What is Application Security? A Beginner’s Guide

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What is Application Security?

Application Security is defined by developing, adding, and testing security features in an application or website. Taking these measures can prevent hostile attacks from malicious users and stop sensitive data or systems from being exposed.

What Types of Applications Does a Modern Organisation Need to Secure?

Software encompasses a wide variety of different results. It could be an application on your computer or phone, the communication services that let your debit card take money from your bank, or even the website you’re reading this article on.

We’ll be focusing mainly on web-focused technologies, but the practices we’ll go over can be applied to any type of software.

Web Application Security

Web development security encompasses most of what your typical user on the internet sees every day, including websites, web services and web apps. Most of these web apps will have user information or business-critical information, which means attackers see them as a high-value target.

While the internet has evolved to become more secure with the introduction of HTTPS (which creates a secure connection between you and a website), there are still many vulnerabilities. Security professionals are constantly working to protect websites from these malicious attacks and develop new ways to prevent potential issues in the future.

API Security

An Application Programming Interface (API) is how different services or applications communicate to one another. Picture it like this: imagine a waiter (the API) taking your order (the information in a login form or sending a picture on Twitter) and delivering it to the kitchen to be made (the system or service). This example is a simplified version of an API.

However, because these APIs connect services and transfer data, hackers can easily exploit them. Like web applications, hackers target these to gain access to sensitive information.

Cloud Native Application Security

When it comes to cloud-native applications, this refers to any technologies that work or support anything done in the cloud. Because this field is so new, many of the old tools for security aren’t always possible within this new infrastructure. While these types of applications are usually broken down into smaller bits of code called microservices, they can quickly add up to a complex web of services.

Container Application Security

Unlike other types of applications on our list, container applications are units of software that are shipped with everything you’d need to run them, including other applications. When securing these containers, developers need to cover everything within it. This includes running applications and the infrastructure of the container itself.

Application Security Risks

There are thousands of potential threats and vulnerabilities that have been documented or attempted. These are the most common ways to bring awareness to these vulnerabilities and create stepping stones to a more secure application.

Web Application Security Risks: OWASP Top 10

The non-profit organisation Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) releases a standard awareness document roughly every three years, known as the OWASP Top Ten. This document highlights the ten most critical security risks for web applications.

The most recent list for 2021 included the following issues:

  1. Broken Access Control - This includes users having access outside their intended permissions, such as allowing access to a website’s API in places where they shouldn’t. This can lead to users being able to access other users’ accounts or exposing sensitive data.

  2. Cryptographic Failures - This is a fairly broad category. It includes any failures related to cryptography (keeping things secure from outside parties). This can be from passwords included in a codebase, poor encryption keys or inefficient protections.

  3. Injection - Whenever a user sends information to a system, if the system doesn’t adequately vet the data, this can expose a system to hackers. These kinds of exploits can include malicious code being sent to a system, which would then execute the code when it shouldn’t be able to.

  4. Insecure Design - The newest category on the list includes potential weaknesses that come from the design of the software itself. Regardless of the quality of the code, if the design of the implementation is poor, it can easily lead to vulnerabilities that are difficult to resolve.

  5. Security Misconfiguration - This tends to result from applications with poor security practices or a complete lack of it. Applications without these practices can lead malicious attackers to dig deeper to look for more flaws or potentially expose sensitive data to other users.

  6. Vulnerable and Outdated Components - These vulnerabilities include the individual parts of an application that are missing software updates, making them vulnerable to existing attacks. Using older operating systems or outdated software versions means any issues that existed in those previous versions were never resolved.

  7. Identification and Authentication Failures - Typically, this includes weak password protection in websites, like allowing users to brute-force passwords or having weak administrator passwords. These can easily lead to users getting their accounts hacked or potentially gaining access to areas they shouldn't.

  8. Software and Data Integrity Failures - This usually relates to developers who assume new updates for software components are safe without verifying or downloading components from untrusted sources. These software components could have been tampered with or potentially have exploits that have not been resolved yet.

  9. Security Logging and Monitoring Failures - Unlike other categories, these vulnerabilities relate to security processes that don’t create logs or reports to observe. Without these, attacks and breaches can go completely unnoticed.

  10. Server-Side Request Forgery - These vulnerabilities come from web applications that grab information from another URL provided by the user without adequately checking its validity. These exploits can lead to hackers getting information about how a system is built or accessing internal services within a system.

API Security Risks: OWASP Top 10

Similar to the traditional Top 10, OWASP also has a list for API’s top ten risks for APIs, which are:

  1. Broken Object Level Authorisation - Relying on tricking the API into thinking the data being sent is different than what it should be. This can allow attackers to gain permissions they shouldn’t have.

  2. Broken User Authentication - Any parts of an API that manages user authentication (login systems and permissions) that aren’t correctly secured can lead to a data breach. These exploits can easily allow hackers to access other users’ accounts or personal data.

  3. Excessive Data Exposure - If an API is not configured correctly, it can send more data than what the user intended to receive. This can include sensitive information or user data.

  4. Lack of Resources & Rate Limiting - APIs that aren’t set to only be accessed by logged-in users or ones that allow unlimited access (such as setting a timer on how fast someone can send/receive data) can easily lead to an exploit. This is a common method for Denial-of-Service (DoS) attacks, one of the most common types of cyberattacks.

  5. Broken Function Level Authorisation - Similar to #4, this relates to users that can access parts of an API that they shouldn’t be able to, regardless of authentication. This can lead to users gaining admin access or other unauthorised functions.

  6. Mass Assignment - Because APIs tend to be built with similar functions to accept and send data, attackers can use that knowledge to change some of the data without proper permissions. These exploits can tamper with a system or bypass other security measures.

  7. Security Misconfiguration - Like web applications, if an API doesn’t have proper security measures or easily discovered weaknesses, it poses a risk. Without these measures in place, a fully compromised system can lead to it.

  8. Injection - Similar to web applications, if an API doesn’t correctly filter before being accepted into a system, it becomes a security risk. This is one of the more common exploits but is relatively easy to find and resolve.

  9. Improper Assets Management - If older API versions still exist where users can access them, they can easily be explored and exploited. As technology advances, it’s possible that these APIs can be left unattended and open for attackers.

  10. Insufficient Logging & Monitoring - APIs that aren’t being monitored or lack sufficient data logging of changes can be easily attacked without detection. An attacker can freely explore an API’s system without being tracked if these measures aren’t put in place.

Architecture Application Security Risks: OWASP ASVS

OWASP also provides a basic standard for developers to build secure applications and thorough testing, known as the Application Security Verification Standard (ASVS). This was created to provide a basis of security verification across any sort of application, whether it’s used as a guiding hand or a firm standard to be applied to.

What is Application Security Testing?

To make sure applications are resistant to security threats, developers use testing methods to check for any potential vulnerabilities thoroughly. These tests are automated and are run at every point of the software development lifecycle, from start to finish.

Application Security Tools and Solutions

When it comes to improving web application security, there are plenty of tools and solutions to choose from, such as:

Static/Dynamic Application Security Testing (S/DAST) tests a codebase inside and out. Static Application Security Testing (SAST) goes over codebase that isn’t running, while Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST) acts as if it’s an attacker from an external source.

Software Composition Analysis (SCA) are tools that organisations can use to check for all of the third-party software components in their application. Most open-source (software made publicly for others to use) software comes with a specific licence that dictates how organisations can use them and whether or not the authors need to be attributed. They also search for known vulnerabilities and check for the versions of the components used.

Runtime Application Self-Protection (RASP) is an evolution of SAST/DAST that analyses traffic and users while an application is running. These integrate with the running application to detect and prevent malicious attacks and scan a codebase for potential issues.

Application Security Best Practices

When looking to enforce better security on an application or service, developers have a wide selection of methods and tools. Organisations should also know how to identify common attacks and how to handle them in case of a breach.

Vulnerability Management

This is typically defined as an ongoing process to identify, evaluate, treat, and report vulnerabilities across systems and APIs. Developers should follow this process at all points of the software development lifecycle for organisations to be aware of their potential vulnerabilities.

Types of Attacks

It’s equally important for organisations to know how attackers could exploit their systems. Whether through OWASP’s awareness reports or other methods, developers should know what common attacks are. Knowing the potential attack vectors and common problems can lead to a more secure final product, with a lower risk of being exploited.

Shift Left Security

One of the best ways to keep security at the forefront of development is through Shift Left Security. Imagine a straight line, where the leftmost point was the start of development and the rightmost is a completed product. It used to be common to leave any security practices and checks near the end of the development cycle, closer to the right. By prioritising it earlier, you shift those security measures to the left of the line, making sure your product focuses on security well before a final release.

Improving Prioritisation

No software is completely secure. There is always a chance of a potential attack, and errors will occur, whether big or small. An organisation that knows what its possible vulnerabilities are should be able to prioritise the most important fixes. Comparatively, teams can roll minor issues into smaller updates, or more time can be spent on fixing more complex issues.

Measurement, Categorisation, and Metrics

An essential aspect of improving security is through measurements. Organisations that take the time to measure their security practices will succeed in preventing potential exploits or data loss. This pairs well with Vulnerability Management, where teams should be categorising vulnerabilities and calculating how impactful they can be and how to budget on resolving them.

With web application threats and attacks becoming more common every year, it’s imperative to get to grips with application security and the type of applications that need protecting in your organisation. In this beginners guide you’ve discovered what application security is and the different application types. Finally, you’ve learned about security risks, application security testing and best practices.

ULESKA’S VIEW

Uleska’s Chief Security Officer, Gary Robinson, has worked in software and application security for 20+ years, as a developer, security architect, penetration tester, and even served on the Board of OWASP.  Gary has been working to improve the automation around security tools for years.

Application Security Challenges

“Application Security works alongside the software development process but hasn’t tended to keep up with the automation and toolchains development teams use and expect these days.  I remember working in a company with lots of DevOps automation in the development teams on one side of me, and a bunch of security tools on the other side, but there was no automation or integration between the two.  The security team became the bottleneck which wasn’t fair.” Gary says.

Running Application Security The Smart Way

“Choosing and running a security tool is fun the first few times you do it, but when your job becomes a mindless wheel of running security tools over and over again, it doesn’t work for you, the dev teams, or anyone else.  Nearly every security tool has APIs or command line interfaces that can be hooked into existing toolchains, but since there’s zero standardization of how to run, or get results from, these tools, the integration becomes a nightmare and we see many companies struggle.”

“That’s why we built the Uleska Platform, to productize that integration layer between development processes (CI/CD, Git platforms, artifacts, etc) and security tools (commercial, open-source or custom developed) and make them easily work together.  That way security teams can add intelligence and value beyond the joining of the dots, and more effectively reduce the issues and risk across their teams.  It also saves them lots of time on the boring repetitive tasks.”

WHO IS ULESKA?

Uleska helps security and development teams manage application security at scale by automating and orchestrating their preferred security tools within CI/CD.

With Uleska, teams can confidently start an AppSec program using open-source, commercial, and custom tools and then quickly change, add or scale tools as the technology and business needs evolve. Uleska also brings speed and scale when integrating into development tools, and reporting of metrics and risk.

By bringing security, DevOps and development teams together, we help reduce manual tasks so application security takes less time, cost and can scale, allowing teams to focus resources on the issues and metrics that matter.

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