Application Security

Application Vulnerability: Avoiding Code Flaws and Security Risks

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What is an Application Vulnerability?

An application vulnerability is a system flaw or weakness in an application’s code that can be exploited by a malicious actor, potentially leading to a security breach.

The average cost of a data breach in 2020 was $3.86 million, with a staggering 82% of known vulnerabilities existing in application code. Secure coding best practices, combined with application security solutions, can help mitigate the risk of a code vulnerability within your application.

Software security vs. application security

Software security deals with securing the foundational programmatic logic of underlying software. Different from application security, software security focuses on the early stages of the software development lifecycle (SDLC) and the underlying code of an application.

Once the software becomes a deployable artifact, such as a JAR or container image, it has entered the realm of application security. At these stages of the SDLC, the focus becomes more than just the software. It’s about a variety of interconnected systems, infrastructure, and network paths involved in getting software into production. Most commonly, operationally-focused staff, such as DevOps engineers, take a more active role in securing the application.

Investing in the earlier stages of the SDLC pays off when it comes to application security efforts. It’s much easier to secure an application that has fewer defects and vulnerabilities. Code vulnerability puts operations teams and security engineers on the defense, rather than addressing these issues proactively up front.

The importance of application security

Application security requires a proactive approach during every build and release cycle, and often relies on automation to identify threats. DevOps engineers often leverage application security best practices using different tools and methods in every stage of the build, test, and release cycle.

As CI/CD processes become more common within organizations, there’s an increased demand for application security solutions. In fact, the 2021 State of Cloud Native Application Security report shows how cloud native adoption changes the way organizations defend against application security vulnerabilities. Misconfiguration and known unpatched security vulnerabilities were found to be responsible for the greatest number of security incidents, all issues that are avoidable with the right application security strategy in place.

Fortunately, application security tools can help look for known vulnerabilities and classify results, reducing the reliance on manual work from developers. They can be used to identify trends and patterns, and help developers test for code errors during the build and release phases of the SDLC.

With new vulnerabilities constantly arising and the significant time investment involved in manual code reviews and other traditional testing methods, automated security tools can offer numerous advantages.

Top 10 application vulnerabilities

Understanding the OWASP Top 10 list of vulnerabilities can help development teams mitigate the risk of application vulnerability. The latest OWASP Top 10 list was published in 2021.

The top 10 application vulnerabilities as from the 2017 list are as follows:

  1. Injection: Injection vulnerabilities can occur when a query or command is used to insert untrusted data into the interpreter via SQL, OS, NoSQL, or LDAP injection. The hostile data injected through this attack vector tricks the interpreter to make the application do something it was not designed for.

  2. Broken authentication: When applications incorrectly execute functions related to session management or user authentication, intruders may be able to compromise passwords, security keys, or session tokens and permanently or temporarily assume the identities and permissions of other users.

  3. Sensitive data exposure: Without essential data protection measures including the encryption of data in transit or at rest, attackers can view, steal, or modify sensitive data or personally identifiable information (PII) such as credentials, credit card or social security numbers, and medical information. Unencrypted data is a prime target for damaging exploits related to identity theft, fraud, and industrial espionage, to name just a few security vulnerability examples.

  4. XML external entities (XXE): For web applications that parse XML input, a poorly configured XML parser can be tricked to send sensitive data to an unauthorized external entity, i.e., a storage unit such as a hard drive. XXE attacks are used by hackers to observe critical information, disclose internal files and file shares, scan internal ports, execute code remotely, and mount denial of service (DoS) attacks.

  5. Broken access control: Broken access control can give website visitors access to admin panels, servers, databases, and other business-critical applications. This OWASP Top 10 threat could be used to redirect browsers to other targeted URLs.

  6. Security misconfigurations: According to Gartner, up to 95% of cloud breaches are the result of human errors. Security setting misconfigurations are one of the biggest drivers behind that stat. Of the OWASP Top 10, this vulnerability is the most common.

  7. Cross-site scripting (XSS): Cross-site scripting is also a widespread vulnerability that affects more than half of all web applications. It occurs when malicious client-side JavaScript or HTML scripts are injected into a web page and then use the web application as an attack vector to hijack user sessions, deface websites, or redirect the victim to sites under the attacker’s control.

  8. Insecure deserialization: nsecure deserialization offers hackers an attack vector that is most typically used for remote code execution but can also be used to conduct injection attacks, replay attacks, and attacks utilizing privilege escalation.

  9. Using components with known vulnerabilities: Modern distributed web applications incorporate open source components, including libraries and frameworks. Any component with a known vulnerability becomes a weak link that can impact the security of the entire application.

  10. Insufficient logging and monitoring:The time from attack to detection can take up to 200 days, or sometimes longer. This window gives cyber thieves plenty of time to tamper with servers, corrupt databases, steal confidential information, and plant malicious code if sufficient logging and monitoring is not in place.

Security tools for application vulnerabilities

While secure coding is always the goal, there is always a code vulnerability that will slip through the cracks. That’s where tools like static application security testing (SAST) and dynamic application security testing (DAST) come into play. You may be wondering about the differences between SAST vs. DAST, or how to combine the two. Both of these solutions use test automation to find the weak points in your source code, which bad actors will inevitably attempt to find and exploit.

  • Static Application Security Testing (SAST): SAST is structural testing which evaluates a wide range of static inputs. These can include documentation and application source code. SAST tools scan your source code and dependencies. During the scan, the tool leverages predefined rules to detect issues and vulnerabilities, marking their exact locations.

  • Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST): The opposite approach of SAST, DAST is black-box testing that takes place while the application is running. These tools assume testers have no in-depth knowledge of how a system works internally. DAST tools analyze operating code to identify issues with requests, responses, interfaces, scripts, injections, authentication, and sessions using a technique called fuzzing.

The best solution is to combine SAST and DAST with other approaches to application security, including:

  • Software Composition Analysis (SCA): Otherwise known as origin analysis, this method helps to analyze all open source software components and libraries. These tools can detect software licenses, depreciated dependencies, and known vulnerabilities – notifying the user of any available patches or updates.

Read more about SAST vs SCA and how to leverage them to release secure software.

  • Interactive Application Security Testing (IAST): These tools combine static and dynamic approaches, by performing testing on application and data flow using predefined test cases. Based on the results, the tool sometimes recommends other test cases.

  • Application security testing as a service (ASTaaS): This involves enlisting an external company to perform all application testing. ASTaaS usually combines static and dynamic security methods, including pen testing and evaluating APIs.

Avoiding application security vulnerabilities

A successful DevSecOps strategy can help mitigate the risk of application vulnerability. Ideally, developers should be empowered to integrate security into existing development workflows without friction — and with support from the security team. The use of automated security tools can help ease the burden on developers and prevent code vulnerabilities from slipping through the cracks.

Up Next

Top 10 application security acronyms

Read all about AppSec acronyms you need to know to be able to freely discuss the results of a recent penetration test or static analysis of the code.

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