Application Security:
Challenges, Tools & Best Practices

March 28, 2023

What Is Application Security?

Application security is a set of measures designed to prevent data or code at the application level from being stolen or manipulated. It involves security during application development and design phases as well as systems and approaches that protect applications after deployment. A good application security strategy ensures protection across all kinds of applications used by any stakeholder, internal or external, such as employees, vendors, and customers.

Importance of Application Security

Today’s applications are not only connected across multiple networks, but are also often connected to the cloud, which leaves them open to all cloud threats and vulnerabilities. Today, organizations are embracing additional security at the application level rather than only at the network level because application security gives them visibility into vulnerabilities that may help in preventing cyberattacks.

Security controls are a great baseline for any business’ application security strategy. These controls can keep disruptions to internal processes at a minimum, respond quickly in case of a breach and improve application software security for businesses. They can also be tailored to each application, so a business can implement standards for each as needed. Reducing security risks is the biggest benefit of application security controls.

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What Are Application Security Controls?

Application security controls are techniques that improve the security of applications at the code level, reducing vulnerability. These controls are designed to respond to unexpected inputs, such as those made by outside threats. With application security controls, the programmers have more agency over responses to unexpected inputs. Application security helps businesses stave off threats with tools and techniques designed to reduce vulnerability.

Application security controls are steps assigned to developers to implement security standards, which are rules for applying security policy boundaries to application code. One major compliance businesses must follow is the National Institute of Standards and Technology Special Publication (NIST SP), which provides guidelines for selecting security controls.

There are different types of application security controls designed for different security approaches that include:

  • Authentication: Confirming if a user’s identity is valid; necessary to enforce identity-based access.
  • Encryption: Converting information or data into code to prevent unauthorized access; can involve individual files or an entire project.
  • Logging: Examining user activity to audit incidents of suspicious activity or breach.
  • Validity Checks: Making sure data entered and processed meets specific criteria.
  • Access Controls: Limiting access to applications based on IP addresses or otherwise authorized users.

Challenges of Modern Application Security

Some of the challenges presented by modern application security are common, such as inherited vulnerabilities and the need to find qualified experts for a security team. Other challenges involve looking at security as a software issue and ensuring security through the application security life cycle. It is important to be aware of these challenges before beginning application security processes.

Common challenges for modern application security are bound to occur for any business interested in secure applications, and include the following:

  • Inherited vulnerabilities: Companies often rely on software and code from outside sources, and these are likely to contain vulnerabilities.
  • Third-party and open-source vulnerabilities: Open-source software might contain components of code that pose security risks and have IP risks from restrictive licenses.
  • Adopting a DevSecOps approach: A DevSecOps approach is the process of incorporating security measures through every phase of the IT process, also known as shift-left.
  • Finding qualified experts: Security teams play a vital role in application security and finding experts or training security teams already in place is necessary.
  • Lack of a centralized management tool: Without a centralized tool to support development teams, a business will either have extra overhead dealing with each siloed application team, or a lack of insight into reporting for applications.

Expert Tip

Stay on top of the most common web application security challenges according to the 2021 OWASP Top 10 Report

  1. Broken-Access Control
  2. Cryptographic Failures
  3. Injection
  4. Insecure Design
  5. Security Misconfiguration
  6. Vulnerable and Outdated Components
  7. Identification and Authentication Failures
  8. Software and Data Integrity Failures
  9. Security Logging and Monitoring Failures
  10. Server-Side Request Forgery (SSRF)

2021 OWASP Top 10 Report

Types of Application Security

Web Application SecurityA web application is software that can be accessed via the internet. These are usually run and accessed through a web browser, and naturally connect to insecure networks. Connecting to an insecure network exposes applications to an array of vulnerabilities and can be detrimental for businesses managing sensitive customer data in these applications. Organizations are opting for web application firewalls (WAFs) to provide an additional layer of protection against attacks.
Mobile Application SecuritySmartphones are connected to the internet, not only private networks, which leaves them vulnerable to cyberattacks. Many employers have restrictions on ways employees and stakeholders can use company provided smartphone devices to prevent attacks. They also implement the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) for employees accessing the network remotely.
API SecurityApplication programming interfaces (APIs) are the basis of modern microservice architectures. They carry sensitive data that if breached, could result in the disruption of business operations. Enterprises today look for API Security specific tools that can help them stay on top of API vulnerabilities.
Cloud Native Application SecurityThe cloud poses additional challenges because it usually shares resources across different environments. Cloud native applications are built in microservices architecture using virtual machines, containerscontainers, and serverless platforms. It is essential organizations adopt a cloud security solutioncloud security solution that can help them be proactive in protecting the cloud.

Application Security Tools

Application security tools involve various types of security testing for different kinds of applications. Security testing has evolved since its inception and there is a right time to use each security tool. A modern business needs to secure applications to keep its data safe.

There are a variety of application security tools available:

  • Runtime Application Self-Protection: RASP provides personalized application protections based on insight into internal data.
  • Software Composition Analysis: SCA is a process that automatically detects open-source software in code to evaluate security, compliance and quality.
  • Static Application Security Testing: SAST is a security testing method to analyze source code for vulnerability.
  • Dynamic Application Security Testing: DAST provides insight into how applications behave during production.
  • Interactive Application Security Testing: IAST is used to analyze code during testing run by automation and human testers.
  • Mobile Application Security Testing: MAST products are designed to identify vulnerability in applications on mobile platforms.
  • Cloud-Native Application Protection Platform: CNAPP is the practice of cloud-native applications and infrastructure.

5 Application Security Best Practices

The security best practices for web applications involve using security teams, tools and application security controls in tandem. Whether a business needs cloud security, web application security or API security, the security best practices provide a helpful guideline.

1. Perform a Threat Assessment of your code and applications.

Have an inventory of all your assets and highlight the most sensitive ones. Additionally, stay on top of the most common threats and vulnerabilities that can target these assets so you can appropriately plan.

2. Adopt a Shift-Left Approach

Adopting a shift-left approach is essential to  including security throughout the application development process (DevSecOps).

3. Prioritize Remedial Operations

Prioritize remedial operations to resolve threats after identifying them. Using CVSS ratings among other criteria while performing a threat assessment will help you prioritize operations more effectively.

4. Measure Application Security Results with Frequent Testing

Test frequently and identify which are the most important metrics for your organization. Ensure that metrics are reasonable and easy to understand so that they can be used to determine if the application security program is compliant and if it will reduce risk.

5. Manage Privileges

Manage and limit privileges by adopting the Principle of Least Privilege (POLP) so those who have access to code and applications are the right teams.

Expert Tip

How to Secure Applications

With a combination of security tools and teams, a business can secure applications from multiple fronts. By tackling security throughout the process, from design to maintenance, businesses can build secure applications that stay secure with proper monitoring.

3 Types of Application Security Testing

There are three main approaches to application security testing: black box security testing, white box security testing and gray box security testing.

  1. Black box security testing happens from the outside in. It simulates the approach of a real attacker with no prior knowledge of the way the application functions. Because this method doesn’t need knowledge of the individual application, it is technology independent.
  2. White box penetration testing gives the tester full information on the network, system and application along with credentials. This testing is faster and can save on testing costs. White box testing is a great solution for attacking an application from multiple vectors quickly.
  3. Gray box penetration testing is in between the other methods, with limited information being shared before testing. Often, this involves giving the tester privileged credentials, to test the potential damage attacks from a seemingly authorized user can cause. Each of these methods is good at a specific strategy of penetration testing, and all can be valuable for application security.

How CrowdStrike Helps with Application Security

Application security is vital to protect businesses from outside threats. The application security tools work alongside security professionals and application security controls to deliver security throughout the application lifecycle. Having the security tools available and in place is vital. With multiple types of tools and methods for testing, achieving application security is well within reach.

The CrowdStrike Falcon® platform can help you keep applications secure and proactively monitor and remediate misconfigurations while giving you visibility into potential insider threats across various hosts, cloud infrastructures and business applications.