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Web Application Security:

Top Threats and 6 Defensive Methods

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Web application security is the practice of detecting and preventing cyber attacks on websites, and more importantly—building websites that are secure to begin with. This includes a set of security controls built into web applications to protect them from a growing variety of cyber threats.

Web applications inevitably contain bugs and misconfigurations, and some of these are security vulnerabilities that can be exploited by attackers. Web application security helps address these vulnerabilities by leveraging secure development practices, implementing security testing throughout the software development lifecycle (SDLC), resolving design-level defects and avoiding security concerns during deployment and runtime.

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Top Web Application Security Risks

Here are some of the major risks facing web applications today.

Injection

This security risk occurs when untrusted data is sent to an interpreter via a command or query. An attacker injects malicious code that looks like normal code, and can trick the interpreter into executing unexpected commands or accessing data without proper permissions.

An injection attack on a web application can bypass authorisation mechanisms, resulting in exposure of valuable data or complete compromise of the system. Common injection flaws include LDAP, NoSQL, and SQL injection.

Denial of Service (DoS) and Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS)

In a DoS attack, attackers generate fake traffic through different vectors to overload the target server or surrounding infrastructure. If the server cannot handle incoming requests efficiently, it slows down and eventually refuses to process incoming requests from legitimate users. A DDoS attack is the same thing at a much larger scale, leveraging botnets of thousands or millions of devices controlled by the attacker.

Cross-site Request Forgery (CSRF)

CSRF tricks victims into making unwanted requests, leveraging existing authentication. An attacker can use the user’s account privileges to impersonate the user and perform operations on their behalf.

If a user account is compromised, an attacker can steal, destroy, or modify sensitive information. Attackers typically target accounts with high privileges, such as accounts belonging to administrators or executives.

Cross-Site Scripting (XSS)

XSS allows hackers to inject client-side scripts into web pages to intercept user session access, impersonate users, access sensitive information, tamper with websites, or redirect URLs to malicious websites. This flaw occurs whenever an application embeds untrusted data in a web page, or updates a website with user inputs via browser-generated HTML or JavaScript, without proper validation.

Security Misconfiguration

This is one of the most common risks to web applications. It occurs when security controls are not set correctly in a web application or the surrounding infrastructure.
For example, security configuration errors can be unpatched known vulnerabilities, cloud storage exposed to the Internet with no authentication, insecure default configurations left as-is, misconfigured HTTP headers, or unnecessarily detailed error messages that divulge sensitive information to attackers.

Application security professionals must ensure the secure configuration of all applications, frameworks, operating systems, and libraries. It is important to ensure that these are also updated and patched in a timely manner.

XML External Entities (XXE)

Many web applications have misconfigured XML processors, which evaluate external entity references in XML files. An attacker can exploit external entities to expose internal server files, perform internal port scanning, use a web server for denial of service (DoS) attacks, and perform remote code execution.

Vulnerable Deserialisation

Deserialisation is the process of recreating data objects from a stream of bytes. Insecure deserialisation occurs when untrusted code, created by an attacker, exploits vulnerabilities in the programming language’s deserialisation mechanisms. In severe cases, this can enable remote code execution (RCE). Even if the vulnerability does not lead to RCE, it might still be exploited to perform escalation of privileges, code injection attacks, and replay attacks.

6 Types of Tools to Defend Against Web Application Threats

There are two main methods to defend against web application vulnerabilities—prevention or blocking. Ideally, organisations should employ both methods.

Here are key tools to help prevent web application vulnerabilities:

  1. Static application security tests (SAST)—involves analysing the application source code during development. SAST tools help detect coding and design issues that can lead to vulnerabilities. Learn more in our guide to SAST
  2. Software composition analysis (SCA)—involves analysing applications to identify open source software (OSS) and third-party components containing known vulnerabilities or licensing restrictions.
  3. Interactive application security testing (IAST)—involves observing application behavior, such as input, output, data flow, and logic. It requires deploying an IAST agent in the application to conduct a runtime analysis of the code, data flow, and memory.
  4. Dynamic application security tests (DAST)—involves analysing code in runtime, including servers and underlying application frameworks. It requires a manual configuration of the DAST for each application. Learn more in our guide to DAST.

Here are key tools to help block web application attacks:

  1. Web application firewall (WAF)—protects web applications against malicious HTTP traffic. It places a filter barrier between attackers and the targeted server to block attacks such as SQL injection, CSRF, and XSS.
  2. Runtime application self-protection (RASP)—detects and blocks attacks by employing in-application instrumentation. You can use an SDK to integrate RASP directly into your codebase or deploy an agent to the host at runtime.

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