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From Development to Deployment: Building a Secure Web Application Ecosystem

Tiago Mendo
Tiago Mendo

July 02, 2024 · 12 min read

Web applications play a critical role in the operations of organizations, but they also present significant security challenges. On average, organizations deploy and use a vast number of web applications, many of which are SaaS. On average, organizations have 371 of these applications storing a range of data from benign to sensitive.

These applications increase the organizational attack surface, creating potential targets for attackers. Attackers focus on flaws in web application code, which account for 72% of vulnerabilities and are found in 81% of web applications. However, this does not have to be the case; organizations practicing proactive security can find and remediate these vulnerabilities before attackers see them.

This article explores the challenges of securing modern web applications and provides actionable guidance on taking control of security and avoiding breaches.

Evolving Web Threat Landscape

The web threat landscape constantly evolves, becoming increasingly complex and challenging. Web applications are becoming more sophisticated, leveraging dynamic content and advanced JavaScript. Applications are no longer confined to on-premises data centers but have shifted toward cloud-based services. This change introduces additional security considerations, as data is stored and processed outside traditional on-premises environments. This transition demands robust cloud-specific security measures to protect data from unauthorized access and breaches.

This transition makes applications more complicated and susceptible to new vulnerabilities, demanding changes in security measures to meet these new challenges.

However, it’s not just security that needs to be considered. The regulatory landscape around data protection is also changing, with laws and compliance requirements significantly shaping organizational security strategies.

Well Equipped Attackers

Modern attackers are better equipped than ever, utilizing advanced tools and methods to exploit vulnerabilities. They have a wide range of sophisticated tools for identifying and exploiting vulnerabilities, some as powerful as those used by enterprises. These tools help them gather data before an attack ever starts, collecting information on zero-day and unpatched vulnerabilities. With this information, they can leverage automated scripts to conduct large-scale attacks against unpatched and vulnerable infrastructure, increasing their likelihood of success.

Organized Groups

The cybersecurity landscape is now confronting the formidable challenge of well-funded and highly skilled organized groups. These groups range from state-sponsored attackers, who leverage nation-states’ substantial resources and intelligence, to cybercriminal syndicates that conduct sophisticated operations with a high degree of organization. Those without state-level funding have used collaboration and shared tools, techniques, and data to enhance their capabilities and reach.

For all attackers, there has been a noticeable shift in ransomware strategies—from widespread, indiscriminate attacks to more calculated, targeted attacks against specific organizations. This evolution signifies a move towards maximizing impact and ransom potential by focusing on entities likely to yield significant financial gains when compromised.

AI-Driven Attacks

Attackers have also upped their game by integrating artificial intelligence into cyber attacks, giving them unprecedented sophistication and adaptability, significantly elevating the threat landscape. AI-driven techniques are now being employed to discover vulnerabilities at a pace far exceeding traditional methods. This advanced technology enables attackers to identify weak points swiftly, making defenses less effective against newly emerging threats.

AI is also revolutionizing social engineering tactics, with increasingly convincing phishing and spear-phishing campaigns that leverage AI-generated content to mimic legitimate communications more effectively. They use this to disseminate adaptive malware enhanced by AI. This malware evolves in response to defensive measures, often eluding detection by traditional signature-based antivirus solutions.

AI is also being used to threaten organizations through AI-created deepfakes. These deepfakes are used as part of phishing to trick users, allowing attackers to breach secure environments or conduct fraud. They also use deepfakes to disseminate disinformation and sway public opinion to damage an organization’s reputation.

Challenges Securing Modern Web Applications

Modern web applications have transcended their original roles as mere digital billboards for organizations; they now deliver essential services and face unique security challenges that necessitate sophisticated protective measures and strategies. One significant challenge is integrating third-party services, which introduces security risks associated with external APIs and services. These services handle sensitive user data, requiring layers of protection from encryption to secure data handling. Doing this is crucial to complying with stringent data protection laws such as GDPR and CCPA, which require solid protections for sensitive user data.

However, all of this must be balanced to ensure the application performs well. This is a critical balancing act that developers and security teams must manage to ensure that security enhancements do not degrade user experience.

Challenges Securing Single-Page Applications (SPAs)

Part of this challenge is ensuring this data is not exposed to cross-site scripting (XSS) attacks or other exploits. Because SPAs rely heavily on APIs for backend data processing, much of the prevention for these attacks needs to originate with them. This requires securing these APIs against unauthorized access and ensuring they do not become a gateway for attackers by implementing strong content security policies and meticulously validating input and output to prevent malicious scripts from being executed.

Challenges Securing Complex Web Apps

The complexity of modern web applications brings many intricate security challenges that require a nuanced and layered approach to web security. One significant issue is managing the diverse attack surfaces that arise from having multiple components and layers, each with unique vulnerabilities. Identifying them early and eliminating them proactively is crucial for reducing risk.

Ensuring that security measures can scale correspondingly becomes imperative as these applications scale. Security frameworks and protocols must be robust enough to handle increased loads and complex configurations without compromising the application’s performance or security.

Another critical area is the security of Continuous Integration/Continuous Deployment (CI/CD) pipelines. These pipelines must be rigorously safeguarded to prevent the insertion of malicious code during the development and deployment processes. Ensuring the security of these pipelines is essential for maintaining the integrity of the software development lifecycle.

Lastly, complex web applications are often targets of Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs), which are sophisticated, long-term attacks carried out by well-resourced adversaries. Protecting against these threats requires advanced security solutions and constant vigilance to detect and respond to incidents that may breach the application’s defenses over time. This involves technological solutions and strategic security practices to defend against and mitigate the impacts of such high-level threats.

Building a Secure Environment

Protecting these applications starts with establishing a safe foundation, which requires integrating robust security measures at every development and deployment stage. This includes implementing layered security measures such as secure coding practices, deploying firewalls, utilizing encryption, and establishing stringent access controls to protect against unauthorized access.

Establishing a secure environment comes from investing in reliable security tools tailored to the application’s needs. Tools should offer comprehensive security solutions integrated into the product, ensuring that applications are protected from vulnerabilities from the outset.

However, not all security is technological. Regular security training for staff is essential to ensure that all team members know best practices and potential threats, reinforcing the human aspect of cybersecurity defenses.

Application Testing

Regular and thorough application testing is essential for identifying and addressing security vulnerabilities before they can be exploited. A key component in this process is automated security scanning, which uses tools to scan applications for vulnerabilities regularly. This method is particularly valuable for maintaining the security of an application from its development phase through to operations, ensuring consistent checks and balances at every stage.

While automated scanning is fundamental, additional steps enhance the testing process. Penetration testing, for instance, simulates cyber attacks to identify exploitable vulnerabilities, providing a real-world assessment of application defenses. Systematic code reviews are also crucial, involving detailed inspections of the application’s source code to find security weaknesses.

This is augmented with compliance audits to ensure that applications adhere to industry security standards and regulations, bolstering their defense against potential threats and legal issues. Together, these practices form a comprehensive approach to application testing that significantly strengthens security protocols.

API Scanning

Effective API scanning is another crucial component for securing web applications, as APIs often act as critical gateways to sensitive data and functionalities. This process involves a rigorous examination of APIs to identify security flaws, such as vulnerabilities that could lead to unauthorized data exposure. It’s also essential to validate the input and output of APIs thoroughly, ensuring that all data sent to and received from APIs undergoes robust validation processes. This helps prevent malicious data from exploiting the system and safeguards legitimate data from being exposed or altered.

Building Security Into Workflows

Integrating security measures into development and deployment workflows is essential for maintaining continuous oversight and ensuring that security is a fundamental part of the software development lifecycle. A key practice is incorporating security checks and scans into the CI/CD (Continuous Integration/Continuous Deployment) pipeline. This integration ensures that security assessments occur automatically and consistently, making them a standard part of the process rather than an afterthought that could be skipped due to tight deadlines. Additionally, automating security alerts is crucial; teams can address vulnerabilities promptly by implementing tools that can automatically detect and flag potential security issues. This proactive approach helps prevent security lapses and ensures that potential threats are managed swiftly and effectively as part of the regular workflow.

Build Holistic Security

Probely helps organizations take control of their development and integrate security into all stages of the development lifecycle. Our platform integrates comprehensive security testing seamlessly into the CI/CD pipeline and your development process.

With Probely, you gain in-depth asset discovery, helping manage complex APIs and web applications, allowing your teams to effectively secure them. They can leverage real-time attack surface management and in-depth API testing to quickly and efficiently identify and address vulnerabilities, maintain compliance, and minimize the risk of security breaches.

Web Application Security
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