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Web Application Security: Keeping Your Web Apps Safe

Web Application Security: Keeping Your Web Apps Safe

Web applications have become deeply ingrained in our lives, work, and play. From social networks to online shopping to mobile banking, web apps enable us to accomplish many tasks with just a few clicks. But with great convenience comes great responsibility, especially for companies operating these web apps. Without proper precautions, web applications can become prime targets for cyber attacks. So, how can you lock the doors and guard your web app jewels? This comprehensive guide will explore the keys to building web application security that keeps the bad guys out.

The Importance of Prioritising Web Application Security

Essential Wordpress Security Plugins

You wouldn't leave your front door wide open when going on vacation – the same vigilance needs to apply to web apps. While an overt focus on security can seem tedious or unnecessary, just one vulnerability is all it takes for an attacker to slip in unnoticed. Once they gain access, not only can they steal sensitive user data but also insert malicious code, opening backdoors for future infiltration.

Neglecting web app security puts customers and your reputation at immense risk. In today's viral social media outrage, a data breach could permanently damage your brand. By making safety an essential part of your design process, you protect loyal users and avoid disastrous PR crises down the road. View your web app not just as an asset but also as a liability that can jeopardise your entire business if not adequately protected. An ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure for cybersecurity.

Knowing the Most Common Web Application Security Risks

Hackers have many tricks up their sleeves, evolving their techniques to stay one step ahead. Here are some of the most common ways they try to weasel their way into web applications:

SQL Injection

This attack injects malicious SQL code into input fields like login pages, allowing hackers to access and manipulate the database. They can steal passwords and personal data and sometimes even rewrite code or delete entire tables. Proper input validation and parameterised queries are vital defences.

Cross-Site Scripting (XSS)

A hacker injects a malicious script into a vulnerable website that gets executed by victims' browsers. This allows the attacker to bypass access controls and masquerade as an authorised user.

Store user inputs safely and validate/encode all outputs. If you are still worried about XSS, then there are precautions you can take to limit the risks involved. For instance, implementing tools that scan for XSS vulnerabilities will give you an advantage.

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Broken Authentication

When poorly implemented authentication controls like passwords and tokens, attackers can exploit these weaknesses to impersonate users and gain unauthorised access. Enforce password complexity policies and implement multi-factor authentication.

Sensitive Data Exposure

Applications frequently mishandle sensitive data like financial information and medical records. If data is not appropriately encrypted, hackers can intercept traffic and steal this data. Use strong encryption like TLS/SSL during transmissions and encrypt data at rest.

Security Misconfiguration

Sometimes, web servers or application frameworks have default insecure settings enabled or necessary security controls disabled. This creates opportunities for compromise. Maintain strict security configurations and harden systems by turning off unnecessary features/ports.

Staying aware of the latest threats allows you to build robust defences tailored to protect against common and emerging attack vectors.

Building In Security from the Start with SDL

Security Development Lifecycle Or Sdl

They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Nowhere is this more true than in cybersecurity. Attempting to bolt on security measures after applications have already been built is often like trying to put on a seatbelt after you've already crashed – too little too late. The much wiser approach is to bake in security from the start of development.

One proven methodology for this is the Security Development Lifecycle or SDL. Pioneered at Microsoft, SDL introduces security considerations at each stage of the development process, from planning to testing to release. This ensures security gets built into the application by design instead of tacked on as an afterthought. Let's examine some key ways SDL boosts security:

Threat Modeling

A crucial first step is thinking like the enemy to understand how applications could be attacked so you can proactively defend against these threats. Threat modelling identifies vital assets, entry points, weaknesses, and potential impacts to the business.

Secure Coding Standards

By establishing and training developers on secure coding guidelines, many vulnerabilities can be eliminated from the source code. This addresses risks like SQL injection, XSS, and input validation. Integrating security tools into IDEs helps find and fix issues early on.

Security Testing

Rigorously testing for security defects throughout the SDLC helps spot weaknesses that made it through development. This can involve static analysis, dynamic analysis, pen testing, and simulated attacks – essentially “hacking yourself” before the bad guys can.

Vulnerability Management

Actively monitoring for and addressing vulnerabilities in released software through patches, config changes, or temporary workarounds, as well as employing vulnerability detection mechanisms, prevents exploits.

A robust incident response plan is critical for minimising impact when a breach does occur. Building security from the ground up results in applications that are secure by design rather than riddled with flaws and band-aid fixes

Keeping Your Web Apps Secure: 12 Essential Tips

Mimyr Security App Logo Design

While entire books could be written on locking down web applications (and indeed have), these 12 tips form a solid foundation for defence-in-depth security:

1 – Harden the Host Environment

Your application's front-end code can be highly secure, but that means nothing if the underlying server, framework, and infrastructure have unpatched flaws. Harden hosts by removing unneeded services/open ports, updating and patching regularly, and following configuration hardening benchmarks.

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2 – Implement Access Controls

Authentication and authorisation go hand in hand – granting access based on identity and enforcing need-to-know restrictions. Require strong passwords, implement multi-factor authentication, assign minimal necessary privileges, and use encrypted sessions.

3 – Validate All Inputs

Scrutinise all incoming data to prevent malicious inputs like SQLi and XSS from being processed. Whitelisting valid inputs is safer than trying to blacklist every bad one. Be extra diligent in validating anything that will be displayed back to users.

4 – Store and Transmit Data Securely

Require TLS encryption (HTTPS) for all client-server communications and implement forward secrecy cyphers like ECDHE for robust key exchanges—Encrypt sensitive data both in transit and at rest. Hashing one-way functions like bcrypt protects stored credentials.

5 – Architect for Compartmentalisation

Segment components into isolated containers or microservices so that if any one area gets compromised, an attacker cannot freely roam the entire platform. Implement the principle of least privilege.

6 – Build a Secure CI/CD Pipeline

Building security into your integration and delivery pipeline is crucial for maintaining assurance as code gets deployed to production. Perform scanning, testing, and audits at each pipeline stage to prevent injecting new vulnerabilities.

7 – Monitor for Anomalies

Log and monitor all activity to detect attacks and suspicious behaviours early on. Use technologies like SIEMs, IDS/IPS, honeypots, and file integrity monitoring to remain vigilant 24/7.

8 – Plan for Incident Response

Despite your best efforts, determined attackers may still find a way in. Have an IR plan ready to rapidly detect breaches, minimise their impact, eradicate attackers before they move laterally, learn how they got in, and improve defences.

9 – Incorporate security into architecture

Security should be considered in every architectural and design decision rather than as an afterthought. Adopt strategies like defence-in-depth, least privilege access, and zero trust networks to create robust layered defences.

10 – Prioritise patch management

Consistently apply the latest security patches on time to fix known issues. Have an efficient system to roll out updates across servers, frameworks, libraries, and other components.

11 – Perform regular audits

Schedule frequent security audits to proactively find and address vulnerabilities before the bad actors can exploit them. Penetration testing and red teams can reveal overlooked weaknesses.

12 – Provide security training

Educate developers, ops teams, and employees on secure coding practices, threat awareness, and optimal use of security tools and technologies to build a security culture.

While not exhaustive, these tips will help you avoid the most common pitfalls and stand vigilant against constantly evolving threats. Think defence-in-depth.

Top 5 Essential Web App Security Tools

The right tools, adequately deployed, provide the shields and weaponry you need to protect web apps against attacks. Here are five must-have tools:

  • Web Application Firewall (WAF) – WAFs filter incoming HTTP traffic, blocking SQLi, XSS, and other common attacks. A WAF protects externally facing apps, acting as the first line of defence.
  • Static Application Security Testing (SAST) – SAST analyses application source code to uncover vulnerabilities like insecure coding patterns, bugs, and configuration issues before deploying software.
  • Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST) – DAST detects vulnerabilities by actively scanning and attacking running applications like adversaries and testing things like auth, CSRF, XSS, and more.
  • Runtime Application Self-Protection (RASP) – RASP instruments apps with embedded sensors that provide context-aware self-protection at runtime by detecting and blocking attacks like SQLi before any damage can occur.
  • Software Composition Analysis (SCA) – With heavy reliance on open-source components like libraries and frameworks, SCA gives visibility into all third-party dependencies and flags any related vulnerabilities.
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These scanners, firewalls, and sensors serve as the sentries standing guard over your apps, automatically detecting and neutralising attacks before the gates get breached.

Secure Development Frameworks and Platforms

The starting point for secure software is choosing underlying frameworks and platforms designed with security built-in. Here are two prime examples:

.NET Core

Microsoft's open-source development framework contains many integrated security features:

  • Threat modelling guidance
  • FIPS 140-2 validated cryptographic modules
  • Role-based and claims-based authorisation controls
  • Anti-XSS encoding library
  • Configuration security scanning
  • SQL injection prevention
  • Built-in support for TLS, certificates, secrets storage


The popular JavaScript runtime has multiple security capabilities, including:

  • SSL/TLS implementation
  • Encryption through OpenSSL APIs
  • Input validation through the express-validator module
  • SQL injection protection plugins
  • Authentication modules like passport.js

While no platform prevents all mistakes, .NET Core and Node.js provide guardrails that eliminate entire classes of vulnerabilities if appropriately used.

Top 5 Developer Security Best Practices

Importance Of Wordpress Security 2022 2023

While tools and frameworks provide protection, developers have an immense responsibility to write secure code. Here are five golden rules for programmers:

1 – Validate and Sanitise All Inputs

Never trust user inputs. Validate and sanitise to prevent issues like XSS, SQLi, buffer overflows, and illegal formats. Safelist valid formats and sanitise suspicious characters like <, > and ‘.

2 – Use Parameterised Queries

Don't dynamically build SQL queries by concatenating strings. Use parameterised queries separating code from data to block SQLi while enhancing readability.

3 – Hash and Salt Stored Passwords

Apply hashing algorithms like bcrypt along with unique salts to passwords before storing them. This mathematically masks passwords, rendering them unreadable even if stolen.

4 – Implement Role-Based Access Control

Grant privileged access only to those who need it by limiting users to only the actions necessary for their duties. Default to minimal permissions.

5 – Disable Error Messages to Users

Don't show raw exception details and stack traces to end users in production. Log errors on servers and display generic error messages to avoid exposing sensitive information.

These rules create the foundation for writing bulletproof code that seals up dangerous vulnerabilities leading to exploitation.

Securing Open Source Dependencies

With over 80% of application code coming from open-source components like libraries and frameworks, we must be vigilant regarding vulnerabilities in these dependencies:

  • Inventory dependencies – Maintain a complete software bill of materials documenting all third-party source deps and versions in use.
  • Stay updated – Outdated, unsupported versions often contain serious, publicly known flaws. Keep dependencies continuously updated to incorporate security fixes.
  • Perform audits – Frequently audit dependencies for newly discovered issues, prioritising review of critical components and those with access to sensitive data.
  • Use dependency checkers – Automated tools like Snyk and Blackduck scan apps and dependencies, flagging vulnerable versions needing upgrades or replacements.
  • Subscribe to notifications – Monitor mailing lists and notifications from suppliers and the CVE database to receive vulnerability alerts related to the open-source packages you use.

Security is a chain – it fails at the weakest link. Keeping third-party code up to date and audited closes accessible openings for attackers.

The Importance of Promoting a Security Culture

How To Develop A Secure Web Application

Tools and technical controls form just one part of the cybersecurity equation. The other critical factor is building an organisational culture that promotes security awareness. Failure is often not due to malicious actions by developers but well-intentioned mistakes by distracted, overworked employees trying to move quickly. Some tips for instilling a culture of security:

  • Provide regular secure coding education focusing on the most significant risks like SQLi, XSS, auth, configs, etc. Coding mistakes lead to the majority of vulnerabilities.
  • Train all employees on security best practices regarding passwords, social engineering, phishing, physical security, and data handling. Humans are the weakest link.
  • Bring in outside experts for unbiased second opinions on your security posture via audits and penetration testing. Overconfidence is dangerous.
  • Foster an open environment where people feel safe raising concerns without blame or retribution. Security issues thrive in silence.
  • Reward those who spot vulnerabilities or have innovative security ideas. Make it exciting, not feared.
  • Lead by example from the top down, prioritising security at the executive level to set the tone. Lip service won't cut it.
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Creating a shared culture of accountability and openness is essential to avoid mistakes and keep security in mind.

Conclusion – Staying Steps Ahead of the Adversaries

Like a castle protecting the crown jewels, your web application is the last line of defence, safeguarding critical data against relentless attacks. As threats and vulnerabilities continuously evolve, web app security requires an ongoing commitment to stay ahead of sophisticated hackers in the cat-and-mouse game. Just one crack in the walls can lead to catastrophe if not adequately guarded. By making security a priority throughout your operations, investing in the proper defences and talent, and instilling a culture of vigilance, you shield your kingdom from compromise. Stay proactive, creative, and humble, and your web apps will stand the test of time as worthy guardians of your customers' trust and safety.

Frequently Asked Questions on Web App Security

What are the OWASP Top 10 web app security risks I should focus on?

The OWASP Top 10 documents the most critical categories of common web app vulnerabilities. Prioritise defending against injection attacks, broken authentication, sensitive data exposure, XSS, broken access control, security misconfigurations, XSRF, insecure deserialisation, components with known vulnerabilities, and insufficient logging monitoring.

Should I use a WAF to protect my web app?

A WAF provides an effective shield against common attacks like injection and XSS but is not a silver bullet. Use in conjunction with secure coding, testing, and monitoring for defense-in-depth. Tune rules to minimise false positives and keep policies updated as threats evolve.

How can I secure user passwords in my application?

Never store passwords in plaintext. Instead, use adaptive hashing algorithms like bcrypt and unique salts per user. Enforce strong password complexity policies. Offer multi-factor authentication. Use encrypted connections for login pages. Limit failed login attempts.

What secure coding practices help prevent XSS attacks?

Validate and sanitise all user inputs before outputting anything back to browsers—Encode untrusted output with libraries like ESAPI or OWASP Java Encoder. Use frameworks with Auto-Escaping like ReactJS—Disable inline JavaScript. Implement Content Security Policy.

How do I implement secure data encryption?

Use robust standard algorithms like AES-256 versus rolling your own. Generate keys using secure random number generators with sufficient entropy. Store keys securely separated from encrypted data. Use different keys per record. Rotate keys periodically. Manage keys properly throughout their lifecycle.

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Stuart Crawford

Stuart Crawford is an award-winning creative director and brand strategist with over 15 years of experience building memorable and influential brands. As Creative Director at Inkbot Design, a leading branding agency, Stuart oversees all creative projects and ensures each client receives a customised brand strategy and visual identity.

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