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Thursday, November 6, 2014

Developing an Effective Strategy for Application Security

Web Application security is perhaps the most common and frequently discussed topic among researchers, small businesses as well as large enterprises. The primary reason is that, it has long overtaken network in being the most commonly attacked layer in a given IT infrastructure. Network and Operating System security has matured to a certain extent. Combined with various OS level hardening mechanism, the traditional attacks against network services has largely been mitigated or has become significantly costly. However, when it comes to web applications, for some reason, it appears that similar maturity in terms of risk mitigation is not achieved yet. Despite multiple WaF products and other security solutions for Web App security, the number of incidents related to compromise of organisation and its data by exploiting issues in web application has only increased in recent times.  For this reason, a different strategy or approach is required in order to safe guard web applications and implement a practice that encourage secure web application development.

Let Numbers Speak for Themselves


In order to better visualise the changing (or perhaps changed) Threat Perception in application and its associated infrastructure, let us consider the case of a Web Server and two web application development framework that is very popular among enterprise application developers - SpringSource Spring and Apache Struts. The statistics reveal that the number of vulnerabilities in the web server software itself is on a reducing path. The actual threat perception is significantly low compared to the numbers due to the existence of various OS level mitigation strategies that makes exploitation of memory corruption and other similar issues in web server process extremely costly/difficult. However, for web applications, the vulnerability classes are significantly different from those mitigated at OS level. New techniques and ease of exploitation has greatly increased the threat perception for web applications and web application development frameworks. Apart from common vulnerability classes, business logic vulnerabilities are another important issue that affects a lot of web applications.

Statistics for SpringSource Spring Framework

Statistics for Apache Struts Framework
Vulnerabilities in popular web application development frameworks are particularly critical due to the widespread impact. Since large enterprise applications are not easy to upgrade due to multiple dependency, vulnerabilities in framework software are extremely critical for such application and must be mitigated if not patched immediately.

Evaluating The Application Security Maturity


There is no single strategy that can help all organisations define a suitable approach for application security. There are various models, however, a carefully chosen model has to be customised and adopted based on the current posture, need and roadmap of any given organisation. Therefore, in order to define a suitable policy, it is very important to evaluate and ascertain the current application security maturity level of an organisation. This can be done to a certain extent by asking few questions:

  1. Is application penetration test (or VA as widely called) conducted regularly on all important applications?
  2. Are the same vulnerability classes for e.g. SQL Injection or CSRF detected every time a security test is conducted?
  3. Is there a training and evaluation program for developers?
  4. Is enforcement of secure coding guidelines implemented in IDE (or similar) level?

[1] The above questions helps in ascertaining the current security posture of an organisation as well as, to some extend, provides a direction for improvement in application security maturity. For example, if you have never done a Penetration Test on your applications, there is probably no need to immediately think of high level security policies or strategies, rather the organisation should focus on initiating regular security testing practices. [2] On the other hand, if you have been doing Penetration Testing for some time, however every time the same classes of vulnerabilities are discovered in different applications or newly implemented features, perhaps its time to think about the effectiveness of the strategy and its RoI. [3] & [4] are strategies that need to be adopted in order to avoid recurring vulnerabilities of similar classes.

Towards an Effective Strategy for Application Security Maturity


A good strategy for implementing or improving application security in an organisation should consists of at least the following:

  • Regular security testing of all applications against commonly occurring and newly discovered vulnerabilities.
  • Comprehensive security test covering maximum functionalities and business logic must be done for at least business critical applications if not all.
  • Vulnerability intelligence - Identify which classes of vulnerabilities has been detected the most in applications. Also identify if similar classes of vulnerabilities are introduced in newly developed applications and/or features.
  • Developer training on how to fix, avoid and mitigate security vulnerabilities is a must. This helps in ensuring that similar vulnerabilities are not re-introduced in future development efforts.

In general, the security strategy for most organisation is reactive in nature i.e. we react to discovered vulnerabilities by patching or mitigating the threat via. workarounds. For organisation with greater threat perception, this cannot continue for ever! An organisation must develop a security roadmap that consists of moving forward - Reactive to Proactive and finally towards Predictive.

For almost a decade, implementing security in an organisation usually started with a VA or PT, followed by patching of discovered issues. However, due to the nature of current threats and skill level of adversaries, it is not enough to continue fixing issues discovered during VA/PT. This method just don't scale and becomes almost unmanageable for large organisations with wide range of assets. It is important for an organisation to be more proactive where it mitigates common classes of vulnerabilities and work towards a better security development life-cycle where common security issues are avoided at design and development stage only.

Some of the points that should be considered while developing an application security strategy:

  • Regular security testing
  • Vulnerability management & intelligence
  • Security as a part of Development/SDLC
  • Developer training and skill development
  • Operational Security (secure deployment and management of apps)




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