With organizations adopting web applications for various functions, including e-commerce, customer engagement, and brand empowerment, such applications are now critical growth enablers for modern businesses. However, as these applications churn large amounts of user and organizational data, they remain the target of an acute cyber attack. This article discusses web security basics, common vulnerabilities, and resources to keep abreast with the changing threat landscape.
Web Security Fundamentals
Web security is the practice of securing web applications, the underlying infrastructure, and their users from malicious attacks. This encompasses several tools, best practices, and processes used to reduce the attack surface, preventing every malicious user from accessing sensitive data. Given that over 70% of modern web applications are susceptible to cyberattacks, it is crucial to adopt the right security strategy to ensure all related components of web applications are secure.
Because of the extensive attack surface, modern tech frameworks offer, security risks differ based on industry types and technologies used. However, the approach of mitigating attacks is most common. Some of these include:
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Identity and Access Management
Identity and Access Management (IAM) is one of the most crucial parts of web security. It forms the first layer of defense by governing permissions and access to applications, data, and other resources. IAM involves identifying, authenticating, and authorizing web application users to ensure seamless yet robustly secure access management. Since IAM solutions automate and streamline the core processes of access management, development teams can focus on enhancing the application’s operational efficiencies, resilience, and scalability. A typical IAM platform also automates access reviews, log collection, and reporting, thereby supporting compliance to regulatory frameworks.
Cloud and Network Security
Because of the continuous cloud adoption for hosting modern web applications, software-defined networks have witnessed unprecedented growth. Most attackers utilize these networks as entry points, using a combination of tactics to compromise the information flow across the web ecosystem. Unsurprisingly, a massive part of web security now involves ensuring that data shared between distributed networks is kept secure. Though cloud service providers offer inbuilt security measures through their platforms, cloud security is primarily a shared responsibility between the service provider and the end-user. For systems that run on hybrid (public and private cloud) or multi-cloud architecture, provisions for developing a comprehensive security mechanism often require a complex, custom approach.
Web Security Vulnerabilities
Vulnerabilities are weaknesses or flaws that hackers exploit to compromise a system. The Online Web Applications Security Project (OWASP) outlines the top 10 web security vulnerabilities in 2021 and ranks them according to exploitability, detectability, and potential damage. Some of these vulnerabilities include:
Broken access control
One of the most prevalent forms of vulnerability allows users to perform actions outside their intended permissions. Hackers commonly exploit various vulnerabilities of broken access control, including violating the least privilege principle, insecure direct object reference, and missing controls for HTTP methods.
Cryptography involves using mathematical techniques to allow only the sender and intended recipient to view data. Some cryptographic flaws include: transmitting data as clear text, use of weak/outdated cryptographic algorithms, use of default keys, and insufficient initialization vectors.
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These vulnerabilities allow attackers to use malicious scripts to infect a webserver through user input interfaces. Such vulnerabilities typically arise due to insufficient input validation, hostile data within the object-relational model, or when dynamic queries are used directly in the web server’s interpreter.
Other OWASP web application vulnerabilities include insecure design, security misconfiguration, outdated/vulnerable components, authentication failures, Server-Side Request Forgery, and security logging & monitoring failures.
Web Application Security Solutions
Ensuring web application security is a multifaceted task that spans multiple workflows, regulatory frameworks, and knowledge areas. Web security solutions involve integrating various services to offer customizable protection for sensitive workloads. While use cases may differ for different organizations, the following are some of the most commonly leveraged application security solutions:
A vulnerability scanner is a vulnerability assessment solution that automatically tests the web server’s configuration, code, and dependencies for security gaps. Instead of being a one-time project, vulnerability scanning is a continuous process that enables distributed teams to achieve agility by eliminating security testing bottlenecks. Besides identifying weaknesses in a tech stack, vulnerability scanning also helps security teams evaluate the effectiveness of their cyber security strategy.
Security Logging and Monitoring
All network devices generate several events and actions recorded as logs. Log management is the process of categorizing this information, aggregating it, and then assessing it for evidence of abnormalities. Therefore, when implementing a cyber security strategy, organizations should ensure that all components of the computing network are logging events and that the logs are managed centrally for efficient identification of a root cause.
Monitoring involves using telemetry data to detect and diagnose security threats proactively. Proper monitoring tools scan the content delivery network, web servers, and endpoints in real-time, enabling teams to mitigate attack vectors before hackers exploit them.
Web Application Firewalls (WAFs)
A web application firewall is a commonly used tool for protecting web applications from attacks. By applying several rules to HTTP transactions, a WAF creates a protective shield of layer 7 protection for a webserver. While doing so, WAF relies on a set of policies to essentially create a blacklist or whitelist that filters out malicious code or requests from interacting with the webserver. Though WAFs are primarily used to detect and block malicious requests, such as SQL injection or cross-site scripting, they can also help prevent the abuse of APIs by blocking API calls that do not conform to their policies.
A WAF can be either be network-based, host-based, or cloud-based. Cloud-based WAFs offer turnkey installation and are more accessible and more affordable to implement. These WAFs can be used to protect applications, whether on-premises, in the private cloud, or public offerings such as Google Cloud, MS Azure, and AWS. For example, Prisma Cloud, Cloudflare, and Google Cloud Armor are popular cloud-based web firewall security solutions that improve protection by monitoring and filtering traffic between the web server and the internet.
How to Learn Web Security for Beginners
While Cybersecurity is a complex and broad subject, there are numerous resources to help anyone learn web security. These include:
1. The Online Web Application Security Project (OWASP)
OWASP is a non-profit foundation that helps improve software security through open-source projects, conferences, and community contributions. OWASP offers training, tools, and resources through its vibrant community and volunteer networks. Whether you are a developer, security professional, or startup founder, OWASP resources are meant for everyone looking to secure their tech stack.
OWASP has various niche projects on application security, including:
- OWASP Top 10 – A numbered list of common threats to look out for, along with the best practices to avoid related vulnerabilities.
- Web Security Testing Guide (STG) – A reference cyber security testing resource for comprehensive protection of web applications.
- Software Assurance Maturity Model (SAMM) – A recommended software model that helps in administering, analyzing, and improving a secure development cycle.
- Zed Attack Proxy – An open-source security tool that provides a wide range of options for application security automation. The platform also offers a marketplace that includes essential add-ons for functionalities such as antivirus software, enforcement of strong passwords, and support for IDEs.
2. O’Reilly Media’s Security e-Books
In addition, O’Reilly’s internet archive includes several eBooks on CCybersecurity that consider modern security paradigms such as the darknet, data lakes, and DevSecOps. To access these books, you can sign up for a free trial to access a wide range of resources to gain information on the changing threat landscape, attack patterns, and mitigation strategies.
3. Center for Internet Security (CIS) Whitepapers
The Center for Internet Security includes a collection of up-to-date whitepapers that help identify, promote, and sustain cyber security best practices. This website also features educational videos, webinars, and other valuable tools to help anyone interested in keeping their organization’s infrastructure secure.
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What is the difference between vulnerability scanning and penetration testing?
While both techniques offer proactive security, vulnerability scanning is a passive process that involves detecting and identifying security gaps in the infrastructure. On the other hand, a penetration test is an active process that consists of simulating the malicious attacker to determine the degree to which they can compromise the system.