Vulnerability vs Weakness: Understanding Key Differences in AppSec

Vulnerabilities and weaknesses both introduce risk but have key differences. Learn how to assess your apps to find and fix both vulnerabilities and weaknesses.

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Having a clear understanding of vulnerabilities and weaknesses is essential for ensuring the security of your systems and data. Vulnerabilities, often concealed within software and technology, can pose significant risks. They represent potential entry points for malicious actors. But what are vulnerabilities, and how do they differ from weaknesses? 

Imagine a web application with robust encryption algorithms to protect sensitive user data. However, due to a coding mistake, the encryption key is hardcoded within the application's source code, making the key easily accessible to anyone who examines the code. 

Or, let's say, in a similar application, there is a weak encryption algorithm, such as the outdated and insecure MD5, which would allow a malicious actor to potentially crack the passwords protected by MD5 encryption over time, making the system more vulnerable to password-related breaches.

Both of these scenarios present security issues. Yet, one is a vulnerability due to an immediate, exploitable flaw in the code (hint: scenario one), and the other is a weakness based on using an insecure encryption algorithm that increases the system's susceptibility to future attacks (hint: scenario two).

Understanding the distinctions between vulnerabilities and weaknesses is crucial for application security. With this understanding, developers can proactively address potential vulnerabilities by identifying weaknesses before they are exploited, leading to a more secure application. On the other hand, understanding vulnerabilities allows developers to patch known issues to prevent future exploits reactively.

Understanding vulnerabilities 

A security vulnerability is a software code flaw or a system misconfiguration, such as Log4Shell, through which attackers can directly gain unauthorized access to a system or network. 

Vulnerabilities refer to flaws or weaknesses in a system's design, implementation, operation, or internal controls that could be exploited to violate the system's security policy. In the context of software development, vulnerabilities are usually the result of coding mistakes or omissions that a malicious actor can exploit.

For instance, a common vulnerability in web applications is SQL Injections, which occurs when an application includes user input in SQL queries without appropriate validation or escaping, allowing an attacker to manipulate the query.

# Example of vulnerable code__
Query = "SELECT * FROM users WHERE name = ' " + userName + " ';"

In the above Python code snippet, an attacker could insert SQL commands in the `userName` variable, potentially causing unauthorized access or data loss.

How are vulnerabilities exploited?

Vulnerabilities can be exploited in various ways by malicious actors. 

For example, one common method is through code injection, where attackers input malicious code into a system that doesn't properly validate or filter user inputs. This can lead to SQL injection attacks, buffer overflows, or cross-site scripting (XSS) attacks, allowing the attacker to manipulate or compromise the system's functionality or data. 

Additionally, attackers can exploit vulnerabilities by leveraging weak or default credentials, exploiting unpatched software, or using social engineering techniques to gain unauthorized access to systems. 

Understanding these tactics is essential in fortifying systems against potential vulnerability exploits.

Vulnerabilities and AppSec

The role of vulnerabilities in AppSec is paramount in understanding software applications' potential risks and threats. These vulnerabilities, which can take various forms, serve as entry points for attackers to compromise the security, integrity, and confidentiality of data within the application. For enhanced application security, it's crucial to identify and guard against common vulnerabilities that attackers exploit.

At Snyk, we believe every developer serious about security should be familiar with the OWASP Top 10, we’ve covered them in detail on Snyk Learn, to ensure their applications are safe from bad actors. To help security-conscious developers, we released the Snyk Top 10 Open Source Vulnerabilities. 

(*It's important to note that we're looking at specific vulnerability types, not grouping them as OWASP does.)

Denial of service:

Denial of service (DoS) attacks are used to shut down access to a network or server by bombarding the target with so many requests that it’s unable to process the load. Both Google and AWS have experienced large-scale DoS, but this type of attack isn’t just reserved for major cloud providers.

Remote code execution:

These attacks occur when a bad actor can run commands from a remote system to which they shouldn’t have access. RCEs can occur in a few ways, including through the use of malware or by exploiting a vulnerable library that hasn’t been patched. This vulnerability allows attackers to exploit a server or an application using their code on the server or application.

Deserialization of untrusted data:

This is when an application deserializes untrusted data without sufficiently verifying that the resulting data will be valid, thus allowing the attacker to control the state or the flow of the execution. A Java deserialization vulnerability occurs when a malicious user tries to insert a modified serialized object into the system to compromise the system or its data.

SQL injection:

A type of vulnerability when an application takes inputs from the user without validating and passes them on to the database to process. This allows an attacker to add untrusted data to a database query. For instance, when filling in a web form, an SQL injection could allow an attacker to create user input to steal valuable data, bypass authentication, or corrupt records

Prototype pollution:

This vulnerability affects JavaScript, and it refers to the ability to inject properties into existing JavaScript language and construct prototypes, such as objects. JavaScript allows all Object attributes to be altered. An attacker manipulates these attributes to overwrite (pollute) a JavaScript application object prototype of the base object by injecting other values.

Insecure temporary file

Insecure temporary files are, well, exactly what they sound like. With this type of vulnerability, temporary files containing sensitive information are created with incorrect permissions or in folders that lack proper permissions. This would fall under the class of vulnerability that OWASP calls broken access control.

Directory/path traversal

A directory traversal (a.k.a. path traversal) attack aims to access files and directories that are stored outside the intended folder. By manipulating files with "dot-dot-slash (../)" sequences and its variations or by using absolute file paths, it may be possible to access arbitrary files and directories stored on the filesystem, including application source code, configuration, and other critical system files.

Regular expression denial of service (ReDoS):

Regular expression denial of service (ReDoS) vulnerabilities are a type of DoS attack. Regular expressions (regex) are incredibly powerful but aren't very intuitive and can make it easy for attackers to take your site down. The attack aims to bog the target server by having it process a bulk, invalid regex statement.

Privilege escalation:

Privilege escalation is a broken access control vulnerability. In this case, access controls are bypassed by an attacker to gain increased permissions to a resource.

NULL pointer dereference:

Finally, null pointer dereference was the 10th most frequently found high/critical vulnerability found during Snyk scans. Additionally, this was the top high/critical vulnerability in Go and one of the most common vulnerabilities in C and C++. This vulnerability occurs when an application attempts to dereference a point that it expects to be valid but finds a null value instead, which creates a crash. This crash then creates a denial of service flaw.

Understanding these common vulnerabilities and their prevalence in software development, developers and organizations can proactively implement security measures and best practices to fortify their applications against potential vulnerabilities and threats.

Understanding weaknesses

Weaknesses refer to specific problems that reduce a system's security, even if no actual exploit has been identified. In essence, weaknesses represent potential vulnerabilities.

A classic example of a weakness is using weak or insecure cryptographic algorithms for password protection. While this doesn't directly lead to an exploit, it makes the application more susceptible to brute force or password-cracking attacks.

// Example of weak code
MessageDigest md = MessageDigest.getInstance("MD5");
Byte[] digest = md.digest();

In the above Java code, the use of MD5 for password hashing is considered a weakness because MD5 is a weak and outdated hashing algorithm that can be easily cracked.

How are weaknesses exploited?

While vulnerabilities and weaknesses represent different concepts, they are intrinsically linked because they are exploitable. A weakness can exist in a system without being classified as a vulnerability. Still, once an attacker identifies a way to exploit that weakness, it becomes a vulnerability.

Weaknesses and AppSec

Application security is a critical element of software development. It involves protecting software applications and the data they process from various threats and vulnerabilities. Understanding potential weaknesses is essential for improving security measures. 

Conducting an AppSec assessment is essential in delivering secure software and applications. Without knowing the current security posture of your applications, it's difficult to know where your organization is weak or vulnerable to future exploits.

Vulnerabilities vs. weaknesses: What’s the difference?

Weaknesses and vulnerabilities are both states that indicate security risks. 

A weakness in an application refers to an error or bug that may lead to a vulnerability that can be exploited to carry out malicious actions. The distinguishing factor between a weakness and a vulnerability is the presence of a particular payload, which enables its exploitation. Once identified, an exploit becomes a confirmed vulnerability, posing a greater risk to the application's security. It is a best practice to manage your weaknesses before they become urgent vulnerabilities.

Identifying and remediating vulnerabilities and weaknesses

With so many vulnerabilities to track and new ones constantly being introduced, organizations must have the proper procedures and processes to handle these before things get out of control. Vulnerability assessment is an integral part of this.

Vulnerability assessment is the continuous evaluation of security weaknesses and flaws in your systems. This process aims to check for weaknesses, potential known vulnerabilities, their relevance, and how they may impact your systems and environments.

For example:

  • Static application security testing (SAST), a white-box testing method with access to source code at rest, can help identify weaknesses that may lead to a vulnerability and generate a report.

  • Penetration testing is ethically breaking into systems from an external boundary to identify security weaknesses and vulnerabilities — effectively simulating an attacker's attempts to compromise a system or entity. 

  • Secure code reviews are automated tools that check the code for spacing or naming errors and compare it with known standard functions; manual reviews assess the code's style, intent, and functional output. Security code reviews check developer's code for security robustness. A secure code review can identify weaknesses before they become vulnerabilities.

The good news is that existing static application security testing (SAST) tools — like Snyk Code — can catch weaknesses and vulnerabilities before they hit code review.

Staying ahead of vulnerabilities and weaknesses with Snyk

Continuous evaluation of vulnerabilities is crucial for creating secure products.

Vulnerability assessment tools facilitate the vulnerability assessment process and fix vulnerabilities in your code. Choosing the right tools helps you to stay one step ahead of malicious actors. 

Automatically find, prioritize, and fix vulnerabilities in your code and your open-source dependencies throughout the development life cycle with Snyk.

Or, if you are a developer interested in learning more, check out Snyk Learn, where developers discover how to stay secure with interactive lessons exploring vulnerabilities across various languages and ecosystems.

For example, you can check out our learning modules on:

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