Our clients often ask us, “What is application security?” Mobile and web-based application security is a broad topic. It involves developing and testing features that prevent vulnerabilities from various attack vectors. Security is critical throughout an application’s life cycle, from initial design to ongoing maintenance. This is because secure applications protect users and their data from being compromised by malicious actors. Here we take a moment to explore the topic of application security in detail.
Just what exactly are applications and what is application security? In truth, most people use many software applications for one reason or another. Whether at school, work, or home, these helpful programs are often efficient, powerful tools for getting things done. Software ranges from word processors and media players to web browsers, smartphone apps, network protocols, and application programming interfaces (APIs). Since these programs involve countless types of hardware, programming languages, and operating systems, application security is a complex, evolving process.
Common Types of Application Security
Software developers are tasked with designing applications that work most of the time for a majority of users. No system is perfect, though, and the complexity of the threat landscape grows quickly. Plus, user error is an ever-present complication that adds fuel to the fire. Therefore, developers require specialized training and experience to be effective. Many security features can exist at various levels of development. Developers must ensure security at both the network and application level because criminals look to exploit every possible weakness.
Authentication and Authorization
Before a user can access an application, it must authenticate and authorize their device. This process ensures the user is truly who they claim to be. Authentication often involves the pairing of a username and password, while multi-factor authentication (MFA) requires an additional input.
Authorization must occur next, as it validates that the user has permission to use the application. Taken together, these steps discourage a large number of cybercriminals from gaining access in the first place.
Encryption and Web Application Firewalls
Once a user gains access to an application, they may use it to send sensitive data over networks. To be safe from cyberattacks, developers apply encryption protocols which shield this data from prying eyes. Encryption is a common form of network security often used by websites, email servers, ecommerce applications to safeguard sensitive information.
Web application firewalls (WAFs) control access to web applications. They recognize and restrict users who exhibit any form of suspicious activity. WAFs operate on the application layer and have access to all networking layers, allowing them to protect applications from attacks.
Logging and Testing of Application Security
In the event of a security breach, developers need to know exactly what happened and when. Secure applications create time-stamped log files that record what occurs and when. This makes it much easier to identify and resolve errors in the future.
Common Application Attack Vectors
Cybercriminals must be creative to get around these forms of application security. In fact, most web applications have some kind of vulnerability which hackers seek to exploit. Criminals often target high-profile organizations in trade, banking, media, and government sectors.
Code injection comes in many forms, from cross-site scripting (XSS) to Structured Query Language (SQL) injection. Other types of code injection include path traversal and local file inclusion (LFI). XSS is the most common application attack vector, though it tends to be fairly simple. It involves loading a webpage with malicious code that infects others’ devices once they access it.
SQL injection is similar to XSS in that it involves uploading harmful code to a webpage. This code is then submitted to a server’s database without being sanitized, possible changing, deleting, or exposing sensitive data. According to one report, XSS and SQL injection accounted for over 60% of web-based attacks in 2017.
Path traversal attacks attempt to gain unauthorized access to data through injected directory code. This can expose databases, user credentials, and configuration files for theft. LFI attacks use directory traversal to force a web application to execute other files on the server.
Denial of Service
Meant to shut down a device or network, denial of service (DoS) attacks are also common threat vectors. They work by flooding a website or application with false traffic that causes triggers a crash. DoS attacks denies application service to legitimate users for a period of time. Distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks involve multiple synchronized DoS attacks and are more difficult to resolve.
What is application security, really? A thorough answer could fill at least a dozen textbooks. In short, web applications require many security measures to be effective. Developers must include multiple layers of protection at every level of vulnerability to guard applications from criminals. Because the threat landscape evolves so quickly, they’re under a lot of pressure to stay ahead of the curve. If you have questions about application security, we hope you’ll contact us for more information. We’re happy to explain this broad topic in greater detail.