Application Security:
Threats, Tools and Techniques

September 22, 2022

Whether in the cloud or on-premises, businesses across the spectrum of technologies are moving toward software-as-a-service (SaaS) and applications to create innovative products and services. Alongside this innovation comes the need for improvements to security. Application security and application security controls are important for any business making applications.

Application security is a set of measures designed to prevent data or code within applications 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.

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.

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Application Security and Controls

Application security risks come into play for any applications that a business builds and runs. Application security controls can be separated into types based on which part of the application process they protect. These controls are designed to uncover and reduce security vulnerabilities and help businesses face the myriad security risks associated with applications.

Definition of Application Security Controls

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.

Importance of Application Security Controls

Application security controls are a great baseline for any business to add security to applications at the code level. 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.

Application security controls give better visibility about traffic in an application with logging. Encryption helps to reduce risk of breaches and reduce security vulnerabilities. Application security controls can 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.

Application Security Risk

So, what are application security risks? To say the risks for web application security are numerous would be an understatement, but the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) is a great place to learn about of the scope of risks.

At the top of the list is broken access control, which had over 318,000 occurrences in data provided to OWASP. The security vulnerabilities of broken access control might mean destruction and modification of data and unauthorized access to information and applications. Other top security risks include:

  • Injection: When attackers execute arbitrary operating system commands on a server running an application.
  • Security Misconfiguration: Opens weaknesses when security is not properly aligned with application functions.
  • Outdated Components: Old code that was secure can be made more vulnerable over time as new types of attack are developed.

Every piece of an application has security risks, which is why it is so important to maintain application security controls at the code level. However, while application security controls are a fantastic layer of security, more challenges continue to arise.

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 of Modern Application Security

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: The process of incorporating security measures through every phase of the IT process.
  • 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.

Security as a Software Issue

Software weaknesses, defects and faults all contribute to less secure software and applications. Security vulnerabilities like these can allow exploitation and attackers can force software into an insecure state. These weaknesses crop up in software security, container security and cloud security.

In each case, deploying workloads without proper security can lead to vulnerability and breaches of security. Secure software practices aim to reduce or eliminate the ability of attackers to exploit faults and backdoors. These practices can eliminate weaknesses in code and create software that is attack tolerant and attack resilient. Ensuring these software security features are included across the application security lifecycle helps protect businesses.

Application Security Lifecycle

The application security lifecycle refers to implementing security measures across all steps of application development. From planning to design, architecture, testing, coding, release and maintenance, the application security lifecycle encompasses an application from start to end. To achieve cloud security, the application security lifecycle ends in ongoing maintenance.

Whether applications are cloud-native or on premises, the application security lifecycle is vital. Application security testing, API security, cloud security and steps all along the developmental process help protect businesses and their code. In addition to security professionals and modern application security measures, there are types of application security tools that can support application security.

Types of 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.

Available Application Security Tools

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): A process that automatically detects open-source software in code to evaluate security, compliance and quality.
  • Static Application Security Testing (SAST): 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): Used to analyze code during testing run by automation and human testers.
  • Mobile Application Security Testing (MAST): Products designed to identify vulnerability in applications on mobile platforms.
  • Cloud-Native Application Protection Platform (CNAPP): The practice of cloud-native applications and infrastructure.

Learn More

A Web Application Firewall (WAF) is a security tool that filters and blocks monitored data packets as they travel between websites and web applications.Read more

Recommended Tools for Application Security Testing

Application security testing began as a manual process where security teams would run tests and attempt to discover security flaws. As technology advanced many of these processes became automated, generating the multitude of available security application tools.

The right security tool depends on the timing in development and which security issue is most pressing. DAST should be used throughout development and writing of code while WAF is needed once an application is on the web. Other tools are used in niche cases like MAST and CNAPP. Of the available security tools, a business should use all that can help keep each application secure.

Types of Applications Modern Organizations Need to Secure

What applications need to be secure in order to ensure proper security operations? This depends on where a business’s applications are running. Web application security is needed for applications that interact with websites. API security is necessary for applications that contain data and interact with other applications. Cloud-native application security is a must when working with code in the cloud.

The types of application a modern business needs to secure are those that are most vulnerable. By using application security tools and security best practices, a business can keep its applications safe without losing functionality.

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.

Applying Best Practices for Application Security

There are many security best practices available, but a few should take priority:

  • Perform a threat assessment of your code and applications.
  • Include security throughout the application development process (DevSecOps).
  • Prioritize remedial operations to resolve threats after identifying them.
  • Measure application security results with frequent testing.
  • Manage and limit privileges so those who have access to code and applications are the right teams.

How to Secure Applications

The first step to achieving secure applications is to establish a security team. In addition to security teams and tools, there are security trends a business should be aware of. Application security tools will continue to be embedded in the DevOps tool chain. Container security for deploying applications is a piece of the software supply chain with known weaknesses. Security for infrastructure as code will continue to grow as more applications move to cloud-native.

Expert Tip

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.

Main Approaches to 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. 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.

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.

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. Learn more here.