What Is Web Application Security? 

Web application security refers to the strategies and practices dedicated to protecting web applications from potential threats that can compromise their security. It is a branch of information security that particularly deals with the security aspects of websites, web applications, mobile applications, and web services.

Web application security is not just about securing the application itself. It’s also about securing the data it accesses, the network connections it relies on, the servers it interacts with, and even the end-users who interact with it. It is a holistic approach to ensuring that web applications are robust, resilient, and reliable.

Web application security is often overlooked in the development process, but it’s a critical component of any successful web project. The risks associated with poor web application security can be severe, including data loss, reputation damage, financial losses, and compliance violations. Therefore, it is essential to consider web application security from the earliest stages of development and to maintain consistent security practices throughout the application lifecycle.

In this article:

The Need for Web Application Security 

The world is becoming more digital, and web applications are used in virtually all aspects of human life, from social to financial. Therefore, web applications represent a lucrative target for attackers, and the potential threats are growing and increasing in severity. 

There are several reasons why organizations should prioritize web application security:

  • Growing threats: Cybercriminals are on the lookout for vulnerabilities in web applications to exploit for malicious purposes. These attacks can lead to significant financial loss, damage to brand reputation, and loss of customer trust.
  • Compliance requirements: Many governments and industries have strict regulations around data security and privacy. Failing to meet these regulations can result in hefty fines, lawsuits, and loss of business.
  • Technical complexity: The complexity of web applications is growing. With the rise of mobile applications, cloud computing, and microservices architectures, the attack surface for web applications is expanding. This complexity makes it more challenging to secure web applications.

What Are Common Web Application Security Risks? 

Web application security risks are the potential threats that can exploit vulnerabilities in a web application, leading to unauthorized access, data theft, or damage to the web application itself. 

The Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) is an open security initiative that provides research, best practices, and tools for the web application development community. Let’s review the top security threats for web applications, APIs, and mobile applications, according to OWASP research.

OWASP Top Web Application Security Risks

OWASP has identified the top 10 most critical web application security risks. These are the top five by severity:

  1. Broken Access Control: Without proper access control, attackers can exploit these flaws to access unauthorized functionalities or data.
  2. Cryptographic Failures: Cryptographic failures, previously known as ‘Sensitive Data Exposure’, happen when sensitive data is not adequately protected. This can lead to exposure of sensitive information like passwords, credit card numbers, or personal data, especially if encryption is poorly implemented or entirely absent.
  3. Injection: Injection flaws occur when an application sends untrusted data to an interpreter. This can allow an attacker to send malicious data, causing the interpreter to execute unintended commands or access unauthorized data.
  4. Insecure Design: A flawed design can result from a lack of consideration for security principles during the design phase of software development. This can lead to vulnerabilities that are difficult to mitigate and can be exploited in various ways, as they are often deeply ingrained in the application’s architecture.
  5. Security Misconfiguration: Security misconfigurations can occur when security settings are not defined, implemented, or maintained properly. This can lead to unnecessary risks, such as having default accounts, unused pages, unpatched flaws, or unprotected files and directories accessible to attackers.

OWASP Top API Security Risks

According to OWASP, these are the top five threats to Application Programming Interfaces (APIs):

  1. Broken Object Level Authorization: This occurs when the API exposes endpoints that handle object identifiers, allowing attackers to manipulate these identifiers to access other objects.
  2. Broken Authentication: Similar to web applications, APIs can have flawed user authentication, allowing attackers to impersonate legitimate users.
  3. Broken Object Property Level Authorization: This risk emerges when an API does not properly protect object properties, allowing attackers to view or modify properties that they should not have access to, leading to data leaks or corruption.
  4. Unrestricted Resource Consumption: This occurs when an API does not properly limit the amount of resources that can be consumed by a user. Attackers can exploit this to perform denial-of-service (DoS) attacks, by sending numerous requests that consume excessive server resources.
  5. Broken Function Level Authorization: This happens when an API endpoint exposes a function that should not be accessible to the user, allowing attackers to execute unauthorized functions.

OWASP Top Mobile Security Risks

Similar to web applications and APIs, OWASP has released a list of top threats facing mobile applications. Here are the top five:

  1. Improper Credential Usage: This risk involves mishandling or misuse of credentials within a mobile app, such as hardcoding credentials in the app, which can lead to unauthorized access if those credentials are compromised.
  2. Inadequate Supply Chain Security: Inadequate supply chain security in mobile apps refers to the failure in securing the components or libraries sourced from third parties. This can lead to vulnerabilities if these components are outdated or have inherent security flaws.
  3. Insecure Authentication and Authorization: If a mobile application’s authentication process is weak or improperly implemented, attackers can gain unauthorized access.
  4. Insecure Communication: Without secure communication, sensitive data can be intercepted by attackers as it is transmitted over networks.
  5. Inadequate Privacy Controls: This risk arises when mobile apps do not adequately protect personally identifiable information. It includes issues like improper handling of user data, lack of consent mechanisms for data collection, or insufficient data anonymization, leading to privacy breaches.

Learn more in our detailed guide to security misconfigurations

Types of Web Application Security Solutions and Tools

Web Application Firewalls (WAFs)

Web Application Firewalls (WAFs) are security solutions designed to monitor and potentially block HTTP traffic to and from a web application. A WAF operates as a gatekeeper for all incoming traffic, analyzing the content of each HTTP request and response to identify and filter out potentially harmful traffic. This includes protection against common attacks such as SQL injection, cross-site scripting (XSS), and file inclusion.

WAFs can be highly effective in preventing known vulnerability exploits and can be updated to respond to new threats. However, they are not a standalone solution and should be part of a comprehensive security strategy. WAFs may sometimes block legitimate traffic (false positives) or fail to detect sophisticated or targeted attacks. Thus, it’s essential to properly configure and regularly update a WAF to adapt to the evolving security landscape.

Web App and API Protection (WAAP)

Web App and API Protection (WAAP) solutions are designed to secure both traditional web applications and modern APIs. WAAP extends beyond traditional WAF capabilities, offering enhanced protection against more complex and sophisticated attacks like API abuse and advanced bots. These solutions often integrate with other security tools, providing a more holistic defense strategy.

WAAP solutions typically offer features such as automated threat detection, behavioral analytics, and machine learning capabilities to identify and respond to anomalies. They are particularly valuable in environments where APIs are extensively used, as they provide specialized protection that addresses the unique security challenges APIs face, such as endpoint vulnerabilities and unauthorized data access.

Cloud-Based DDoS Mitigation

Cloud-based Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) mitigation services provide scalable and flexible protection against large-scale DDoS attacks. These services leverage the vast resources of cloud infrastructure to absorb and mitigate the flood of internet traffic that characterizes DDoS attacks.

By being cloud-based, these services can quickly adapt to varying attack sizes, offering a cost-effective solution that scales with the threat. They also allow organizations to offload the burden of DDoS defense from their internal infrastructure, ensuring business continuity and protecting against service disruption. However, reliance on external services requires careful consideration of service level agreements and data privacy implications.

Attack Surface Management

Attack Surface Management (ASM) involves the identification, categorization, and management of all the different points (the ‘attack surface‘) where an unauthorized user can try to enter data to or extract data from an environment. In web application security, ASM entails identifying all web applications, APIs, and associated endpoints, then assessing and managing the security risks each one presents.

Effective ASM requires continuous monitoring and assessment, as new vulnerabilities can emerge at any time. It also involves prioritizing risks and implementing security measures to mitigate the most critical vulnerabilities first. This proactive approach not only helps in securing web applications but also in maintaining compliance with various regulatory standards. ASM tools often integrate with other security solutions to provide a comprehensive view of the organization’s security posture.

Web Application Security Strategies and Best Practices 

Secure Coding Practices

Secure coding is the first line of defense in web application security. It involves writing code in such a way that it is resistant to vulnerabilities. This includes aspects like using parameterized queries to prevent SQL injection attacks, avoiding buffer overflow through proper memory management, and using secure functions for data handling. When performing input validation for a web application, it is preferable to use an allowlist of acceptable inputs rather than trying to filter out bad inputs.

Secure coding also means keeping your codebase up-to-date. This involves regularly updating libraries and dependencies to their latest secure versions, and patching any known vulnerabilities. Finally, secure coding involves code review. Having another set of eyes on your code can help spot potential security issues that you might have missed.

Regular Security Testing

Security testing is another crucial aspect of web application security. It involves performing tests on web applications to identify and fix potential security vulnerabilities. These tests typically include:

  • Static Application Security Testing (SAST): Automatically scanning application source code for security issues.
  • Vulnerability scanning and dynamic application security testing (DAST): Using automated tools to scan running web applications for known security weaknesses and misconfigurations.
  • Penetration testing: Simulating a cyber-attack on your web application to identify security weaknesses. 
  • Security audits: involve conducting a comprehensive review of a web application’s security posture.

Use Strong Authentication Mechanisms

Strong authentication mechanisms are critical to web application security. They ensure that only authorized users can access your web application. This involves using strong, unique passwords, implementing multi-factor authentication, and using secure password recovery mechanisms.

Multi-factor authentication adds an extra layer of security by requiring users to provide more than one form of identification. Secure password recovery mechanisms ensure that users can recover their passwords securely, in a way that cannot be manipulated by attackers to steal credentials.

User Session Management

User session management is another critical aspect of web application security. It involves managing a user’s interaction with your web application over a period of time. This includes things like session timeout, session invalidation after logout, and secure session storage.

Session timeout involves automatically logging out users after a period of inactivity. This ensures that an attacker cannot hijack a user’s session if they leave their computer unattended. Session invalidation after logout ensures that a user’s session cannot be reused after they have logged out. Finally, secure session storage involves storing session data securely to prevent it from being accessed by an attacker.

Follow the Principle of Least Privilege

The Principle of Least Privilege (PoLP) is a cybersecurity concept wherein a user is given the minimum levels of access necessary to complete their job functions. This principle is used to reduce the risk of a user or program accidentally causing a security breach.

For instance, not everyone in your organization needs access to sensitive customer data. Limiting who has access reduces the risk of that data falling into the wrong hands. Applying PoLP in your web application involves things like role-based access control, where users are given access rights based on their role within the organization.

Error Handling and Logging

Proper error handling and logging can go a long way in securing your web application. It involves catching and handling errors gracefully, and logging them for future analysis. This can help you identify and fix potential security issues before they can be exploited by an attacker.

Avoid exposing detailed error information to the user. This can provide an attacker with valuable information about your web application’s internal workings. Instead, log the error information and show a generic error message to the user. Also, ensure that your logs are secure and cannot be tampered with by unauthorized parties.

User Education

Finally, user education is a critical element in web application security. It involves educating end-users, both employees and customers, about safe online practices. This can help prevent security incidents that result from user error, such as falling for phishing scams or using weak passwords.

Educate your users about the importance of using strong, unique passwords. Teach them about the dangers of phishing and how to recognize and avoid phishing scams. Also, encourage them to keep their devices and software up-to-date.

Cloud Native Application Protection Platform (CNAPP) with Aqua Security

Aqua Security enables organizations to unify cloud native application protection and detect, prioritize, and reduce risks across every phase of their software development life cycle.

The Aqua Cloud Native Security Platform is a Cloud Native Application Protection Platform (CNAPP) solution that secures your cloud native applications from day one and protects them in real time. With its fully integrated set of security and compliance capabilities, you can discover, assess, prioritize, and reduce risk in minutes across the full software development life cycle while automating prevention, detection, and response.

Learn more about the Aqua Platform

The Cloud Native Experts
"The Cloud Native Experts" at Aqua Security specialize in cloud technology and cybersecurity. They focus on advancing cloud-native applications, offering insights into containers, Kubernetes, and cloud infrastructure. Their work revolves around enhancing security in cloud environments and developing solutions to new challenges.