Best practices for web application security

Lukas Grigas
Cybersecurity Content Writer
securing web applications

Traditionally, the approach to ensuring the security of web applications has been to develop first and test afterwards. However, with the recent increase in cybersecurity threats in the form of web application attacks, the traditional approach is no longer viable. Security must be at the forefront of web and software development phases, especially in a business setting.

Today, as we see the costs of dealing with hacks and data breaches skyrocket, businesses are increasingly looking to ensure the complete security of their IT infrastructure. Although preventing every attack with 100% certainty is simply impossible, mitigating the risks by following web application security best practices can significantly improve the chances of staying secure. Today, we’ll be looking at common vulnerabilities related to web apps and ways to boost security.

What is web application security?

Web application security comprises strategies, tools, and practices designed to protect web applications from external threats, breaches, and vulnerabilities. It's not just about responding to attacks. Think of it as more of a proactive approach that integrates security considerations right from the developmental phase, ensuring that every facet of a web app is secure against potential threats.

With the ever-increasing volume of sensitive information being shared online every single moment, the stakes have never been higher. Cyber threats are not static. Hackers adapt and evolve. The sophisticated threat landscape demands a dynamic and vigilant approach to security. Web application security, therefore, remains a critical concern, ensuring businesses and their users can operate with confidence in the digital world.

What are common web app security vulnerabilities?

While web applications add to the ease of doing business, they also become a part of the potential attack surface area for hackers to target. In most cases, vulnerabilities related to web applications are due to a lax attitude towards best web application security practices. SQL injections, cross-site scripting (XSS), and authentication flaws are the favorite attack vectors that hackers use to exploit web apps. For an in-depth look at web app security risks, please check out our website security guide.

Why is secure web development important?

The 2021 Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report notes that as more businesses continue to migrate their operations to the cloud, attacks on web applications have come to represent 39% of all breaches. The numbers are alarming, and organizations relying on web apps need to realize that ensuring the security of the infrastructure is an essential part of web and software development, which pays off in the long run.

The primary purpose of web app security is to prevent cyberattacks. Suffering a cyber incident often means compromised user accounts, derailed customer trust, damaged brand reputation, loss of sensitive data, loss of revenue, and a whole lot more. A recent IBM report indicates that the average cost of a data breach in 2021 stood at an astounding $4.24 million, which for smaller businesses can threaten their very existence.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to this: if businesses want to thrive in today’s internet-based economy, focus and resources can’t be limited when it comes to security.

Nine ways to improve web application security

Effective website security requires all-around effort. It includes such factors as making security a part of development procedures, configuration of the web server, creating password policies, and much more. Here are a few proven ways that you can boost your web application security.

#1: Web application security testing: Maintain standards during web app development

While developing a web application, remember that the old way of developing first and testing later is no longer the way to go. Be sure to place web application security at the top of the priority list during the development phase.

Test the security of your web application by sending different types of inputs to provoke errors and see if the system behaves in unexpected ways. These are what we call “negative tests,” and they can highlight design flaws within the system.

We also highly recommend employing the use of static application security tests (SAST), dynamic application security tests (DAST), and penetration tests (PT) during the development phase. By maintaining security standards during web app development, you will save yourself precious time in the future and have an app designed to withstand a security threat.

#2: Encrypt your data

Web apps and services rely on data and its flow between the server and the end user. Whenever someone uses your web application, they share information that often is sensitive in one way or the other. Data gathered and stored from user activity on your web application should be encrypted to mitigate the risks of a breach. For those who want to have a better understanding of what encryption is, how it works, and why it is so important in today’s digital world, here’s our guide to encryption.

#3: Backup your data

Preventing anything from happening with 100% certainty is not feasible. As we already established, the same applies to cyber threats. This is why it is so important to make regular backups of your data related to your web application.

If you suffer a breach or other sort of hack that relates to data leakage or theft, backups will be crucial in reinstating the functionality of your web app services. Backups will allow you to be back up and running in no time.

#4: Implement HTTPS

SSL technology is used to ensure encrypted data flow between the server and the end users. It is a required prerequisite for any secure web application. Typically SSL encryption is enabled by using HTTPS protocol, which can protect the flow of such sensitive information as credit card numbers, login credentials, and social security numbers. Think of it this way: by using HTTPS for your web applications, you will render data flow to and from your web app incoherent for any potential eavesdroppers. Furthermore, failing to use HTTPS will more than likely result in your users being warned about potentially unsafe websites by commonly used browsers, which is not a great look, especially in the eyes of first-time visitors.

#5: Have a strong password policy in place

Passwords are the first line of defense when it comes to unauthorized access. Use them correctly and your web application’s odds of withstanding an attack increase exponentially. Use them incorrectly and you’re in trouble. It's important to encourage your users to use passwords the right way, too.

We’ve said it over and over, and we’ll continue to repeat ourselves. It is absolutely crucial to use complex and unique passwords. During the development stage, it is a good idea to adopt a business password manager for internal use. Not only will a password manager such as NordPass create strong passwords for you automatically, but it will ensure that they can be easily accessed and won’t ever be lost. In addition to improving your overall security posture, a password manager will increase your productivity thanks to convenient little features such as autofill and autosave.

On the user side of things, it is critical to implement strong password policies to mitigate possible risks. Make sure that the minimum password length for users is eight characters. Also, requires the use of upper- and lowercase letters and special symbols. While your users may not be thrilled to fulfill these requirements, they will thank you in the long run.

#6: Don't forget about hosting

It’s common knowledge that a large part of your web application security relies on your hosting service provider and its security practices. Choosing the right host for your web application can be tricky and time-consuming. However, it is important to realize the importance of this decision. Choose a poor provider and face the consequences of poor security or reliability.

A reputable hosting provider, such as Hostinger, has a nice track record security-wise and is praised by its users. In most instances, reliable hosting services will put in the time to update their infrastructure and adhere to the best security practices of the time. The worst mistake that you as a web app developer can make is to choose the cheapest option and disregard other aspects of the service.

#7 Perform a regular web application security audit

The purpose of a web application audit is to review an application’s codebase to determine potential vulnerabilities. Audits can also provide a look at the security of the application’s communication challenges. As you continue to build and update your web application, new vulnerabilities may sneak in without you noticing. This is where regularly performed web application security audits can prevent you from releasing a potentially vulnerable app update and in turn save you a lot of time, frustration, and revenue among other things.

#8 Embrace authentication and Access Control

Authentication functions as a foundational aspect of web app security. It is there to verify and authorize the identity of users. Authentication serves as the first line of defense against unauthorized access. After authentication, access control defines what a user can see and do within the application.

Robust authentication mechanisms, especially multi-factor authentication (MFA), have become essential. Concurrently, access control operates on the principle of least privilege, ensuring users are granted only the permissions necessary for their specific roles. Regularly reviewing and updating these permissions is crucial if you wish to maintain the security integrity of the web app.

#9 Make web application security awareness training a part of your security strategy

While technical security measures are crucial, the human element can prove to be a vulnerability. Web application security awareness training is designed to provide the team with the knowledge and skills to identify and respond to security threats and incidents. Such training sessions explore common cyber threats, best practices in web application security, and the importance of adhering to security protocols and requirements.

By fostering a culture of security awareness, you can reduce the risk of breaches resulting from human error or oversight. Regularly updating and refreshing this training ensures that all personnel are aware of the latest threats and mitigation techniques.

Bottom line

As web applications become more complex and businesses' dependency on them grows, application security should be at the top of the priority list for all businesses wishing to succeed in today’s digital economy. Moreover, experts note that the recent increase in web application attacks is only set to grow. Businesses cannot afford a lax attitude towards web application security anymore. However, with a holistic cybersecurity approach that includes following best web application security practices, organizations can significantly lower the threat risk and maintain a secure perimeter.

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