisoning or session hijacking.
Bot management and input validation
At present, the majority of cyberattacks, particularly the initial stages, are already conducted by bots. While the number of human hackers or cyber criminals has continued increasing over the years, bot attacks outnumber them since most of these human hackers also rely on bots to find viable targets. According to a recent report, more than a quarter of website traffic is attributable to bots.
The problem of bots can be addressed in kind. Bots v bots: automated cybersecurity solutions can be employed to make sure bots do not interface with web apps long enough for them to find vulnerabilities or opportunities to attack. CAPTCHA systems, for example, can be employed to make sure that only humans are interfacing with a web application. Other useful measures such as rate-limiting, threat signature matching, and blacklisting can also be implemented to detect bot activity and make sure that they are blocked from the get-go.
For advanced bot deployment strategies, solutions such as JSON payload inspection and other data integrity evaluation schemes can be put in place. API scheme ingestion, biometric behavioral programming, as well as advanced environmental identification can also be useful in dealing with harmful bots.
Encryption is a basic requirement for all data that should not be readily accessible to the public as they are being transmitted or made available online. It ensures that only the intended recipients of data can access or read the data. It prevents data leaks, sniffing, and data interception from becoming a problem since whatever data the hacker or bad actor gets will not be readable, hence useless for them.
The use of HTTPS or SSL encryption is a basic step for this security measure. This involves the acquisition of certificates for web servers and services. These certificates can be purchased from a commercial authority that provides certificates or through free open source automated certificate authorities such as Let’s Encrypt and SSL for Free.
Eliminating security misconfigurations
Configurations can become sources of exploitable vulnerabilities or security weaknesses. It only makes sense to exert effort in ascertaining that misconfigurations are avoided. Some of the most important details to bear in mind include the unnecessary opening of ports on the web server, the use of old software libraries, not renewing expired digital certificates, the failure to remove default or temporary guest accounts from the web server, and the use of outdated security level protocols.
Securing web applications is all about knowing and anticipating potential threats and problems. It is inevitable to use multiple security solutions and defensive measures. It can be a long and demanding process, but it is necessary to ensure security not only for the web application itself but also to protect users.
There are comprehensive cybersecurity solutions that can provide the features and functions useful in protecting web applications. It is not a bad idea to consider them as long as they are scrutinized meticulously for their effectiveness in delivering on their promise of providing adequate web app security. However, the basic security measures described above should all be taken into account.
Oren Rofman is a Tel Aviv native and a veteran of the Silicon Wadi tech ecosystem. Rofman is an expert in information technology, blockchain, big data and cloud security.