Web Application Security: Best Practices to stop Threats

Read to find out the common web app vulnerabilities compromosing web apps globally and the best practices to strengthen web app security.

April 17, 2022
8 mins read
Last Updated June 08, 2022
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Web Application Security: Best Practices to stop Threats

Web applications have been on the rise on the back of improving internet speeds and higher internet penetration. They offer engaging digital experiences without the need to download heavy applications.

Businesses are scrambling to cash in on web apps as they become the preferred touchpoints of users. However, apart from customers and companies, web applications appeal to one more faction— cybercriminals.

Basic web application attacks have become the second most common pattern in hacking attempts and breaches, making web application security a serious concern. Most new web entities don’t have the required infrastructure to mitigate sophisticated cyber attacks, making them easy prey.

Rise of web application attacks

Furthermore, the coronavirus pandemic also contributed to the increase in the number of web application attacks. With substantial restrictions imposed on physical operations, a lot of businesses decided to improve their online presence and rolled out web applications. However, cybercrime followed soon after.

There was a massive 800% increase in web application attacks in the first half of 2020. As a web app owner, you should be concerned since these attacks were distributed across all industries.

web app attack distribution

You need to be aware of the consequences, methods, and prevention of web app attacks for successful web application development. This article will equip you with all of the relevant knowledge. But before we get into any of that, let’s start with developing a better understanding of web application security.

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What is Web Application Security?

Web application security, more commonly known as Web AppSec, is the use of tools, strategies, and best practices to prevent web apps from failure when under attack. It also encompasses the prevention of loss of data and valuable information in case of attempted breaches.

Unfortunately, web app source codes are usually very complex, making it easier for vulnerabilities to go unattended. And with the volume and penetration of attacks on web apps going up, it’s only a matter of time when threat actors detect and leverage such vulnerabilities.

So What are the Consequences of Ignoring Web Application Security?

Latest web development trends suggest that 9 out of 10 web application users are susceptible to cyber-attacks. Despite such an alarming rate, companies don’t often pay enough attention to securing their web applications. For example, the Mossack Fonseca (MF) breach, popularly known as Panama Papers, happened because the law firm hosted the site on outdated software. While we don’t promote securing web applications for the sake of putting a veil on illicit activities, the dreadful consequences could’ve been easily avoided. 

Based on the kind of attack, the aftermath of a web application attack can be devastating for your business. Here are the possible outcomes of a cyber attack.

Loss of sensitive information

Gone are the days when the only idea of a cyber attack was a transfer of funds to random offshore accounts. Cybercriminals now realize that data is far more valuable. Sadly, some web app owners unknowingly make it easier for them to breach databases.

In 2020 alone, data breaches affected more than 155.8 million individuals. And that isn’t reassuring! Web applications often deal with sensitive user information. From email addresses to credit card numbers and passwords, attackers try to get their hands on any leverageable data.

VerticalScope lost more than 45 million records from its network of more than 1100 websites and forums. The records contained user IDs, email addresses, IP addresses, encrypted passwords, and more. The majority of these passwords had MD5 salting, which makes them easier to decrypt. Putting in more efforts with safer encryptions could’ve vastly reduced the impact of this attack.

Downtime and loss of revenue

While data is invaluable, time is of the essence. For companies relying on web applications for day-to-day operations, any downtime can incur heavy losses. For example, an hour of downtime costs $84,650 on average. That’s a massive number for any small or medium-sized business.

DDoS attacks are among the most commonly used to overwhelm a web application’s servers and force it into downtime. During this period, users won’t be able to access your services, and given the fragile patience of modern consumers, you can lose some valuable customers forever.

Loss of reputation

No one wants to engage with a business that isn’t serious about its web app security. A lot of companies get away with half-hearted security measures for their web applications. But the unfortunate ones who fall prey to attacks find it difficult to save their faces. News of a cyber attack often finds its way to the mainstream media, and the company’s reputation goes for a toss. The aftermath of it could be a significant reduction in share values and customers abandoning your business.

High cost of acting late

Once a company undergoes a web application attack, it needs to scramble to prevent any more attacks or losses. The first thing they need to do is to fix the vulnerability. And fixing vulnerabilities can be an expensive affair. You might have to rewrite huge parts of code again or get back to the drawing board to build a secure infrastructure for the web app. Then there are other expenses such as lawsuits from stakeholders. A report suggests that the average cost of a cyber attack is $1.1 million. And it’s easily fathomable given how destructive web application attacks can be.

Being penalized by monitoring agencies

The law requires companies to adhere to specific safety and security standards. If it’s found that a cyber attack occurred because of the absence of those measures, then the company can be heavily fined with possible imprisonment in the equation.

Some of the common laws and compliances regulating cybersecurity in the USA are the HIPAA act of 1996, GLBA of 1999, FISMA of 2002, CISA of 2015, and more. Under HIPAA, you can be fined up to $50,000 per record, whereas GLBA can lead to fines up to $100,000 for each violation.

Roy Morejon quote

Staying proactive is simply the best way to save yourself from such consequences of a web application attack. And to be able to do that, you need to be aware of the major threats to your web application. So let’s learn about some of them.

Common Web App Security Vulnerabilities With Real-world Examples

Here are the common web app security vulnerabilities that you should keep an eye out for.

Broken access control

Access control refers to the regulation of permissions so that users cannot access more than what they need. However, developers often leave some loopholes unattended, which can lead to unwarranted access to users. Bad actors often utilize broken access control to access sensitive information, modify data, delete data, or even perform restricted business functions.

Laxman Muthiyah discovered one such vulnerability in Facebook business pages. While Facebook allows third parties to post photos and statuses on user’s behalf, they can access or modify admin roles on pages. It makes sense as this keeps the user in complete control of their page at all times.

However, Laxman discovered that he could add anyone as a page admin with one simple request and modify and delete the page information. The new admin can easily make posts on the page’s behalf while the actual admin gets locked out of the page. Facebook rewarded Laxman $2500 under their bug bounty program, but the cost could’ve been exponentially more if any bad actors were to discover this vulnerability.

Security misconfiguration

Security misconfiguration is simply the failure to implement all the security measures needed to safeguard the web application. Moreover, an incorrect configuration that leaves some gaps in the web application’s security is also termed security misconfiguration.

A security misconfiguration can sabotage your web application in multiple ways and at different stages. For example, cybercriminals can gain control through network services, web servers, databases, custom code, installed machines, and so on.

Interestingly, multiple organizations over the years have failed to secure their Amazon S3 storage and subsequently paid the price. Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) is one such organization. 1800 daily MySQL database backups containing all sorts of information such as email addresses, logins, hashed passwords, license requests, secret access keys, etc., were discovered online.

Later, when ABC  was informed about the data breach, they addressed the security misconfiguration almost immediately. However, the damage was done, and people had access to their two years’ worth of sensitive information.

Sound development practices and testing could’ve avoided the issue altogether. For instance, Simform has created a performant and scalable web application for International Hockey Federation (FIH) which also utilizes Amazon S3 storage.

With expert development strategies, we’ve kept the application free of any cybersecurity risks and enabled our clients to deliver a dynamic and robust application to their audiences worldwide.

Cross-site scripting (XSS)

When a malicious script is injected into the website, it is referred to as cross-site scripting. Bad actors generally use this method to send malicious codes to unsuspecting end users. The users often don’t have any means to verify or validate such malicious scripts, and therefore, end up exposing the sensitive information stored within the browser during that session.

A cross-site scripting flaw can happen anywhere within the web application where the app demands input from the user but generates output without validating it. Steam is a popular game distribution platform with more than 120 million registered users. The platform allows for buying games, interacting with other players, multiplayer gaming and much more.

In 2017, a cross-site scripting flaw was discovered on Steam pages allowing actors to embed HTML and JavaScript codes on Steam pages. Given the popularity and nature of Steam, the flaw could’ve been misused for phishing attacks and tricking gamers into draining their accounts.

Insecure direct object references

It is a web app security vulnerability in which the web application has an identifier for direct access to an internal implementation but comes with no additional controls to authenticate the access.

One of the most famous real-life cases of this vulnerability is the one that was found on Yahoo!. And Egyptian cybersecurity expert Ibrahim Rafaat unearthed a flaw that allowed him to potentially wipe off more than 1.5 million records from the Yahoo database

Rafaat checked what happens when he deletes his comment on Yahoo answers and soon discovered that he could delete comments from others with a few simple steps. Given Yahoo’s popularity at that time, it put him in a position to delete potentially millions of records. However, he reported the flaw to Yahoo and received a reward under their bug bounty program.

Cross-site request forgery

It is a web application vulnerability that leverages social engineering for tricking authenticated users into taking unwanted actions. The consequences of a cross-site request forgery include but are not limited to user account takeovers, fund transfers, and even entire web application takeover in some cases.

TikTok is a wildly popular video-sharing app home to more than a whopping 689 million users. Because of its raging popularity, TikTok drives a lot of revenue for successful content creators on the platform. It has also attracted a ton of businesses to advertise themselves on the platform and have millions of eyeballs on them.

However, the platform was recently discovered with a cross-site request forgery endpoint. A JavaScript payload which when injected into the URL parameter, would allow for a one-click takeover of any TikTok account.

These vulnerabilities merely scratch the surface regarding possible web application security vulnerabilities, and you can’t go hunting each one of them. Instead, it would be best if you focused on web application security best practices to stay out of harm’s way. 

Best Practices for Web Application Security Solutions

Following all the best practices that will help you address many web development challenges when it comes to security. Let’s look at some of the strategies that your development team can implement for the same.

Start with the design and development phase

Web application security should be one of your concerns even before a single line of code is written. When you start with the application design, factor in all the different ways threat actors might try to sabotage your web application.

Threat modeling is an essential exercise that your team must undergo during the design and development phase. It involves a discussion between security architects and the development team on various accounts to assess the security readiness of the application.

When it comes to web app development, you should ensure that your developers are well aware of the security threats out there. It is advisable that they are trained on OWASP Top 10 and SANS web application security checklist.  Additionally, teams can follow secure coding practices and keep input checks, common injection, SQL injection and various other factors in mind when building the web application.

Create a web application security plan

Create a web application security plan that clearly lays down the objectives of your business when it comes to securing the web application. Make sure you include all the stakeholders in the discussion when ideating the plan.

Companies can prioritize various interests such as compliances and brand identity. Whatever your priorities may be, make sure the plan consists of clear actionable steps to strengthen the security. It should mention the mode of solution and even mention the teams and individuals responsible for each of those steps.

Taking inventory and prioritize applications

Take inventory of all the web applications used by your organization. Assess how often you use them and how closely linked they are with other web applications. When taking inventory, you also need to keep an eye out for rogue and redundant applications. Addressing these first will substantially improve the state of security of your web applications.

Creating such a log of all the web applications might be a tedious task but all this hard work will guide your company towards the next best steps. The developers would be aware of the abundance as well as the severity of security issues. It will help project managers and owners prioritize security tasks with ease.

Test rigorously

A discussion on web application security is incomplete without mentioning testing. You are very well aware of the importance of testing and how it helps in identifying various security flaws in your web applications. To streamline your testing efforts, here are a few parameters that you should keep in mind while testing:

  • Confidentiality: Can your web application ensure the safekeeping of all the private and confidential information provided by users?
  • Integrity: Is there a method to ensure that the information provided by users on the site is correct?
  • Authentication: Can you verify if the details provided by the user belong to them only?
  • Authorization: Are there enough safeguards to ensure users can only follow the steps they are authorized to take on the web app?
  • Availability: Can you confirm that the information being provided to users through the web application is appropriate and ready for their consumption?

Testing against such parameters will ensure comprehensive testing as well as the security of your web application.

Train and create security awareness among team members

Cybersecurity is all about who gets their first. While cyber criminals leave no stone unturned to discover all the possible vulnerabilities in your web application, you should equip your teams with all the resources needed to mitigate the issues.

From security training to vulnerability awareness, you should have your team members stay updated on all the possible web application flaws at all times. With the appropriate knowledge, they’ll stay on top of issues and prevent vulnerabilities from popping up in the web application.

How can Simform Help?

By now, you must’ve realized how critical it is to have a competent development team at your disposal to keep web application security issues at bay. They help you create sound web applications in the first place rather than having to patch security holes later.

Simform has been acting as an extended team for organizations worldwide and has provided them with advanced and sound products for more than a decade. Our seasoned developers continuously strive to keep themselves updated with cybersecurity developments and transfer this knowledge to your software builds.

On top of that, our clients can’t speak enough of our transparency and adherence to quality standards. We are the one-shot solution for all your security, quality, and budget-related woes regarding web application development. Feel free to reach out and get a free consultation on your future development needs.

Working from last 10+ years into consumer and enterprise mobility, Hardik leads large scale mobility programs covering platforms, solutions, governance, standardization and best practices.

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