Sep 28, 2023
What Is Web Application Security, How It Works, and Best Security Practices for 2023
Web applications face threats such as coding errors, misconfigured servers, and design flaws. Despite common security practices like using strong passwords, web app security often gets overlooked.
Data breaches from security vulnerabilities can have severe consequences, including exploitation of sensitive data, financial losses, legal action, and declining user trust. This is especially critical if you’re running an eCommerce business or building websites for clients.
This guide explores what web application security is, how it works, and the best practices to safeguard against potential threats. We’ll also recommend tools to protect your web applications.
What Is Web Application Security?
Web application security safeguards websites, applications, and APIs from various cyber threats, like data theft and unethical competition. This security practice encompasses different strategies and covers multiple aspects of the software supply chain.
How Does Web Application Security Work?
Web application security safeguards the technology used in web app development, providing a high level of security. It protects against online threats, ensuring the safe operation of web applications.
Conducting an in-depth web security testing analysis is a fundamental step to ensure web application security.
Web application security testing involves discovering and fixing vulnerabilities before attackers exploit them. Performing this test during the Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC) stages is highly recommended rather than after the web application has been launched.
By integrating testing into each phase of the SDLC, developers can proactively address concerns and reduce potential security risks. This approach moves web security from an afterthought to a core element integrated into the development process.
Common Web Application Security Threats
Before diving into the web application security best practices, let’s review 10 common web application vulnerabilities to watch for.
1. Insecure Design
Web application design defines the app’s requirements, user interface (UI), data flow, and interactions. A well-designed web app ensures a seamless user experience, easy navigation, and efficient data processing.
Design flaws can make your web application vulnerable to cyber attacks. Insecure design lacks security controls throughout the development cycle. This may result in security loopholes that make room for data theft.
2. SQL Injection
SQL injection attacks happen when malicious actors execute harmful SQL statements on a web application’s database server. This attack can affect web applications using SQL databases like MySQL, Oracle, and SQL Server.
In this type of attack, cybercriminals exploit vulnerabilities to gain unauthorized access. If they acquire administrative rights to the database, they can alter records or even delete the entire database.
3. Faulty Access Control
Faulty or broken access control occurs when a web application fails to enforce proper user access restrictions. Web application vulnerabilities that may arise with faulty access control are:
- Vertical access controls. These mechanisms restrict access to sensitive functionality. For example, an administrator can access certain functions other users do not.
- Horizontal access controls. They enable access restrictions to specific users.
- Context-dependent access controls. These controls restrict access based on the application’s state or the user’s interaction. For example, certain actions may be limited based on the user’s previous interactions.
4. Authorization Failure
A web app authorization failure occurs when the application’s authentication and authorization mechanisms are poorly implemented. Authentication verifies a user’s identity, while authorization verifies the user’s access rights.
Two common causes of authorization failure in web applications are:
- No proper authorization checks.
- Unsafe role-based access control (RBAC).
Poor session management can also contribute to authorization failure. For example, a session is not properly invalidated on logout. This can encourage an attacker to gain unauthorized access even after a user has logged out.
5. Security Misconfiguration
Web application security misconfigurations occur when a web app contains improperly defined setup parameters. They can happen at various application stack layers, including network services, platforms, servers, databases, frameworks, and custom code.
A security misconfiguration’s root cause often relates to human error. It includes overlooking security measures or failing to implement updates.
Other examples encompass poor encryption and improper versioning.
Faulty end-to-end encryption for data at rest and during transit can expose sensitive information in web applications. Similarly, security misconfigurations may occur in storage applications when versioning is disabled or incorrectly set.
6. Outdated Components
Outdated components in web applications often come from third-party libraries or frameworks. When left unattended, these old components can pose risks to your web application security, exposing it to potential cyber threats.
As software evolves, new vulnerabilities and attack vectors may arise. Developers or the team’s security experts should release updates to patch them.
These patches usually come with developer notes listing known vulnerabilities. Since these issues are publicly disclosed, some attackers may find a way to exploit them before a new patch is released. This makes outdated components even more threatening.
Likewise, a component won’t receive security updates if it is no longer maintained, leaving it susceptible to cyber attacks.
Another potential security risk is using components from untrustworthy developers. Shady developers may inject malicious code into the design.
Being hacked due to such negligence could damage the business’s reputation. Companies that fail to address such vulnerabilities may also face fines and legal action. They can also get their business license revoked.
7. Security Logging and Monitoring Failures
Logging and monitoring are critical in cybersecurity. They provide raw data that helps identify a system’s potential threats and unusual patterns.
When logging and monitoring processes fail, there is no audit trail for security incidents and analysis. Attackers can exploit this vulnerability to keep damaging the system, making it hard to identify their identities and attack methods.
Aside from difficulties in identifying threats, here are other ways logging and monitoring failures can affect a business:
- Lack of incident alerting. Without proper logging and monitoring, you can lose sight of potential security threats. This makes detecting and responding to incidents challenging.
- Increased risk of data breaches. Insufficient logging makes you lose critical information, such as login attempts. This increases the risk of unauthorized access, as malicious actors may go unnoticed for extended periods.
- Loss of forensic analysis. In a security incident, logs help forensic analysis to identify the scope and impact of the breach. Without sufficient logging, you don’t have valuable information to handle post-incident investigations and recovery.
8. Server-Side Request Forgery
Server-side request forgery (SSRF) allows attackers to manipulate a server-side application to make fraud requests. SSRF exploits software security loopholes, where the target application supports data imports from URLs without proper safeguards.
In an SSRF attack, attackers may modify the URL source with a malicious IP address, like the 127.0.0.1 loopback address. This tricks the server into connecting to its local file system or other internal resources, resulting in malicious traffic.
9. Credential Stuffing
Credential stuffing occurs when an attacker uses a list of compromised user credentials to gain unauthorized access to various online accounts and services.
Using the stolen credentials, attackers assign bots to simultaneously automate login attempts targeting multiple platforms.
Since many people reuse the same passwords across different accounts, attackers have a relatively high success rate in credential-stuffing web application attacks.
Once the bots successfully log in to user accounts, attackers may gain access to sensitive data associated with the compromised accounts.
10. Software and Data Integrity Failures
Software and data integrity failures happen when critical data are added to the delivery pipeline without proper verification. Aside from compromising the application’s integrity, this threat potentially impacts all deployment pipeline stages.
Here are some of the most common causes of software and data integrity failures:
- Reliance on untrusted sources. In modern software development, applications often use plugins, modules, and libraries from public repositories. When not adequately validated, these components can cause software security issues.
- Insecure auto-update functionality. While auto-update features are convenient, you should verify their integrity. This is to prevent attackers from injecting malicious code into the update process, which may result in corrupted payloads to all installations.
- Faulty assumptions and validation. Insufficient web application scanning, erroneous input validation, missing patches, and insecure component configurations can also contribute to these failures.
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Web Application Security Best Practices
Let’s dive into the 10 web application security best practices.
1. Use a Web Application Security Software
Web application security software adds additional protection to your app infrastructure. It also ensures the app’s confidentiality, integrity, and availability.
Web application security software helps identify and mitigate security risks. It continuously evaluates the application’s code, data, and network communication to detect potential vulnerabilities and suspicious activities.
Using various security testing techniques, such as static application security testing (SAST) and dynamic application security testing (DAST), these tools assess the application’s security posture and provide valuable insights.
New Relic and Snyk are excellent web application security software. Known for its real-time performance insights, New Relic combines performance monitoring with security testing.
It integrates with various tools, making it a versatile choice for developers and security teams.
On the other hand, Snyk is a developer-friendly security platform offering real-time semantic code analysis. It focuses on identifying vulnerabilities in open-source dependencies, helping prevent supply chain attacks.
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2. Implement Strong Authentication
Strong authentication goes beyond traditional username-password combinations. It incorporates additional factors to verify the user’s identity, including multi-factor authentication (MFA).
Multi-factor authentication asks users to enter multiple identification forms before accessing the web application. It often combines two or more authentication factors from the following categories:
- Something you know. This factor includes traditional passwords or PINs that users create. To enhance security, users must craft strong passwords that are not easily guessed.
- Something you have. It involves possessing a physical device or token, such as a security card, smart card, or USB key. These devices generate one-time codes or require physical interaction, adding an extra security layer.
- Something you are. Biometric authentication falls under this factor, using unique physical characteristics like fingerprints, facial recognition, or iris scans to verify the user’s identity.
By requiring users to provide at least two different factors during the authentication process, the risk of unauthorized access is significantly lower, even if one factor is compromised.
3. Secure Data Encryption
In modern enterprises, data in transit and at rest requires secure encryption to ensure its security.
- Data in transit refers to information that’s actively moving from one location to another, such as data transmitted over the internet or through a private network. This data is vulnerable to eavesdropping, especially if transmitted over unsafe channels.
- Data at rest refers to stored information on hard drives, databases, or cloud storage. This data is vulnerable to unauthorized access if the storage medium is compromised.
Using SSL/TLS for data transmission is crucial to fortify encryption, preventing data theft during transfer over the internet.
Learn More About SSL/TLS
Transport Layer Security (TLS) is a cryptographic protocol providing end-to-end security for data transmitted between applications over the internet.
It’s considered superior to SSL (Secure Sockets Layer), as it offers stronger encryption, improved authentication, and better handling of connection issues.
4. Use Secure Coding Practices
To prevent common security issues, including remote code execution (RCE) and cross-site scripting (XSS) attacks, developers should follow safe coding practices. Here are some tips to ensure a secure code:
- Input validation. It ensures that user-supplied data, like form fields and file uploads, is clean before processing. This process prevents malicious code from infecting the web application.
- Parameterized queries. Separating data from the SQL query helps harden the query structure, making it nearly impossible for attackers to manipulate it.
- Avoid hard-coded secrets. Never hardcode sensitive information like passwords, access keys, or API tokens in the source code. Instead, use secure methods for handling secrets, such as environment variables or configuration files.
5. Back Up on a Regular Basis
Implementing a robust backup strategy is an essential step in safeguarding data. It helps ensure data availability in case of unforeseen events like security incidents, hardware failures, or natural disasters.
A comprehensive strategy covers which data needs backups, how often they should occur, and backup monitoring. This strategy should also address recovery requirements during security incidents, such as ransomware attacks.
Here are additional tips for implementing regular data backups:
- Consider different backup locations. Storing backups offsite is an additional measure to recover data lost in the primary location.
- Ensure physical security. Ensure proper control of your off-site backups. Use fireproof and media-rated safes for physical backup media, particularly for tapes or external drives.
- Evaluate vendors’ security measures. If you use cloud or third-party backup providers, verify their security measures to ensure safe backups.
6. Keep Your Web Application Tools Up to Date
Keeping web application tools and associated software up to date helps address known vulnerabilities, preventing attackers from exploiting them to gain unauthorized access.
Aside from bug fixes and performance optimization, web application updates often include new security features that harden the defense against evolving threats.
Regularly updating web application tools ensures prompt implementation of security patches, blocking potential entry points for attackers.
7. Perform Regular Security Audit Testing
Security audits help identify potential vulnerabilities, allowing for timely remediation to enhance the overall security posture. These processes also help assess the organization’s information systems according to industry best practices.
Web application security audits cover physical components, applications, and network vulnerabilities. They should result in actionable guidance for remediation and risk management.
These security audits can start with vulnerability scanning to identify security risks. The process involves determining critical endpoints, sensitive data, and functions vulnerable to potential threats.
Another web application security audit tip is to conduct penetration testing or ethical hacking.
This test involves simulating real-life attacks on the web application. In addition to identifying unknown vulnerabilities, this test is excellent for assessing the effectiveness of existing security measures.
8. Check the Log on a Regular Basis
Proper logging practices are essential for various purposes. They help detect suspicious activities, address system performance issues, ensure regulatory compliance, and mitigate cyber attacks.
Comprehensive logging should capture data from various network endpoints and multiple sources. It helps you gain a more visible and holistic view of the system.
Here are some of the best logging practices for web application security:
- Identify what to log and monitor. Take notes of critical activities and determine their level of monitoring. They may include logging authentication events, transactions, database queries, and server commands.
- Use centralized logging. Aggregating log data in a central location enables efficient analysis. This practice helps prevent data loss in autoscaled environments and ensures secure testing and debugging.
- Add context to log messages. As the volumes can be substantial, providing context to log messages is important for effective search and analysis. This context aids web developers in investigating and troubleshooting security incidents.
To ease the logging and monitoring process, work with reliable security vendors like Graylog. It offers open-source, centralized logging tools, enabling organizations to perform efficient advanced log data analytics.
9. Ensure Correct Error Handling
Improper web application error handling can lead to security issues, like the unintended reveal of internal error messages, stack traces, or database dumps. When leaked, this information can provide attackers with clues about potential flaws in the web application.
We recommend following the best practices outlined by the OWASP guide on proper error handling. Some key considerations include:
- Avoid displaying detailed internal information. Only provide meaningful error messages when logging necessary diagnostic information for web application maintainers.
- Test error handling mechanisms. Thoroughly test your tools to check how the web application responds to different errors. Ensure that internal errors are handled effectively without crashing the system or consuming excessive resources.
- Use error-handling frameworks and libraries. Examples of excellent frameworks include Express.js for Node.js, Django for Python, and Laravel for PHP.
10. Deploy Web Application Firewalls (WAF)
Implementing web application firewalls effectively adds an extra security layer.
WAF filters and monitors incoming traffic, helping detect and block common attack patterns. A robust web application firewall enhances the app’s security posture without making major workflow changes.
Aside from using real-time web application monitoring to detect and respond to suspicious activities, here are some tips for creating a robust WAF:
- Select a reliable WAF solution. Whether it’s a cloud-based or an on-premises WAF, consider factors like performance, scalability, ease of management, and support.
- Utilize web application safelisting. This allows only specific, approved traffic to access the application. This helps minimize potential threats and block malicious requests.
- Set up DevSecOps practices. Implementing DevSecOps methodologies helps identify and remediate security issues early in development.
- Applying rate limiting. Set a maximum request limit from a single IP address or user within a specified timeframe. This prevents abuse of your web application’s resources and potential DDoS attacks.
On top of all, don’t forget to regularly update the WAF with the latest threat intelligence and security patches to defend your application against emerging threats.
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How Hostinger Enhances Web Application Security
Hostinger commits to maintaining the highest security standards to protect our web services. Our practices are GDPR-compliant, and we implement robust security measures to ensure optimal security posture.
To fortify our web hosting server security, Hostinger implements security controls, including:
- 24/7 server monitoring.
- Web application firewall integration.
- Malware scanning across all endpoints.
- Cloudflare-protected nameservers for DDoS protection.
- Robust infrastructure security configuration and modules.
To maintain data integrity, we keep all operating systems up to date, encrypt databases with strong hashing algorithms, and conduct regular code analysis to identify potential code-related issues. We also perform regular data backups as a preventive measure.
Since SSL/TLS encryption is essential, Hostinger offers free lifetime SSL certificates for all domains and subdomains. Those using our VPS hosting plans can install SSL by following the operating system’s specific instructions.
Furthermore, domains registered with Hostinger come with free WHOIS privacy protection. It helps conceal the domain owner’s contact details from the public.
When it comes to creating web applications on our platform, our Professional hosting is the best bet. In addition to the above security controls, the cloud-based plans support more security features, including dedicated IP addresses.
A dedicated IP address is an exclusive internet protocol (IP) assigned to a single hosting account or server. Unlike shared IP addresses, this type of internet protocol lets network administrators create a tighter system with fewer gaps to exploit.
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9 Cloud Security Best Practices and How to Implement Them
Web application security protects websites, applications, and APIs from various attacks. It aims to keep applications running smoothly while safeguarding businesses from cyber vandalism, data theft, and unethical competition.
Several web application security attacks include SQL injection, faulty access control, and authentication failures.
Here’s a short recap of web application security best practices:
- Use web app security software to identify common vulnerabilities in your web applications and protect them from external threats.
- Implement multi-factor authentication to add an extra layer of security, ensuring only authorized users can access sensitive data and resources.
- Utilize secure encryption to safeguard sensitive data transmitted between users and your web applications, preventing unauthorized access and data breaches.
- Keep a security log to maintain a record of security-related events and utilize it for incident investigations and post-attack analyses.
- Deploy robust web application firewalls to filter and monitor incoming traffic, providing a defense against application-layer attacks.
Hostinger’s web application security follows the industry standard with essential security features and measures to protect web apps from malicious attacks.
We are GDPR-compliant and protect our web services with robust security controls. These include 24/7 server monitoring, web application firewall integration, malware scanning, DDoS protection, and strong encryption.
We hope this article has helped you gain a deeper understanding of web application security. Feel free to reach out in the comments if you have any questions.
Web Application Security FAQ
Let’s answer some frequently asked questions about web application security.
What’s the Difference Between Web Application Security and Network Security?
Web application security focuses on protecting web applications and their data from vulnerabilities and attacks at the application layer. Network security protects the entire infrastructure to prevent data breaches and unauthorized access.
How Is WAF Different From a Basic Firewall?
They differ in scope and functionality. WAFs are specifically designed to protect web applications from an app-level vulnerability like an XSS or injection attack. Meanwhile, basic firewalls control network-level incoming traffic.
What Is the Impact of Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF) On Web Applications?
CSRF can have severe consequences on web applications. It allows attackers to perform unwanted actions on behalf of authenticated users. This may lead to unauthorized data modification, such as changing account settings or making transactions without the user’s consent.