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What is Application Security? | Threats, Best Practices, & Tools

What is Application Security?

Application security is the process of developing, adding and testing security features in applications to minimize weaknesses against possible threats from unauthorized access. Or, in other words, it’s making apps safer. 

Application security includes measures at the application level that prevent data or code within the app from being hijacked. Application security should be considered during application design, development and deployment, as well as after deployment. Cyberthreats are always evolving, so application security is critical throughout the entire lifecycle of an application.

Web Application Security

A web application is a software program that runs on a web server and is delivered over the Internet through a browser interface. In order to be accessible to users, web applications must allow data transmission and communications from clients over insecure networks. This is necessary for their functionality, but it opens them up to a myriad of cyberthreats.

Cybercriminals target web apps in many ways to steal, validate, and fraudulently use consumers’ identity and account information. Today’s web applications hold more user data than ever before, including credit and debit card numbers, logon credentials and other personally identifiable information (PII). This makes them a rich target for cybercriminals launching client-side and automated bot attacks.

In response to the growing threat, many website owners have adopted solutions to secure their web applications and implemented test protocols. However, traditional tools such as web application firewalls (WAFs) and code scanners are not sufficient to secure web applications on their own. Combining machine learning and behavior-based analysis is the best way to stop the most sophisticated cyberattacks.

API Security

Application programming interfaces (APIs) are software intermediaries that allow the transmission of data between two applications. Or, in other words, APIs are what allow applications to talk to each other in the background. Developers are increasingly using APIs to build new programmatic interactions, allowing them to quickly deliver a user response to a system and send the system’s response back to a user.

APIs are open-ended, which makes it easy for developers to interact with them. However, these connection points are easy targets for cyberattacks. APIs are often a direct pipeline into specific resources and actions, so they are an attractive vehicle for many types of bot attacks. Research shows that 10-15% of all API requests come from malicious sources.

It is harder to tell if an API call is legitimate or malicious than it is to detect a traditional browser attack. Although both types of attacks request the same information, traditional browser attacks carry information about the browser that can be used to identify the source. API attacks don’t provide this information, so they can fly under the radar. 

APIs are frequently updated, sometimes as often as a few times per day. This creates an ever-changing environment where attackers and security teams are battling continually to get the upper hand. To stop these attacks, modern websites require additional security that is both agile and accurate. This includes robust behavioral analysis and real-time machine learning technology. 

Why Do Businesses Need Application Security?

Web and mobile applications and APIs are at risk for a wide range of cyberthreats. These include sophisticated bot attacks and malicious client-side code.

Bot attacks

  • Credential stuffing: Cybercriminals unleash bots to attempt to log into accounts with stolen credentials. If a login is successful, the validated username and password can be used to commit online fraud or put up for sale on the dark web.
  • Account takeover (ATO): ATO attacks are when cybercriminals gain unauthorized access to online accounts using stolen credentials. The data stored in compromised accounts can be used to make fraudulent purchases with stored payment data, steal gift cards and loyalty points, submit fake warranty claims, create fake accounts and write fake reviews.
  • Carding: Bots make small purchases on e-commerce sites to test stolen credit and debit card numbers. Validated cards are used to make subsequent fraudulent purchases or sold on the dark web. Gift card cracking is a type of carding where cybercriminals test and validate gift card numbers, most often in a brute force attack.
  • Inventory hoarding: Bots repeatedly add high-demand products — such as limited-edition sneakers, gaming consoles, collectibles, concert tickets or hot toys — to their cart. This allows them to deplete inventory and resell the high-demand items elsewhere for a profit.
  • Web scraping: Bots crawl websites to capture pricing information, product descriptions, inventory data or copyrighted content and images. Competitors use the information to gain a competitive advantage. Furthermore, if search engines detect duplicate content, it can damage the original site’s SEO rank.

Client-side attacks

  • Supply chain attacks: Attackers target third-party code libraries that you may use to build your site. By attacking external code libraries, cybercriminals are able to attack every site that uses it.
  • PII harvesting and formjacking:  Cybercriminals exploit vulnerable client-side code to collect PII when users enter it into a form.
  • Digital skimming and Magecart: Attackers inject malicious scripts in vulnerable website code that skim users’ payment data and other personally identifiable information (PII).

Businesses are responsible for protecting users’ information — and there are significant consequences if they fail to do so. Sites that experience successful cyberattacks may suffer financial losses due to chargebacks and make goods, not to mention lawsuits and regulatory fines. And nothing crushes consumer trust faster than a cyberattack that exposes users’ data and leaves them vulnerable to theft. The bad press and reputation damage can negatively impact stock value and profits for years to come. 

Top Security Threats on the Web

Cybercriminals take advantage of security vulnerabilities to steal, validate and fraudulently use consumer data for their own financial gain. Here are the top ten web application security risks, security according to Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP).

  • Broken Access Control: Access control makes sure that users can’t act outside of their intended permissions. When access control is broken, it can cause unauthorized information disclosure, modification of data, or allow users to act outside their limits.
  • Cryptographic Failures: If encryption is weak or fails, sensitive data like passwords, social security numbers and card numbers can be stolen.
  • Injection: This occurs when you pass unfiltered or unvalidated data to a SQL server, to the browser, or the LDAP server. The result is data loss or browser hijacking.
  • Insecure Design: This refers to application design that doesn’t appropriately consider cybersecurity risk. Proper design requires threat modeling, secure design patterns and principles, and reference architectures.
  • Security Misconfiguration: This can occur at any point where an application stack has weak security measures. Examples include improperly configured permissions, the use of default passwords, enabling of unnecessary features, out-of-date software, and headers or directives that aren’t set to secure values.
  • Vulnerable and Outdated Components: Using outdated software of any type, not knowing which software versions you’re using, not scanning regularly for vulnerabilities, and not testing compatibility of updated libraries puts companies at risk for security issues.
  • Identification and Authentication Failures: Not properly confirming a user’s identity or not using multi-factor authentication can result in data theft.
  • Software and Data Integrity Failures: If an application relies on plug-ins, modules or libraries from untrusted sources, integrity failures are bound to happen. Other problems include insecure CI/CD pipelines and auto-update functionality.
  • Security Logging and Monitoring Failures: Without proper logging and monitoring, breaches cannot be detected, and therefore are not responded to.
  • Server-side Request Forgery (SSRF): SSRF problems can happen if a web application is grabbing a remote resource without validating the user-supplied URL.  An attacker might manipulate the application to send a request to an unexpected destination, even when protected by a firewall. SSRF is becoming a bigger issue due to cloud services and the complexity of architectures.

Types of Application Security Tools

Application security tools secure systems at the application layer. The two most important functions include testing for vulnerabilities that leave the applications open to attack and removing threats once they’ve been identified. Application security can be enhanced by creating a security profile for each application that identifies and prioritizes potential threats, and documenting actions taken to counter malicious or unplanned events. Security testing is best implemented throughout application development.

There are many types of automated tools that reveal security problems in applications. A few are listed below:

  • User authentication tools ensure that a user is legitimate. This can be achieved by requiring the user to provide login credentials and potentially forcing another layer of authentication, such as inputting a code received via text or email, facial recognition, or a thumb print. Implementing identity management and single sign on (SSO) technology can streamline this process.
  • Bot mitigation tools detect and stop malicious bot from engaging in fraudulent activity on a site, such as logging into an account with stolen credentials, making purchases with stolen credit card numbers or scraping product and pricing information.
  • JavaScript blocking tools provide granular control over what JavaScript code can run on users’ browsers when they visit a site. This enables security teams to block specific actions without blocking the entire script, which protects user data and ensures PCI and privacy compliance.
  • Data encryption tools encode user data in ciphertext, so it can only be accessed by an authenticated user with the right encryption key. This prevents cybercriminals from seeing raw data when it is accessed without permission.
  • Security testing tools analyze websites and source code for security vulnerabilities. Examples include Static Application Security Testing (SAST), Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST), Interactive Application Security Testing (IAST), Runtime Application Self-protection and Dependency Scanners.

How Does HUMAN Provide Application Security?

The Human Defense Platform is a set of cloud-native infrastructure and services that powers an award-winning suite of application security solutions. The solutions powered by the Platform — Including Compliance and Supply Chain Defense, Account Takeover Defense, Transaction Abuse Defense, Scraping Defense, and Account Fraud Defense — protect online businesses against automated bot attacks and client-side threats

The Human Defense Platform includes 40+ integrations to ensure that it can work seamlessly within your existing infrastructure. This includes integration for content delivery networks (CDNs), load balancers, web and application servers, and leading analytics platforms. With HUMAN, you don’t have to rip and replace pieces of your existing infrastructure to get comprehensive protection across all your web and mobile applications and API endpoints. 

HUMAN provides comprehensive web application security solutions that protect against sophisticated bot attacks, client-side threats, and account abuse. By safeguarding your users’ account and identity information everywhere along their digital journey, the platform reduces risk, protects your revenue and reputation, and improves operational efficiency.


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