Ensuring application security is not just about protecting data. It’s about safeguarding your company's reputation, keeping customer trust, and adhering to increasingly stringent regulatory requirements.
Read on as we delve into application security requirements: the pressing security threats impacting applications, the critical security requirements your application needs to meet, and the best practices to adopt to achieve robust application security.
The state of application security today
The current state of application security reveals why companies have to maintain continuous vigilance and adaptation today. Here are the key forces driving change in application security today.
Experts identified over 25,000 vulnerabilities in 2022. These vulnerabilities are not all introduced in the coding process. Instead, some are inherent and passed down from the libraries, frameworks, and other components used to build an application.
Applications are only secure as their weakest links, and if they’re built using components with security flaws, they’ll be vulnerable.
The Log4Shell vulnerability is a critical example of the incredible impact of widespread attacks on application security. Exploit flaws in widely-used libraries allow attackers to execute arbitrary code on affected systems.
Most applications today rely heavily on third-party services for critical functions. While these services enhance functionality, they introduce vulnerabilities when not adequately secured. Many attackers today exploit third-party services to gain unauthorized access to applications.
Attacks on every aspect
OWASP Top 10 2023 demonstrates the diversity of vulnerabilities that impacts AppSec today. It highlights how any aspect of an application can be targeted, including:
- Misconfigured security settings
- Injection flaws
- Cross-site scripting
- Insecure direct object references
This necessitates a comprehensive approach to application security, covering all aspects from input validation to session management and error handling.
All of these threats in the modern application security landscape underscore the importance of a multi-faceted approach to application security. IT has to step beyond securing individual applications and scrutinize the broader ecosystem of frameworks, libraries, and third-party services to mitigate risk.
Key application security requirements
Application security requirements are critical to securing software applications to combat the rise of cybercrime. Some key requirements include:
Authentication and authorization
Authentication requirements confirm that users are who they claim to be before they can access the application. Usernames and passwords, biometric data, and multi-factor authentication are becoming increasingly crucial for verifying identity.
However, not all authenticated users should be able to access everything. Authorization is critical, so users only access the data and features they need. It enforced the principle of least privilege to ensure that only those who need sensitive data can access it.
Data protection ensures that sensitive information isn’t accessible to unauthorized systems or individuals. There are two main aspects of data protection:
- Data encryption protects data both at rest and in transit so that only authorized parties can decode it.
- Data storage and disposal to ensure data is securely stored with proper access controls to prevent unauthorized access. Once the data is no longer needed, it needs to be securely deleted and disposed of, so it can’t be recovered and misused.
(The right data lifecycle management approach is key for proper data disposal.)
Input validation and sanitization
Any data users input into your application needs to be validated and sanitized. This requirement prevents and mitigates attacks such as SQL injection or cross-site scripting (XSS), where an attacker sends malicious data inputs that interfere with the application’s operations.
Secure session management
Your application needs to maintain a secure session for authenticated users. Even with authentication rules in place, poor session management can lead to session hijacking, and attackers can take control over the user’s session.
Error handling and logging
How your application handles errors is crucial. Detailed error messages can reveal information about the application’s internal workings that are useful to the attacker. Likewise, logging user activity and errors help in identifying and resolving security issues.
An application’s configuration impacts its security. Configuration management should include:
- Confirming that default settings are secure.
- Disabling unnecessary features.
- Regularly updating and patching the application.
Security in the application development lifecycle
Implementing these requirements within the application development lifecycle (ADLC) is crucial. The DevSecOps practice ensures that security considerations are not an afterthought but an integral part of the process from conception to deployment. Here’s how to implement these requirements at each phase of the ADLC.
Planning/requirements analysis. This phase encompasses identifying the security requirements your application must meet. It should include compliance requirements, data security needs, and user privacy. Threat modeling helps identify potential security risks.
Design. Develop a security architecture that meets the requirements identified in the planning stage. This architecture should incorporate security controls for identified threats and consider secure design principles like least privilege, defense in depth, and fail-safe defaults.
Implementation/development. Leverage Static Application Security Testing (SAST) to scan the source code for common security problems, like SQL injections or buffer overflows. Focus your code reviews on identifying potential security issues.
Testing. In the testing phase, run security-specific testing. Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST) identifies vulnerabilities while the application is running. Penetration (or pen) testing can help you determine how well the application withstands an attack by simulating a real-work attack.
Deployment. Conduct one final security review before deployment. After deployment, regularly conduct security audits. Also, patch management is important to ensure that any identified vulnerabilities can be quickly fixed.
Legal and compliance in application security
Regulations and compliance are critical considerations for security requirements. It’s vital to understand which regulations apply to your business based on your location, industry, and the data types you handle to ensure your applications are compliant.
General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)
This regulation enacted by the European Union (EU) governs the collection, storage, and use of the personal data of EU citizens. It applies regardless of where the data processing occurs and requires businesses to:
- Protect personal data.
- Implement appropriate security measures to prevent data breaches.
California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA)
The CCPA gives California residents more control over their data. Businesses must disclose the personal data they collect, what it’s used for, and if they sell it. Consumers have the right to request that their data be deleted.
Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)
HIPAA sets the regulations for the disclosure and use of Protected Health Information by healthcare providers, health plans, and other entities in the United States. It requires various security measures to protect data, including access controls, data encryption, and regular audits.
There are numerous regulations governing the financial industry. In the US, the Gramm-Leach-Billey Act (GLBA) regulates financial institutions and requires them to explain their information-sharing practices to customers and safeguard private data. The Second Payment Services Directive (PSD2) in the EU influences how payment service providers handle secure payments and customer data.
Best practices in application security
Understanding AppSec requirements is one thing. Implementing them is another. Here are some general best practices to encourage cyber hygiene and ensure digital resilience.
Utilize threat modeling
Threat modeling systematically identifies potential security threats and vulnerabilities in your system and prioritizes them based on their severity. With threat modeling, your organization will better understand:
- The potential attack vectors
- The damage they could cause
- The mitigation required to prevent or decrease damage
Threat modeling will help your IT take a proactive stance against security breaches and allow for efficiently allocating security resources.
Practice shift-left security
The shift-left approach is vital for introducing security practices early in the development cycle instead of waiting until it is almost too late.
Shifting left improves efficiency by detecting potential problems early on when they are less expensive and easier to fix. It also enhances security integration into the code, reduces the likelihood of last-minute hurdles, and prevents major architectural changes late in development.
Provide security training for developers
Your developers play a vital role in application security. The results could be potentially disastrous if security is neglected while writing the code that forms your application.
Provide your team with security training to ensure developers understand the importance of secure coding practices and know common security threats like SQL injection or XSS. This information will enable them to write more secure code and reduce the likelihood that they introduce security vulnerabilities.
Leverage application security testing tools
Application security testing tools are critical for automatically detecting vulnerabilities in code or while it’s running:
- Static Application Security Testing (SAST)analyzes source code
- Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST) explores running applications
When combined, they offer a complete view that will help detect potential vulnerabilities, make the testing process more efficient, and reduce the chance of human error.
Keep app security front and center
Application security is not a one-time effort but an ongoing commitment. It involves continuously monitoring, updating, and improving security measures in response to the evolving threat landscape.
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