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A Beginner's Guide to Application Security

A Beginner's Guide to Application Security

Over the past decade, and even more swiftly since the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, digital transformation of the workplace has primarily been driven by applications. Apps have become an integral part of everyday life for many organizations.

Modern applications are complex. Their functionality frequently relies on APIs and third-party integrations, leading to an increased attack surface and more security vulnerabilities. A data breach or an attacker exploiting a security weakness can permanently damage your business. It’s crucial that you understand and secure your application’s infrastructure.

There are a number of actions you can take to keep attackers away. Following are some tips and best practices for a more secure application.

Understanding application security

Application security, or AppSec, as it’s commonly known, takes place throughout the development lifecycle. It’s the process of creating applications that are secure from both internal and external threats. Internal threats can range from simple human error to malicious acts. External threats, which include data breaches, malware, and phishing attacks, can be constant and costly. It’s estimated that distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks alone will grow to 15.4 million by 2023.

As attackers target applications ever more aggressively, keeping them secure plays a vital role in a holistic cybersecurity strategy. Application security is necessary to avoid financial and legal repercussions, protect your organization’s reputation, and build trust with your customers and partners.

Application security concepts

There are a few concepts you should understand before you develop an application security strategy. Learning these will help you avoid common pitfalls or ineffective techniques that could compromise the security of your application.

OWASP Top 10

The Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) online community studies and reports on web application security. The OWASP Top 10 report lists the most critical security vulnerabilities an application can face.

The list—based on survey data from cybersecurity professionals—is determined by the frequency and likelihood of a vulnerability, how easy it is to detect, and the impact it can have on your organization.

OWASP’s report can help you assess areas of your application that present higher potential risk. It provides example attack scenarios to show how various vulnerabilities work, as well as guidelines for avoiding these attacks.

Below are the top ten security vulnerabilities as noted in the latest OWASP report from 2021:

  1. Broken access control
  2. Cryptographic failures
  3. Injection
  4. Insecure design
  5. Security misconfiguration
  6. Vulnerable and outdated components
  7. Identification and authentication failures
  8. Software and data integrity failures
  9. Security logging and monitoring failures
  10. Server-side request forgery

Authentication basics

Authentication is a necessary feature of modern applications because it prevents unauthorized users from accessing and misusing sensitive information.

When you start developing an application, you might be tempted to build your own authentication system to save costs or maintain full control. However, creating an effective authentication system is a challenging job with many factors to consider. If done poorly, it can cause severe consequences.

Instead, there are authentication solutions available to help you enhance the security of your application. Platforms like Okta or Auth0 provide you with powerful identity services tailored to your needs.

These services offer a high level of expertise and keep updating their technology to stay ahead of new cyberattack forms. Using third-party software can help you avoid pitfalls and save money in the long run. When you rely on a platform, you can focus on building and running your applications.

For more about the advantages of a pre-built identity solution, check this whitepaper on the advantages of a pre-built identity solution.

External user management

A user management system is an essential part of application security. It allows you to collect, store, and manage user data for a smoother user registration process, enhanced authentication, and better password management. You can also use it to control who can access particular aspects of your infrastructure, including networks, devices, and applications.

As with authentication, you might want to build your own user management system. However, these are complex systems to create that generally require dedicated teams, especially for enterprise-level applications. You could run into issues such as failing to sanitize user input or being stuck with a frustrating registration process.

With an external user management system, you’ll get a robust, out-of-the-box solution that adjusts to your needs while handling tricky tasks like scaling or regulatory compliance. This can also help you reduce overall user management costs since you won’t need to pay in-house developers to do the work.

Up-to-date programs are a best practice

To achieve the highest level of security, you should ensure that your applications and their dependencies are always up to date. Updates contain patches to fix security vulnerabilities that malicious actors could exploit.

Update the antivirus programs on your devices and your firewalls. You can also use asset management software to detect outdated programs.

Secure communication protocols

Be sure your site or application uses Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS). It adds a security layer to traditional HTTP by encrypting the data exchanged between computers and servers over the internet. For example, if your user fills out a form with personal information, even if the data is stolen, it won’t have any value to the attacker because it cannot easily be decoded.

HTTPS is so important that it’s become the de facto industry standard. All major web browsers discourage users from visiting non-HTTPS websites, and search engines penalize those websites in search results.

HTTPS protects data with the Transport Layer Security (TLS) protocol, which uses a public-key encryption system to ensure that applications communicate and exchange data safely.

Learn more about how to get started with HTTPS in this series.

Security testing tools

Use security testing to detect vulnerabilities in your application. Testing can help you protect your applications from data breaches and avoid performance issues. You can also determine your application’s level of security stability and avoid future problems.

Testing can be a time-consuming ongoing process, but there are solutions to help you test efficiently. Two popular testing tools are vulnerability assessment and penetration testing.

Vulnerability assessment or scanner tools review your application to see if it’s vulnerable to security attacks. They identify, analyze, and help you solve security risks.

Penetration testing (or pen testing) is a white-hat hacking technique you can use to detect security flaws. You imitate the steps a cyber attacker would take in order to identify and fix vulnerabilities before real attackers can discover them.

Certifications in app security

You might be inspired to learn even more about application security. If that’s the case, consider pursuing certification, so you can develop expertise in cloud security. This in-demand skill set will benefit you as well as your company or organization.

Use your knowledge

Application security needs to be a top priority for developers. Modern applications often run on multiple networks and connect to the cloud, increasing the number of potentially problematic access points for attackers.

Many organizations are familiar with security best practices but may not understand the concepts behind them. Using this knowledge, you can implement the solutions described above to achieve great results.

Check out these posts for more information about application security:

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I'm Alex, a front end developer. My main area of expertise is web development and everything that comes along with it. I also have extensive knowledge of topics such as software testing, UX design, big data, social media marketing, and SEO techniques.

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