Software applications are the weakest security link in an enterprise stack. According to the 2020 Forrester report, over 70% of external hacks occur through a vulnerability of software and web applications.
Web application security is the process of protecting your website and online services against cybersecurity threats that combat threats to in-app coding. Database administration tools like phpMyAdmin, content management systems like WordPress, and SaaS apps are the most common targets for web-app attacks.
Through these apps, hackers can attack devices, including smartphones, tablets, and computers, with access to the internet. These gadgets often contain sensitive personal information, making them attractive targets for hackers who need personal data to perform fraudulent transactions.
Sectors like retail, finance, government, and healthcare are prone to cyber-attacks because organizations in these sectors hold massive databases containing personal and financial data. Whenever security breaches occur, companies lose the trust of their customers. Hacks can also result in significant financial losses. For instance, Equifax was given a $575 million penalty because of a 2017 data breach that exposed the data of over 145 million customers.
Even if you have just a few customers, you should take data security seriously, and along with it, the security of any web application that you use for your business. Here are some web application best practices that will help keep your network and data safe:
1. Encrypt your data
Data encryption converts readable data into encrypted data that can only be read after the user or recipient uses a security key. Encryption of both static and transit data is crucial for data security. Basic encryption must start with getting an SSL certificate, which makes your website secure. If you haven’t transitioned your website to HTTPS, you should consider doing it right now.
Aside from encrypting your website, don’t store sensitive user information such as user IDs, passwords, and financial details in plain text. Instead, you can use a password storage app to keep these details safe.
2. Undertake risk assessment
A risk assessment enables your organization to view its application portfolio from the perspective of a potential attacker. You can use the risk assessment process to identify, assess, and implement security controls over your applications.
A risk assessment is a four-step process that involves the following activities:
- Identification: Start by making a list of all the critical applications in your technology stack. Critical applications are ones that receive and hold sensitive data. Once you’ve identified the critical applications, you may create a risk profile for each.
- Assessment: Risk profiles include the type and volume of data each application handles, the number of users accessing it at any given time, and the probability of unauthorized users trying to gain access to it.
- Mitigation: Not all risks are preventable. Even if you deploy the most advanced security technologies available, someone will be able to break into your web applications sooner or later. However, you can reduce the impact of those security breaches with mitigation strategies.
- Prevention: For the risks, you can prevent, you need to add processes to prevent future threats and eliminate vulnerabilities. For example, implementing two-factor authentication will help prevent unauthorized users from accessing crucial applications such as email or payroll systems.
You should conduct a thorough risk assessment. It’s better to uncover any potential security risks and deal with them now than to do a half-hearted risk assessment and learn the impact of the threat when it does hit your organization.
3. Keep a backup of your data
Backing up your website, user information, and application data will not prevent data security threats from materializing, but they can help you recover from them. They can be particularly useful if you encounter malware attacks that primarily target things like ecommerce platforms.
You should securely store your backup. While most large companies have dedicated secondary data centers they can activate as soon as their main data center is breached, your business might be unable to afford that kind of capital expense. Most web hosting services, though, can host backups of your data in cloud-based storage.
That leads to a logical question; how often should you back up your files?
It depends on the volume and kind of data your apps store. For mission-critical data, you will need to back up your databases daily. Most countries also have mandatory data retention requirements that vary according to industry. If your business is software development, you can use a code repository like Git that will allow you to roll back to specific code changes.
4. Regularly scan the site
To boost the safety and security of your web app, you need to scan your website regularly, preferably at least once every week. Moreover, you should scan your site whenever you update your web apps.
You cannot rely on just one scanner to do all the work for you. Most scanners use a heuristic method, which involves the scanner running suspicious code in a virtual machine and assessing its effects. Others are pattern-based, where the scanner compares the code against an exhaustive list of known threats.
Malware is often structured in a way that it’s not readily detectable by scanners. Some scanners find malware faster than others, while some yield false-positive results. Using more than one kind of scanner will help you eliminate different kinds of malware.
5. Use a web application firewall
A web application firewall (WAF) is a filter for traffic between a server and its clients. A WAF keeps malicious requests from intruding into your web application and core infrastructure. It inspects all incoming traffic and stops different types of risky behavior before they happen.
You may think of a firewall as a bouncer in a club.
A bouncer may deny entry to people who don’t meet the dress code (blacklist WAF) or admit entry only to specific pre-approved individuals (whitelist WAF). Most WAFs use a hybrid security model that uses both methods.
There are three ways you can implement a WAF:
- Network-based: These WAFs are installed on specialized hardware and filter all incoming traffic to a server. While network-based WAFs offer less latency, they also tend to be more expensive.
- Host-based: This type of WAF is fully integrated into the web application. These operate at the software level and offer more customizability. However, they are more complicated to implement and maintain and consume more system resources.
- Cloud-based: This type of WAF is implemented in a specialized cloud and does not require any upfront costs on the web application developer. Instead, users pay a monthly or yearly fee that includes the cost of firewall updates. This option does not offer much in the way of customizability, which could be a dealbreaker if your web application has specialized security needs.
For most purposes, cloud-based web application firewalls provide more than adequate protection. However, you need to assess your application’s security risks to decide that it provides the highest possible level of protection.
6. Manage Privileges
Not everyone in your organization will need access to all the data or features in your web applications. Some will just need access to the front-end, while others will require access to system administration features. Some users, on the other hand, might need to access the database. Creating access rules for different classes of users will allow you to assign the correct privileges to specific individuals.
Access management will not just keep unauthorized users within your organization from gaining entry to restricted data or applications but also mitigates the risk of damage from phishing or identity theft. For example, if a cyber attacker succeeds in hacking a user ID belonging to an employee in sales, they will only access sales data, not human resources or confidential applications.
7. Give basic training
Whether your employees are engaged in web app development, project management, or marketing, they all need to be aware of fundamental web application security rules and measures. However, many employees think that online security is a highly technical topic that doesn’t have anything to do with their jobs. As a result of a lack of security awareness, your employees become the weakest link in the web application security chain.
The solution to this problem is a strong cybersecurity training program. Here are some topics that your security training should cover:
- Data privacy
- Social engineering and phishing
- Password management and the importance of strong passwords
- Data backups
- Email best practices
A strong foundation in cybersecurity will help create a culture where both web application developers and end-users are advocates for web application security. Once everyone in your organization knows what they can and cannot do, it will be more difficult for cyber attackers to gain access to your data and web apps.
8. Know your web assets
You might not be aware of it, but your organization uses dozens – maybe hundreds – of web assets, including web applications and software. Even if you only use a few applications, they connect access to different external services and transmit data through different methods.
Conducting an audit of your web assets will allow you to discover which assets are still in use and which ones can be taken offline. You may have a few apps with important functions like web teleconferencing and document storage and processing. Still, they need to connect to some services and expose functionalities via multiple interfaces.
Asset discovery will allow you to find these assets and determine their level of vulnerability to internal and external threats. Asset discovery will also flag assets that you could delete to save system resources and reduce the chance of system penetration. By knowing your web assets, you have a better idea of your web application security posture that will allow you to deal with potential security risks.
9. Use Content Security Policy
Aside from protecting web applications on the server (or application) side, you also need to protect them on the client-side. The Content Security Policy prevents cyberattacks that involve hijacking websites as displayed on a user’s screen and ensures that only content from sources you approve is displayed. This secures your web applications from tactics such as cross-site scripting (XSS).
Whenever users access your website or web application, what they see doesn’t just come from you. Some elements appear due to integrations with other apps, while others, such as ads, come from third parties. Malicious hackers use XSS to convince your website that their content is legitimate and should be executed.
When you implement CSP, you add a set of headers to the web server where your application resides. You can use this header to specify the sources of content that your site should trust:
Aside from listing your trusted content sources, you can also use CSP to test new security policies and monitor policy violations. It’s a simple yet powerful method of keeping cybercriminals from using the user experience to steal sensitive personal information.
10. Keep your security measures updated
Threats evolve constantly, so your web application security should evolve too. It is a best practice to create and adhere to an update and patch policy for all the web applications, database software, and other assets you use.
Most web applications are composed of different components, and when one or more components are not up to date, malicious parties can take advantage of that vulnerability. If you use your infrastructure, you need to install patches for your database server, application server, and web server as soon as they become available.
This policy is also applicable to platforms such as WordPress, eCommerce platforms, etc., which release updates and patches. You might feel like updating these components will only result in unnecessary downtime. Still, you’re doing yourself and your users a huge favor as these updates keep your web applications secure.
Whether you develop or use web applications, your data is at risk if you do not follow industry best practices on web application security. These best practices help make user and application data inaccessible to unauthorized parties, identify risk factors, and ensure that your data is safe and secure.
While security experts do not always agree on what constitutes a web application security best practice, it’s always better to do your homework, research upcoming threats, and minimize vulnerabilities in your applications to discourage hackers from accessing and exploiting your data.
Jimmy Rodriguez is the COO of Shift4Shop, a completely free, enterprise-grade ecommerce solution. He’s dedicated to helping internet retailers succeed online by developing digital marketing strategies and optimized shopping experiences that drive conversions and improve business performance.