What is web application security? 

Web application security is the group of technologies, processes, and methods used to protect web applications, servers, and web services from a cyber attack.

Web application security products and services use tools and practices such as multi-factor authentication (MFA), web application firewalls (WAFs), security policies, and identity validation to maintain user privacy and prevent intrusions.

Explore additional web application security topics:

Secure your apps with a zero-trust security solution

Why is web application security important?

Web application security is critical to protect data, customers, and systems from intrusions and data breaches that damage business continuity. Today, where there is an application for everything from remote working to banking, attackers find applications to be a prime target. 

Cybercriminals exploit vulnerabilities, such as design flaws, weaknesses in APIs, open-source code, or widgets, and they’re getting smarter and more organized. The safety of a business will ultimately depend on how quickly security teams can detect and fix security vulnerabilities in the development process. Therefore, it is critical to use application security tools that integrate into your application development environment. 

What are common web application attacks?

Attackers use a wide array of methods to target application vulnerabilities. Here are some of them: 

  • Brute force: This method uses automated trial and error mechanisms to crack passwords and login credentials. It is a simple and reliable tactic to gain unauthorized access to individual accounts.
  •  Credential stuffing: In this method, attackers gain access to lists of compromised credentials, then use them to breach a system. The bots simultaneously attempt several logins that appear to come from different IP addresses. 
  • SQL injection: This web security vulnerability allows attackers to disrupt the queries that an application makes to its database. 
  • Cross-site scripting: XSS consists of injecting malicious code into a vulnerable web application. It doesn't directly target the application but instead attacks its users. 
  • Man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack: In this kind of attack, a criminal positions themself in the middle of the interaction between a user and an application. The attacker may impersonate one party or steal information from the conversation.  
  • DDoS attacks: This popular method consists of overwhelming the victim’s network or system by flooding it with seemingly legitimate requests. As a result, the victim’s system “denies service” and access to the network is blocked. 
  • Session hijacking: This method takes over a web user session by accessing the user credentials and impersonating the authorized user. 

These are only some of the attack vectors cybercriminals use to target applications. With cybercrime on the rise, protecting applications from threats is crucial to limit the monetary and business impact. 

How does web application security work?

There are different approaches to web application security, depending on the vulnerabilities being addressed. For instance, web application firewalls (WAFs) are some of the most comprehensive tools. WAFs filter the traffic between the web application and any user that intends to access it. A WAF uses policies that help determine what traffic is safe and what isn’t, block malicious traffic attempts, and prevent attackers from reaching the application. WAFs also block the app from releasing unauthorized data.

As DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks become more prevalent, organizations need to implement methods to protect their web applications from these attacks. Ransom DDoS attacks, in particular, are on the rise, where attackers ask for money to stop an ongoing attack or prevent an upcoming threat. The effects of a DDoS can be devastating, with the potential for huge revenue loss and serious business disruption. An effective DDoS mitigation service needs to not only filter and block suspicious traffic, but must also be intelligent enough to detect and allow legitimate traffic to pass. 

Another vector of attack to be aware of is malicious bots that are used to access web APIs and properties. Once the bot is inside the network it can take control, deploying code or making attacks such as DDoS and SQL injection. A bot management tool can detect and block malicious bot traffic, mitigating the risk of bot attacks.

What is application security testing?

Application security testing (AST) is a method of making applications safer against security threats by identifying security vulnerabilities in source code. Originally, AST was a manual process, but the increasing complexity of enterprise software—with huge numbers of open source components prone to known vulnerabilities—made it necessary for AST to be automated. Most organizations combine different application security tools at different stages of the software development lifecycle. 

Types of application security testing

Application security testing can be categorized as static or dynamic, which address different security weaknesses. There are several tools and techniques: 

Static application security testing (SAST) 

SAST tools inspect the static source code of an application, and report on any security weakness found. You can apply static testing tools to uncompiled code. It finds issues like syntax errors, math errors, and invalid or insecure references. 

Dynamic application security testing (DAST)

DAST tools inspect the code while it’s running, detecting indicators of security vulnerabilities. For instance, issues with query strings, requests and responses, use of scripts, memory leaks, data injection, and more. You can use DAST tools to conduct scans simulating large numbers of malicious cases and record the application’s response. 

Interactive application security testing (IAST) 

IAST tools combine SAST and DAST tools to improve the detection of security threats. IAST tools inspect the software during runtime, but it is run from the application server, so it can also inspect compiled sources. You can use IAST tools to learn about the root cause of vulnerabilities and which specific lines of code are involved, so it is easy to remediate them. 

Manual application penetration testing

In addition to automated application security testing, security analysts use manual penetration testing to simulate attacks against a running application. Pen testers use various tools to simulate the attacks, including DAST or SAST tools. 

  • Software composition analysis (SCA)
    SCA inspects open-source components for vulnerabilities by examining the origin of the components and libraries. SCA tools let you know if a component is outdated or needs to be patched.
  • Mobile application security testing (MAST)
    MAST combines SAST, DAST and forensic techniques that enable mobile application code to be tested for mobile-specific vulnerabilities, such as data leakage, device rooting, and so on. Some of the risks MAST tools cover include improper platform usage, insecure authentication and communication, poor encryption, code tampering, reverse engineering, and more.
  • Correlation tools 
    False positives are a challenge in application security testing. Security testers use correlation tools to reduce the risk of false positives. A central repository of findings from other security tools enables them to correlate and analyze the results, prioritizing the findings and detecting false positives. 
  • Test-coverage analyzers
    These tools help application security analysts to track how many lines of code have been scanned. The tool presents a report in terms of percentage of coverage. This tool is usually included in SAST tools. 

Web application security best practices

Here are some tips and best practices that can help you protect your applications from cyberattacks: 

Encrypt the web server

Encryption is essential as companies move to digital transformation. This is a simple step that doesn’t require complex web application security tools but is often overlooked by organizations. Attackers will take advantage of any unencrypted HTTP requests and mislead users. By encrypting the HTTPs, you make it safe to transfer data between users and servers, eliminating another potential attack vector.

Automate and integrate security tools

Traditionally, security professionals would use a vulnerability scanner and then manually conduct additional testing using security tools. However, this approach is now insufficient to face the volume and complexity of attacks. Current security tools integrate automation capabilities that prevent errors and issues early in the software development lifecycle, saving a lot of time and simplifying remediation.

DDoS mitigation

DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks are a popular attack vector against applications. Attackers use malicious yet seemingly legitimate requests to consume and overload application resources. A web application security tester would take the steps to identify malicious behavior and prevent damage. DDoS protection services help detect and mitigate web application layer DDoS attacks by inspecting and diverting traffic.

Follow secure software development practices

Secure code practices help developers make fewer errors when writing the code. They also help you detect and eliminate errors early in the software development lifecycle. Developers should understand how attackers exploit vulnerabilities and misconfiguration.

Scanning for security vulnerabilities early in the software development life cycle (SDLC) helps detect and fix issues before attackers can exploit them. This is done using web application security tools. These tools integrate into the DevOps pipelines and inform developers of vulnerabilities as soon they commit new code to the repository.

White Paper

Why do you need comprehensive application protection across multi-cloud environments? 

Citrix solutions for web application security

Citrix Web App and API Protection are offered now as a cloud service. The all-in-one platform delivers holistic and layered protection against known and zero-day attacks. It includes an integrated web application firewall (WAF), bot management, and DDoS mitigation service.

The more disparate applications you deploy, the higher the risk of a fragmented security posture. The Citrix platform offers consistent security across the entire app ecosystem and environments.

Explore the benefits of web application security with Citrix Web App and API Protection