Application Security: Complete Definition, Types & Solutions

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Application security is the practice of securing software and data from hackers, whether that application comes from a third party or was developed in house, regardless of where it resides or how it’s accessed. As that definition spans the cloud and data centers, and on-premises, mobile and web users, application security needs to encompass a range of best practices and tools.

By gaining a deeper understanding of application security, companies can take the necessary steps and actions to safeguard their valuable assets and reduce the risk of devastating data breaches.

How Does Application Security Work?

Application security works through a combination of security controls and best practices.

Best practices include secure development practices so security holes aren’t inadvertently introduced into applications, along with API security and configuration issues too.

Controls can be anything from good password hygiene to web application firewalls and internal network segmentation, a layered approach that reduces risk at each step.

DevSecOps and code security and debugging tools can help with developer issues in general, but we’ll cover many more controls and best practices in the next section.

What Are the Types of Application Security?

The security measures that AppSec requires depends on the type of application and risks involved. Public-facing web applications without important or sensitive information may not need as much security as, say, a customer database containing personally identifiable information (PII), but they nonetheless should be secured with proper dev and security practices to avoid security issues that could escalate.

Here are the most common types of application software that AppSec teams will need to secure:

Web application security

Web application information is typically stored in various locations, depending on the application and its uses. These include configuration files, databases used to store sensitive information, log files used to monitor activity, certificates and keys used to establish and secure connections between web applications and users, and more.

Web application security checklist

Web applications can be secured in a number of ways; here are nine of them.

Web application scanners test your websites and web-facing apps for vulnerabilities. These tests typically use vulnerability scanners.

Penetration testing is a similar approach, but typically involves teams of security pros attempting to simulate a cyber attack to identify weaknesses that could be exploited by hackers.

Regularly test your site for vulnerabilities. Storing sensitive information such as passwords, credit card numbers, or social security numbers in cookies is discouraged due to the potential risk of exposure. Some browsers offer SQLite databases as an alternative to cookies, but it is essential to configure them correctly to maintain security and minimize data exposure.

Use developer best practices. Threats such as SQL injection and cross-site scripting (XSS) attacks can be minimized with techniques such as input sanitization.

Also read: Database Security: 7 Best Practices & Tips

Use better and unique passwords to protect your data from breaches, reduce identity theft, and better protect sensitive and personal information.

Don’t use host names — use subdomains instead because they are more suitable for web-based services due to scalability and flexibility, and may also help with SEO because search engines may view subdomains as separate sites, allowing for more keyword optimization.

Take advantage of CAPTCHAs (Completely Automated Public Turing tests to tell Computers and Humans Apart) to prevent automated attacks, protect against abuse, improve user experience, ensure authenticity of user-generated data, and ensure that only legitimate user interactions are processed.

Implement secure  server configurations to maintain security and privacy of websites and protect private and sensitive data.

Web application firewalls (WAF) serve as a barrier to protect applications from various security threats. These analyze incoming traffic to a web application and block malicious requests. This extra layer of security can protect web applications from threats and minimize the risk of security incidents.

Data center and enterprise application security

Data center and enterprise application security ensure the safeguarding of sensitive data and critical systems through a blend of technical and organizational measures. Physical security and software and hardware security serve as crucial building blocks by layering defenses against unauthorized access and malicious attacks. By integrating these components and continuously maintaining them organizations can confidently secure their critical information and systems against potential threat.

Many of the same issues and controls apply to these on-premises applications, but for critically important data and applications, additional internal controls should be used, such as zero trust access, microsegmentation and privileged access management. The goal of such additional security controls is to limit lateral movement within networks, to keep hackers who succeed in breaching the network perimeter from getting to an organization’s critical assets.

Also read: MITRE ResilienCyCon: You Will Be Breached So Be Ready

Cloud application security

CNAPP (Cloud Native Application Protection Platforms) and CASB (Cloud Access Security Broker) tools offer strong security for cloud-based applications and data. CNAP provides encryption, access control, threat detection and response features for enhanced security. CASB, utilizes APIs and enforces security policies that establish secure connections between the cloud and the organization’s network, which ensures the safe transmission of sensitive information. Implementing CNAP and CASB helps organizations safeguard their cloud environment from cyber threats and secure their sensitive data.

SaaS applications and cloud platforms tend to be pretty secure; one of the biggest risks can be how securely your organization connects to a cloud service via APIs and configuration settings, so that’s a critically important practice for cloud security.

If you’re building your own application on a cloud platform (Platform as a Service, or PaaS), then secure development practices will also come into play.

Also read:

Mobile application security

Similar to cloud apps, mobile apps pose their own risks to the enterprise. In addition to the usual steps for other applications, organizations should take the following steps to secure mobile apps:

  • Mobile management software: In the same way that organizations need to control which cloud apps their employees are using, they also need procedures and tools for monitoring and managing mobile apps, whether they are on employer-purchased or shared devices. Some organizations take the step of setting up an enterprise app store that includes whitelisted apps that are approved for work use. One comprehensive way to approach mobile security is enterprise mobility management.
  • Mobile behavioral analysis: Similar to user and entity behavioral analysis (UEBA) solutions, mobile behavioral analysis tools look for signs that apps are engaging in risky or malicious behaviors. They can then flag suspect apps so that IT can take appropriate measures.
  • Encryption: Many organizations are developing their own mobile apps, and if that is the case, they need to make sure the apps encrypt data in transit and at rest, just as they would for cloud apps.
  • Strong authentication: Again, much like cloud apps, most mobile apps should have two-factor authentication or other strong authentication measures.
  • Limited permissions: Any custom mobile apps the enterprise creates should require only the permissions necessary for the app to function properly. This helps reduce the security risk posed by the app while also reassuring app users. All applications that obtain personal information from users are subject to data privacy laws, of course, so those laws and regulations need to be followed.

Application Security Issues and Risks

With the rise of cloud computing, edge computing, mobile devices, and the Internet of Things (IoT), there are more attack surfaces than ever for cybercriminals to exploit. As organizations store an increasing amount of sensitive information electronically, and in more places, the consequences of a security breach have grown more severe.

The good news, if you will, is that many of the issues seem timeless. It is important for companies to know common IT security vulnerabilities and how to prevent them and OWASP’s top web application vulnerabilities. Keeping applications and systems patched and updated is more important than ever, even as it’s become more difficult to do right.

Perhaps the biggest emerging threat in recent years is the software supply chain risks introduced by open source dependencies, CI/CD compromises and other threats that happen when applications depend on software libraries and open-source components to speed up the development process. Vulnerabilities in these components can leave an application vulnerable to attacks and put partners at risk in the process.

The issue led U.S. cybersecurity agencies to issue software supply chain security guidance for developers, and Software Bills of Materials (SBOMs) are increasingly becoming a requirement. A number of application security vendors are at work on solutions to better protect against that web of dependencies.

Of course, malware, ransomware, insider theft and more remain major threats to applications and data. Ransomware attackers have become so resourceful that some cloud companies and service providers have gone to extremes to protect themselves and customers — and those measures, like protecting backups, are necessary for strong security.

Distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks remain an ever-present threat to web applications, with their ability to overwhelm web servers with a flood of traffic. See our articles on stopping DDoS attacks, DDoS prevention and DDoS protection solutions for tips to keep your web servers up and running during an attack.

What Are the Types of Application Security Testing?

In a world where threats are constantly evolving, it is important to regularly assess the security of an application so that it will remain protected from new and emerging threats. Testing an application’s security ensures its compliance, trustworthiness, and cost-effectiveness. Early detection of vulnerabilities enables administrators to take the necessary steps to mitigate potential threats. Here are some of the ways organizations can test the safety of their applications.

Automated testing uses tools and scripts to automate security-related tasks, processes, and assessment of an application. The practice aims to improve the efficiency and accuracy of security testing and monitoring, as well as to reduce the time and effort required for manual testing. Even though automation is an essential component of a comprehensive security program, it should always be combined with manual testing and an expert analysis to achieve the best results.

Threat modeling is a security development lifecycle (SDL) element that helps predetermine potential threats, risks, and vulnerabilities of an application. It helps define security requirements by creating an application diagram that identifies and mitigates threats. Once that cycle is complete, it validates the threat modeling assessment and provides the necessary solutions.

Static Application Security Testing (SAST) scans each line and instruction to find potential errors and bugs in the source code. Once the scanning is complete, the system compares the results to a database of known vulnerabilities and security risks.

Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST) evaluates application security with real-time traffic and attack scenarios. It mainly observes the XSS, SQL injection, or remote code execution flaws that could be exploited by an attacker.

Interactive Application Security Testing (IAST) tests the application from the inside, where it combines the advantages of both dynamic and static analysis. This is to provide a more comprehensive view of an application’s security code. IAST can also be used to access the security of modern applications that make use of technologies such as microservices and containers, which can be difficult to test using other methods.

Mobile Application Security Testing (MAST) identifies and mitigates risks in mobile applications before they can be exploited by attackers. It tests both hybrid and native apps to identify potential vulnerabilities and protect sensitive data.

Software Composition Analysis (SCA) involves analyzing the source code of an application to identify the third-party components it uses and to determine their origin, version, and licensing information. Because modern applications are built with a large number of open source and third-party components that can contribute to a wide range of security risks, SCA can gain insight into these risks and mitigate components that pose a high risk.

Top 8 Application Security Solutions

There are many application security products and services available to help organizations keep their applications safe. They range from scanners and code analysis tools to mobile security, API security, threat modeling tools and more. Here are eight application security vendors to consider:

  • Acunetix
  • CheckMarx
  • Endor Labs
  • Micro Focus Fortify
  • Rapid7 InsightAppSec
  • Snyk
  • Synopsys
  • Veracode

Bottom Line: Application Security Tools & Practices

Applications contain an organization’s most important data, making them a prized target for hackers. Protecting them is thus critically important, requiring a comprehensive program of security controls and best practices. Regular risk assessments help identify potential security threats and vulnerabilities, and updating solutions and practices ensures that applications are protected against the latest security threats. Investing in secure development lifecycle (SDL) practices and providing comprehensive training on secure coding techniques are critical for maintaining the security of sensitive information and minimizing the risk of security incidents. The potential cost is too great not to act.

Read next: Top 10 Container Security Solutions

This updates a Sept. 12, 2018 article by Cynthia Harvey

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