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15 Application Security Best Practices

The world of app development has experienced unprecedented growth since 2010. And with millions of mobile and web apps available, applications have become an essential part of our daily lives. In parallel, there has been an increase in the development of the internet of things (IoT), which has enabled the automation of manual processes.

But these positive developments have also brought with them a whole host of problems, with security issues in particular becoming commonplace. While the majority of developers and companies believe their application to be sufficiently secure, they continue to push vulnerable code into production releases.

More Apps, More [Security] Problems

Among the most common application security challenges are:

  • Amateur programmers: As the demand for applications grows, the lack of qualified developers has led to a large number of amateur programmers writing mobile applications. All too often, development teams also lack the knowledge to solve the security issues that arise.
  • Inefficient use of tools: Developers often fail to use the testing tools they’ve invested in effectively. And many believe that these tools will slow down the development process.
  • Web app attack vector: Web applications are the main attack vector in data leaks. Enterprises should therefore be aware of the presence of APIs in their apps and the associated risks. Many API breaches affect businesses that are unaware these interfaces are present in their solutions.
  • No DevSecOps approach: Most organizations do not follow application security best practices to secure their software. They often neglect to implement a DevSecOps process (the “shift-left” approach), which is crucial for ensuring every security-related issue is dealt with and resolved as soon as possible.
  • Open-source vulnerabilities: Open-source software, with a great number of vulnerabilities contained in them, is one source of risk. It is estimated that 96% of enterprise market applications use open-source software and libraries.

By following the below application security checklist, you can avoid these pitfalls and achieve a higher level of security for your applications.

Application Security Best Practices Checklist

When it comes to application security best practices and web application security best practices, the similarities in web, mobile, and desktop software development processes mean the same security best practices apply to both.

#1 Adopt a DevSecOps Approach

DevSecOps, or the shift-left approach, aims to detect security holes from day one in order to prevent security issues to begin with and to resolve them as quickly as possible if they do indeed arise. DevSecOps enables development teams to spot security issues at all stages of the software supply chain, from design to implementation.

#2 Implement a Secure Software Development Life Cycle Management Process

The secure software development life cycle management process (SSDLC) defines the product life cycle from the product security point of view. This process ensures that products in their life cycle are:

  • Developed and maintained by security-trained employees
  • Built in a secure environment
  • Securely delivered to customers

SSDLC applies to the holistic process of developing a new product from concept, throughout all development activities, until it is fully and securely deployed on the market as a mature product and until the end of its life cycle.

#3 Address Open-Source Vulnerabilities

While open-source tools offer a great number of benefits, including cost efficiency, they also expose you to significant vulnerabilities. When using open-source software, ongoing monitoring for vulnerabilities, regular updates, and patching vulnerabilities as quickly as possible are therefore crucial.

#4 Automate

It is virtually impossible to mitigate the endless number of vulnerabilities that exist using a manual approach. Automation is therefore critical. All simple tasks should be automated in order to allow teams to focus on more challenging undertakings.

#5 Be Aware of Your Own Assets

Visibility is the first step toward gaining insight into your organization’s security state, as you can’t secure what you haven’t identified. Knowing precisely which assets make up your applications and software production infrastructure is key.

#6 Risk Assessment

Do a risk assessment by putting yourself in the attacker’s shoes. Make sure that all your bases are covered:

  • Create a list of all assets that require protection.
  • Identify your threats and how to isolate and contain them.
  • Identify attack vectors that put your application at risk of being compromised.
  • Ensure that you have the proper security measures in place in order to detect and prevent attacks.
  • Determine whether you need additional, or perhaps different, tools?

#7 Security Training for Developers

Because developers are also responsible for pushing code into production, it is critical that they receive training from your security team. This training of course should be tailored to the specific developer’s role and security needs.

#8 Manage Containers Properly

First, you should ensure your container images are signed with a digital signature tool (e.g., Docker Content Trust). It’s also important to run automatic scans for open-source vulnerabilities to secure the use of the container throughout the common integration pipeline.

#9 Limit User Access to Data

Further restricting access to your data is one of the best ways to improve security: 

  • Determine who actually needs access to each specific resource.
  • Create access rules.
  • Ensure that access privileges remain up-to-date by removing active credentials once access to the data is no longer required.

#10 Update and Patch Regularly

Installing software updates and patches is one of the most effective ways to keep your software secure. Why try to solve problems yourself if something has already been remedied? However, it’s important to plan for each new update, as this requires designing the appropriate architecture in order to avoid API compatibility issues when upgrading to new versions.

#11 Ensure Access to Log Data

Having access to log data from your daily cloud operations is crucial for any incident response plan. The accumulation and interpretation of such data in the period leading up to an incident will have a direct impact on security and may also be relevant for subsequent investigations. Without this knowledge, you may well be left powerless when a security incident does occur.

#12 Encrypt Your Data

When it comes to web application security best practices, encryption of both data at rest and in transit is key. Basic encryption should include, among other things, using an SSL with a current certificate. It is unacceptable for sensitive user data such as IDs and passwords to be stored in plain text, which could lead to man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks. Ensure that you are using the strongest encryption algorithms.

#13 Use Pentesting

While automated tests manage to catch most security issues prior to release, there may still be potential gaps that have gone unnoticed. To minimize this risk, it is worth employing an experienced pentester to test the application. This type of ethical hacker attempts to break into the application in order to detect vulnerabilities and find potential attack vectors with the aim of protecting the system from a real attack. It is important that the pentester be an external expert who is not involved in the project.

#14 Ensure Accurate Input Validation

It is important that all input data is syntactically and semantically correct. The data should be validated for length—it should include the expected number of digits and characters; it should be the correct size, length, etc. While whitelisting is recommended, this validation method is not always possible to implement.

#15 Aim for Permanent Fixes

When analyzing CVE lists, it’s easy to notice that some types of vulnerabilities recur from time to time (e.g., cross-site scripting (XSS), SQL injection, buffer overflow). Determining the root cause when a new vulnerability presents—rather than doing a partial patch—is therefore key to permanently eradicating it.

Conclusion

While there are certainly a wide variety of views and opinions among security experts when it comes to application security best practices, most would agree there are a few key points, as covered herein, that should be included in any application security review checklist.

However, it is always worth being more protected than the rest and doing your utmost to minimize the number of errors in your applications in order to make you a more challenging target to exploit.

Application Security FAQ

What is application security?

Application security is the process of identifying and mitigating application-level vulnerabilities. This is followed by hardening procedures that aim to increase the overall security posture of the application.

What application security testing tools are recommended? 

There is no tool or testing protocol capable of mitigating every possible security risk. Rather, teams must apply a combination of tools, including static application security testing (SAST), interactive application security testing (IAST), dynamic application security testing (DAST) tools, and software composition analysis (SCA) testing tools.

What are the main approaches to application security testing?

One of the main ways to detect vulnerabilities in your product source code is through the use of static application security testing (SAST) tools. In contrast to SAST tools, dynamic application security testing (DAST) tools detect vulnerabilities by actively trying to exploit your application in runtime.

October 8, 2020
| By Daniel Berman