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Web Application Security Testing: Importance & Process in 24′

In cybersecurity, the security of web applications is a critical area demanding rigorous assessment, dynamic analysis, and continuous monitoring. Businesses, especially those with reliance on web applications, need to thoroughly understand web application security testing, its types, aims, and processes to get the most out of it.

This article delves into the intricacies of web application security testing. Emphasizing the significance of this practice, the article outlines the fundamental principles and strategies employed in web application security testing.

Why is web application security testing important?

The goal of Web Application Security Testing (WAST) is to assess if a web application is susceptible to hacking. It includes automated and manual procedures. All web applications have one thing in common: they work with data, which is one of the most valuable assets of businesses. Data, like any financial asset, faces storage threats. Cybercriminals try their best to gather sensitive data for financial gain. For this reason, web application security has become vital, and failure to secure an application can cause expensive data breaches.

WAST is important not only for protecting your business but also for compliance. Regulations such as PCI-DSS, HIPAA, and SOC 2 require organizations to secure sensitive data and show that they have effective security controls in place. WAST can act as a guide to security teams to help ensure you meet these regulatory requirements.

6 types of web application security testing

Dynamic application security testing (DAST)

DAST, which stands for Dynamic Application Security Testing, is a method of testing the security of a web application through simulated attacks on a running application. This type of testing is performed from the outside of an application, mimicking the actions of a potential attacker.

DAST is considered a black box testing method, meaning it doesn’t require access to the internal source code or application structure. It tests the application as an external user would. It tests the application in its running state, identifying security vulnerabilities that are present during its operation. DAST tools simulate various attack scenarios against a web application to identify security weaknesses, such as SQL injection attacks, Cross-Site Scripting (XSS), and other common vulnerabilities.

Static application security testing (SAST)

SAST, or Static Application Security Testing, refers to a set of technologies used to analyze source code, byte code, or binary code of an application to find security vulnerabilities without actually executing the program. This method is typically used early in the software development lifecycle (SDLC), often during the coding phase, allowing developers to find and fix security flaws and issues before the application is deployed.

SAST tools scan an application’s codebase to identify patterns or coding practices that are known to lead to security vulnerabilities, such as SQL injection, buffer overflows, or cross-site scripting (XSS). However, SAST has limitations, such as the potential for false positives and the inability to identify runtime vulnerabilities, which is why it’s often used alongside Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST) in a comprehensive application security program.

Interactive application security testing (IAST)

Interactive Application Security Testing (IAST) is a security testing approach that combines aspects of both SAST and DAST to identify vulnerabilities in web applications. IAST works by instrumenting the application’s code or runtime environment to monitor the application’s behavior and data flow as it runs, effectively detecting security issues in real-time. This method provides the advantage of identifying vulnerabilities in the context of the running application, offering more accurate findings compared to SAST and DAST alone.

IAST tools are designed to be used in the development and testing phases of the software development lifecycle, providing immediate feedback to developers. The interactive nature of IAST allows it to bridge the gap between static and dynamic testing, making it a powerful tool for improving application security.

Out-of-band application security testing (OAST)

Out-of-Band Application Security Testing (OAST) is a specialized form of security testing that is used to identify and exploit vulnerabilities that are not detectable using conventional testing methods like Static Application Security Testing (SAST) or Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST). OAST focuses on vulnerabilities that manifest themselves under certain conditions or configurations and require external interaction or monitoring to be detected.

The “out-of-band” aspect refers to the technique of exploiting certain vulnerabilities where the response to the test or attack is not received through the immediate application response channel but through some other indirect means. For example, this might involve triggering a behavior in the application that results in a DNS request, an email, a callback, or a data exfiltration attempt to a system controlled by the tester.

Runtime Application Self-Protection (RASP)

Runtime Application Self-Protection (RASP) is a security technology that is built into or integrated with an application to control its execution and detect and prevent real-time attacks. Unlike external security measures like firewalls and intrusion detection systems, RASP works from within an application’s runtime environment to offer more nuanced and application-specific protection.

Since RASP operates within the application, it has a high level of context about the application’s logic, configuration, data flow, and user behavior. This allows RASP to detect and block threats more accurately compared to traditional security measures that lack this inside view. RASP is effective against known vulnerabilities like SQL injection, cross-site scripting, etc., and can also help protect against zero-day vulnerabilities due to its understanding of correct application behavior.

Penetration Testing

Penetration Testing, often referred to as “pen testing” or “ethical hacking,” is a simulated cyber attack against a computer system, network, or web application to identify vulnerabilities and security weaknesses. It involves the use of techniques similar to those used by attackers, but in a controlled and ethical manner, to evaluate the security of a system.

The main goal is to discover any security issues before malicious attackers do, thus enabling the organization to strengthen its defenses against actual cyber-attacks. Penetration tests can be automated with software applications or performed manually. This process helps in understanding the effectiveness of existing security measures and in revealing where improvements are necessary.

What are the steps for web application security testing?

Web Application Security Testing involves a series of steps to identify and mitigate security vulnerabilities in web applications. Here’s a general outline of the process:

  1. Understanding the Scope of Testing: It’s important to clearly define what aspects of the web application need to be tested. This includes identifying the web applications for testing, the types of testing required, and the necessary resources.
  2. Implementing Various Security Tools: Employing a range of security tools is crucial. These tools should be up-to-date, compatible with your environment, and integrated seamlessly into your CI/CD pipeline for continuous security.
  3. Secure Software Development Lifecycle: Incorporating security throughout the entire software development process, from requirements gathering to deployment, is vital. This includes incorporating security requirements into the development process and performing regular security testing.
  4. Risk Assessment: Performing a risk assessment involves gathering information about potential vulnerabilities and threats, their frequency, and their impacts. This helps in prioritizing vulnerabilities that need to be addressed.
  5. Security Training for Developers: Developers play a critical role in the security of web applications. They must be adequately trained through educational resources and hands-on exercises on how to write secure code and address potential vulnerabilities.
  6. Using Multiple Security Layers: Implementing various security measures throughout all phases of the Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC) is essential to identify and address all potential vulnerabilities.
  7. Automating Security Tasks: Automating tasks like vulnerability scanningpenetration testing, and security compliance checks helps ensure that these tasks are completed regularly and promptly, reducing the workload for security and engineering teams.
  8. Regular Patching and Updating: Keeping web applications and their components up-to-date ensures that known vulnerabilities are addressed and that the application is current with the latest security features.
  9. Continuous Security Monitoring: Adopting tools that offer real-time visibility into potential security threats and vulnerabilities enables organizations to take proactive measures to address these issues.
  10. Documentation: Documenting all processes, findings, vulnerabilities identified, actions taken to address them, and the consequences of any testing performed is crucial. This helps in tracking the progress of security efforts and identifying trends in vulnerabilities.

How does web application security testing reduce an organization’s risk?

Web application security testing is a crucial process for organizations to reduce their risk of cyber threats and safeguard their digital assets. This testing involves evaluating the design, functionality, and codebase of web applications to ensure they are resilient against attacks and comply with industry regulations. The primary objectives of web application security testing include:

Identification and Mitigation of Vulnerabilities

Security testing helps identify potential vulnerabilities in web applications, which can include issues like cross-site scripting (XSS), SQL injection, and weak access control. By detecting these vulnerabilities early, organizations can prevent attackers from exploiting them, thus protecting sensitive data and maintaining user trust.

Protection Against Data Breaches

With the increase in cloud data breaches and web application-related breaches, it is evident that unprotected web applications are a significant risk factor for organizations. Security testing ensures that vulnerabilities are identified and addressed, thereby reducing the likelihood of data breaches and the associated financial and reputational damage.

Adherence to Compliance and Regulations

Many industries have specific regulations regarding data protection and privacy (such as GDPR or PCI DSS). Web application security testing ensures compliance with these laws, avoiding potential legal issues and fines.

Avoiding Negative Publicity

Data breaches often lead to negative media coverage, which can damage a company’s reputation. Proactive security testing helps avoid such scenarios by identifying and addressing vulnerabilities before they are exploited and become public knowledge.

Continuous Improvement of Security Posture

Regular security testing is part of a continuous improvement process in an organization’s security strategy. It helps in understanding and prioritizing security risks and strengthens the overall security infrastructure against evolving threats.

    What features should be reviewed during a web application security test?

    During a web application security test, it’s essential to review a variety of features to ensure comprehensive coverage of potential security vulnerabilities. Here are key features and areas that should be typically reviewed:

    1. Authentication and Authorization:
      • Check for weak passwords and ensure strong password policies.
      • Test for vulnerabilities in password recovery and reset functions.
      • Verify proper implementation of multi-factor authentication (if applicable).
      • Ensure user roles and permissions are correctly enforced.
      • Look for session management issues, like session fixation or hijacking.
    2. Input Validation:
      • Test for SQL Injection, Cross-Site Scripting (XSS), and other injection flaws.
      • Check for buffer overflows and format string vulnerabilities.
      • Validate all inputs (GET, POST, headers, cookies, etc.) for proper sanitization.
      • Ensure that file uploads are secure and scanned for malware.
    3. Data Protection:
      • Ensure sensitive data, like credit card details and personal information, is encrypted in transit (e.g., using HTTPS) and at rest.
      • Verify proper implementation of encryption algorithms and secure key management.
    4. Error Handling and Logging:
      • Check that error messages don’t disclose sensitive information.
      • Ensure that logs do not store sensitive information and are protected against unauthorized access.
    5. Business Logic Vulnerabilities:
      • Test for flaws in business logic that could be exploited (e.g., the ability to manipulate parameters to bypass business rules).
    6. Server and Network Configuration:
      • Verify that servers and frameworks are patched and up to date.
      • Check for unnecessary services running on the server.
      • Ensure proper security configurations in the server and network components.
    7. Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF):
      • Test for CSRF vulnerabilities where an attacker could trick a user into performing actions without their knowledge.
    8. API Security:
      • If the application uses APIs, test for proper authentication, authorization, and data validation.
    9. Third-Party Components:
      • Review third-party libraries and components for known vulnerabilities.
    10. Compliance and Regulatory Requirements:
      • Ensure the application complies with relevant legal and regulatory standards, such as GDPR, HIPAA, etc.
    11. Mobile Security (if applicable):
      • If the application has a mobile component, test for security issues specific to mobile platforms.
    12. Performance and Scalability:
      • Check how the application handles large amounts of data or high traffic, as this can sometimes lead to security issues.

    What are the commonly used terms in Web Security Testing?

    1. Vulnerability: A weakness in the system that can be exploited by a threat actor.
    2. Penetration Testing (Pen Testing): A method for gaining assurance in the security of an application by attempting to breach some or all of its components.
    3. SQL Injection: A code injection technique used to attack data-driven applications in which malicious SQL statements are inserted into an entry field for execution.
    4. Cross-Site Scripting (XSS): A security vulnerability typically found in web applications that allow attackers to inject client-side scripts into web pages viewed by other users.
    5. Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF): An attack that forces an end user to execute unwanted actions on a web application in which they’re currently authenticated.
    6. Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML): An open standard for exchanging authentication and authorization data between parties, in particular, between an identity provider and a service provider.
    7. OAuth: An open standard for access delegation, commonly used as a way for Internet users to grant websites or applications access to their information on other websites but without giving them the passwords.
    8. Session Hijacking: The exploitation of a valid computer session—sometimes also called a session key—to gain unauthorized access to information or services in a computer system.
    9. Encryption: The process of converting information or data into a code, especially to prevent unauthorized access.
    10. HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure): An extension of HTTP used for secure communication over a computer network, and widely used on the Internet.
    11. Certificate Authority (CA): An entity that issues digital certificates. A digital certificate certifies the ownership of a public key by the named subject of the certificate.
    12. Denial-of-Service Attack (DoS): An attempt to make a machine or network resource unavailable to its intended users by temporarily or indefinitely disrupting services of a host connected to the Internet.
    13. Distributed Denial-of-Service Attack (DDoS): A type of DoS attack where multiple compromised systems, which are often infected with a Trojan, are used to target a single system causing a Denial of Service (DoS) attack.
    14. Web Application Firewall (WAF): A special type of application firewall that filters, monitors, and blocks HTTP traffic to and from a web service.
    15. Zero-Day Exploit: A cyber attack that occurs on the same day a weakness is discovered in software. At that point, it’s exploited before a fix becomes available from its creator.

    Further reading

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    Cem Dilmegani
    Principal Analyst

    Cem has been the principal analyst at AIMultiple since 2017. AIMultiple informs hundreds of thousands of businesses (as per similarWeb) including 60% of Fortune 500 every month.

    Cem's work has been cited by leading global publications including Business Insider, Forbes, Washington Post, global firms like Deloitte, HPE, NGOs like World Economic Forum and supranational organizations like European Commission. You can see more reputable companies and media that referenced AIMultiple.

    Throughout his career, Cem served as a tech consultant, tech buyer and tech entrepreneur. He advised businesses on their enterprise software, automation, cloud, AI / ML and other technology related decisions at McKinsey & Company and Altman Solon for more than a decade. He also published a McKinsey report on digitalization.

    He led technology strategy and procurement of a telco while reporting to the CEO. He has also led commercial growth of deep tech company Hypatos that reached a 7 digit annual recurring revenue and a 9 digit valuation from 0 within 2 years. Cem's work in Hypatos was covered by leading technology publications like TechCrunch and Business Insider.

    Cem regularly speaks at international technology conferences. He graduated from Bogazici University as a computer engineer and holds an MBA from Columbia Business School.

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