10 Web Application Security Risks & How To Deal With Them

TL;DR: To mitigate web application security risks, consider implementing robust authentication mechanisms, regularly patching and reviewing code, validating all inputs, and regularly monitoring logs to stay ahead of potential threats.

By Jerry Wallis
20 min read

What Is Web Application Security? 👮

Web application security can be compared to securing a house. Just as you lock the doors and windows of a house to keep intruders out, you implement measures like firewalls, encryption, and authentication in web application security to protect sensitive information from cyber-attacks.

Likewise, just as you inspect your house for potential weaknesses and fix them to enhance security, in web application security, you regularly perform vulnerability scans and patch any identified flaws to maintain the safety of your application.

What’s more, just like a house with a weak front door can be easily broken into, a web application with poor security measures can be easily hacked, making it crucial to prioritise security in both cases.

So the big question is, what is web application security?

Web application security protects a website or web application from potential security threats such as hacking, data theft, or malicious attacks. It involves implementing various security measures to secure sensitive information, prevent unauthorised access, and ensure confidentiality, integrity, and availability. This can include using encryption, enforcing access controls, and regularly testing the web application’s security.

Programmer coding to fight against web app security risks

Web applications are vulnerable to security threats due to their open nature and the amount of sensitive information they store. These threats include hacking, data theft, malicious attacks, and more. Web application security employs a combination of technology and processes to secure the application and its data to mitigate these risks.

Over the years, web application security risks have constantly evolved. For instance, hackers have started using more sophisticated techniques, like SQL injection and cross-site scripting, to try and break into websites. In response, web developers and security experts began developing new tools and technologies to defend against these attacks, such as firewalls and intrusion detection systems. However, even with all defences, more recent threats keep emerging. So, the security community had to keep evolving and improving its methods, leading to the creation of new technologies like web application firewalls (WAFs) and security information and event management (SIEM) systems.

Nowadays, web application security is critical for any online business or organisation. With so much sensitive information being shared and stored online, it’s more important than ever to stay vigilant and protect ourselves from the constant threat of cyber-attacks. But it’s not just about technology; it’s about having a holistic approach that includes people, processes, and technology.

As web technology advances, the security landscape continues to change and evolve. However, one thing is for sure: as long as bad actors are out there trying to take advantage of the web for their gain, the good guys will keep fighting to keep the web safe.

Why Is Web Application Security Important?

In today’s world, the internet has become an essential part of our lives. We use web applications to order food, buy clothes, subscribe to services, and even make payments online. These applications have made our lives easier, but with improved convenience comes great responsibility. These days people store sensitive information such as personal data and financial details on these web applications, and we trust these applications to keep our information safe.

However, there is a rising concern about our online data security. The risk of cyber-attacks and data breaches has increased as more and more business and personal activities are conducted online. Without proper security measures, hackers can easily exploit vulnerabilities in web applications and gain access to sensitive information. This can lead to financial loss, identity theft, and damage to an individual’s or a company’s reputation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the importance of web application security. The Internet has become the backbone of everything, from office meetings to online classes and virtual appointments with doctors. The increased dependence on web applications and the services and products that come with them has also increased the security threat. The security of our data depends on the website where we store our information and the servers that keep the information stored.

In recent years, there have been several high-profile security breaches, such as the Microsoft Exchange server data breach, the Facebook and LinkedIn data breaches, the Clubhouse database leak, and the Bose ransomware attack. These incidents show how common web application security risks have become today and the importance of having robust web application security measures in place to protect sensitive information and ensure the continued availability of the web application.

Why Are Web Applications Vulnerable To Attacks? 🚨

Web applications can be vulnerable to attacks for a variety of reasons. Some of the main reasons are as follows.

  • Poor coding practices: If the developers do not follow secure coding practices, it can lead to vulnerabilities in the application. For example, if web developers do not validate user input correctly, it can lead to a SQL injection attack.
  • Outdated software: If the software used in the web application is obsolete, it may contain known vulnerabilities that attackers can exploit.
  • Complexity: The more complex the web application, the harder it is to secure. A complex application may contain many difficult vulnerabilities to detect and fix.
  • Configuration errors: Incorrectly configuring the web server, database, or other components can also lead to vulnerabilities.
  • Third-party components: Many web applications use third-party components, such as libraries, frameworks, and plugins. These components may contain vulnerabilities that attackers can exploit.
  • Lack of security testing: If the web application has not been thoroughly tested for security, vulnerabilities may go unnoticed, leaving the application open to attack.

Now, let’s check out 10 common web application security risks. Understanding these is essential for organisations to protect their valuable information and systems from malicious attacks.

Web Application Security Risk #1: SQL Injection 💉

SQL Injection is a security vulnerability that occurs in web applications that use structured query language for database operations. SQL is used to interact with relational databases, such as MySQL, Oracle, and Microsoft SQL Server. When an attacker exploits a SQL injection vulnerability, they can inject malicious code into an SQL statement, effectively tricking the database into executing unintended actions.

Data breacher hacking on laptop

For example, a web application may take user input, such as a username or password, and use it to build an SQL query to retrieve data from a database. If the application does not properly validate or sanitise the user input, an attacker can craft a payload that will modify the SQL query in an unintended way.

As a result, the attacker may retrieve sensitive data, such as passwords, credit card numbers, or other sensitive information stored in the database. In the worst-case scenario, an attacker may be able to take control of the entire database, modifying or deleting data at will. Therefore, it is crucial for developers to properly validate and sanitise user input to prevent SQL injection attacks.

Web Application Security Risk #2: Faulty Authentication 📛

Faulty authentication refers to weaknesses or flaws in the authentication process used to verify a user’s identity. Authentication is verifying a user’s identity before granting access to sensitive information or resources. A faulty authentication system can allow unauthorised access to sensitive information, putting the security of the system and its users at risk.

There are several ways that authentication systems can be faulty. For example, a weak password policy may allow users to choose easily guessable passwords, making it easy for attackers to gain unauthorised access. Alternatively, a system may store passwords in an insecure manner, such as plain text, which can result in leaked or stolen passwords.

Additionally, a system may lack proper input validation, allowing attackers to exploit weaknesses in the authentication process to bypass security controls and gain access to sensitive information or resources. Therefore, to ensure the security of an authentication system, it is essential to implement strong password policies, store passwords securely, and validate inputs properly.

Web Application Security Risk #3: Sensitive Data Leakage 💧

Sensitive data leakage refers to the unauthorised disclosure or transmission of confidential or private information. This can occur when sensitive information is shared or stored in an insecure manner, making it vulnerable to being accessed or intercepted by unauthorised individuals. Sensitive data can include a wide range of information, such as financial information, medical records, personal identification information (PII), trade secrets, and other confidential business information.

There are several ways that sensitive data can leak, such as through unsecured networks, weak passwords, misconfigured databases, or social engineering tactics. For example, if a database is not correctly secured and is accessible from the internet, an attacker may be able to access sensitive data stored within it.

Similarly, sending sensitive information over an unencrypted network can expose the data to being intercepted and read by unauthorised individuals. Therefore, to prevent sensitive data leakage, it is essential to implement strong security controls and best practices, such as encrypting sensitive data, properly securing databases and networks, and providing employee security awareness training.

Web Application Security Risk #4: XML External Entity Attack 🗡️

An XML External Entity (XXE) attack is a type of security vulnerability that affects XML parsers. XML is a markup language commonly used for data exchange and storage. XML parsers are used to process XML data, such as reading and interpreting the structure of an XML document. In an XXE attack, an attacker can include malicious code in an XML document, which is then executed by an XML parser. This can result in sensitive information being disclosed or an attacker being able to execute arbitrary code on the system.

XXE attacks are possible because of how XML parsers handle external entities. External entities are external resources that can be referenced within an XML document, such as external files or network resources. When an XML parser encounters an external entity reference, it will attempt to retrieve the resource and process it as part of the XML document.

In an XXE attack, an attacker can craft a malicious XML document that references an external entity in a way that allows the attacker to access sensitive information or execute arbitrary code. Therefore, it is crucial to validate XML input and to properly configure XML parsers to avoid external entity references from being processed.

Web Application Security Risk #5: Broken Access Control 🕹️

Broken access control is a vulnerability in which an application or system does not properly restrict access to resources, allowing unauthorised users to perform actions they should not be able to achieve. This can occur when the system fails to authenticate and authorise users properly or enforce access control rules properly. This vulnerability can lead to serious security issues such as data theft, tampering, and unauthorised access to sensitive information.

Database server

Broken access control can occur in various contexts, including web applications, databases, operating systems, and cloud-based services. For example, in a web application, broken access control can occur when an attacker can bypass authentication or authorisation mechanisms or when they can modify the parameters in a request to access restricted resources. This can be achieved through SQL injection, session hijacking, and cross-site scripting (XSS).

You should implement strong access control policies to prevent access control. Additionally, we recommend regularly performing security testing to identify and remediate any vulnerabilities on time.

Web Application Security Risk #6: Use of Vulnerable Components 🧩

In web application security, using vulnerable components refers to incorporating third-party software components, such as libraries, frameworks, or plugins, into a web application. These components can introduce vulnerabilities into the web application if they contain known security flaws that have not been addressed. Attackers can exploit these vulnerabilities to gain unauthorised access to sensitive information, execute malicious code, or carry out other harmful actions.

Using vulnerable components is a common problem in web application development, as many organisations rely on open-source components to speed up the development process and reduce costs. However, these components are often not adequately tested for security vulnerabilities, and even when vulnerabilities are discovered, the maintainers may not release a patch promptly. As a result, web applications that use vulnerable components are at increased risk of being exploited by attackers.

To mitigate this risk, organisations should regularly assess the features they are using and replace or upgrade them if necessary. Additionally, they should implement processes to ensure that any newly added features are appropriately tested and updated as required to ensure they do not introduce security vulnerabilities into the application.

Web Application Security Risk #7: Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) 👩‍💻

Cross-site scripting (XSS) is a type of security vulnerability that allows attackers to inject malicious code into a web page viewed by other users. XSS attacks occur when an attacker can inject malicious script into a web page that is then executed in the browser of any user who views the page. The malicious script can perform various actions, including stealing sensitive information, modifying the page’s appearance, or redirecting the user to another site.

There are two main types of XSS attacks: stored XSS and reflected XSS. Stored XSS occurs when the malicious script is permanently stored on the vulnerable website and is executed every time any user loads the page. Reflected XSS occurs when the malicious script is injected into the page via a user-supplied parameter and is only run for the user who submitted the negative input.

To prevent XSS attacks, it is crucial for web developers to properly validate user input and encode any data that is displayed on a web page. Additionally, we recommend implementing a Content Security Policy (CSP) to limit the types of scripts executed on a web page and to use technologies such as browser extensions and firewall rule sets to block XSS attacks.

Web Application Security Risk #8: Insecure Deserialisation ⚠️

Insecure deserialisation is a vulnerability in which untrusted data is deserialised or translated from its binary form into a language or data structure that a program can quickly process. If an application does not properly validate the data being deserialised, an attacker could manipulate the data to include malicious code that would be executed when the data is deserialised. This can lead to serious security problems, such as data theft, tampering, or unauthorised access to sensitive information.

Insecure deserialisation can occur in many contexts, including web applications, mobile applications, and Internet of Things (IoT) devices. To prevent insecure deserialisation, it is essential for developers to properly validate the data being deserialised and to use secure techniques for serialising and deserialising data.

Additionally, don’t forget to implement input validation, output encoding, and appropriate error handling to prevent data manipulation. Regular security testing should also be performed to identify and remediate any vulnerabilities.

Web Application Security Risk #9: Misconfigured Security 🛡️

Misconfigured security is when a system or application is not configured correctly with the appropriate security measures, leaving it vulnerable to attacks. This can happen when security settings are not configured, security patches or updates are not installed, or security best practices are not followed. Misconfigurations can lead to various security problems, including data theft, tampering, unauthorised access to sensitive information, and system disruption.

Laptop showing pirate flag

Misconfigured security can occur in many areas, including firewalls, databases, web servers, cloud-based services, and internet-connected devices. For example, a misconfigured firewall could allow unauthorised access to a network, while a misconfigured database could expose sensitive information to attackers.

To prevent misconfigured security, it is essential to follow best practices for securing systems and applications, regularly updating and patching systems, and implementing proper configuration management processes. Additionally, regular security assessments should be performed to identify and remediate any misconfigurations on time.

Web Application Security Risk #10: Insufficient Logging & Monitoring 🕵️

Insufficient logging and monitoring in web application security refer to a lack of proper logging and monitoring mechanisms in place to detect, respond to, and prevent security incidents. Logging records information about system events, user activity, and other relevant data in a secure and easily accessible manner. Monitoring is the ongoing process of reviewing and analysing log data to identify security incidents and potential threats.

In web applications, insufficient logging and monitoring can result in the inability to detect security incidents promptly and respond effectively. This can lead to serious security problems, such as data theft, tampering, and unauthorised access to sensitive information.

To prevent insufficient logging and monitoring, it is essential to implement proper logging and monitoring mechanisms in web applications, review and analyse log data regularly, and have a documented incident response plan. Additionally, it is recommended to use automated tools and services to help identify and respond to security incidents more quickly and effectively.

What Are The Best Practices For Web App Security? 🏆

The following provides an overview of some of the best practices to combat web application security risks. These practices can help organisations protect their web applications from emerging threats and ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of sensitive information. Implementing the best practices in software development mentioned below can help organisations reduce web app security risks and ensure their security and stability.

Input Validation

Input validation verifies that user input meets the expected format and type, such as text strings, numbers, or dates. This helps prevent malicious code from being executed and is a crucial component of web application security. User input should be validated both on the client and server side to ensure that the data received is safe and secure.

In addition, input validation should be performed using a white-list approach, where only known good values are accepted, rather than a black-list approach, where known bad values are blocked.

🔐 Authentication & Access Control

Authentication verifies a user’s identity, while access control determines what actions the user is authorised to perform within the application. Both are critical components of web application security. Robust authentication mechanisms, such as multi-factor authentication, should be implemented to prevent unauthorised access.

Additionally, access control should be implemented using the principle of least privilege, where users are only granted the minimum permissions necessary to perform their job function. This helps reduce the risk of unauthorised access to sensitive information and improves the overall security of the web application.

🌐 Encryption

Encryption is the process of converting plaintext into ciphertext, which makes it unreadable to unauthorised parties. It is an essential component of web application security, particularly when transmitting sensitive information over the internet. Encryption should be used to protect sensitive information, such as passwords, financial information, and personal data, both during transmission and storage.

Laptop with vertical codes on screen

Robust encryption algorithms, such as AES or RSA, are recommended to ensure the highest level of protection. In addition, encryption keys should be managed appropriately and stored securely to prevent unauthorised access to encrypted data.

🖥️ Session Management

Session management is an essential aspect of protecting against web app security risks. Session management aims to prevent unauthorised access to the application’s data, resources, and functionality. Unfortunately, session hijacking is one of the most common attacks that exploit vulnerabilities in session management to gain access to sensitive information.

To prevent session hijacking, secure session management techniques such as session ID rotation, cookie encryption, and limiting the lifespan of sessions must be implemented. In addition, it’s essential to use a secure protocol, such as HTTPS, to encrypt all communication between the client and server and store session IDs in a safe location, such as a server-side session, rather than in a cookie.

⌨️ Secure Coding Practices

Adhering to secure coding practices is an effective way to prevent coding errors and reduce web app security risks and vulnerabilities. Secure coding practices include writing code free of bugs, following industry standards, and using safe coding techniques such as input validation, error handling, and secure data storage.

For example, coding errors such as buffer overflows, SQL injection, and cross-site scripting are some of web applications’ most common security vulnerabilities. By following secure coding practices, developers can reduce the risk of these types of vulnerabilities and ensure that the web application is secure and reliable.

🔄 Software Updates

Regularly updating and patching the web application and underlying software components is essential for maintaining the security of a web application. Software updates often address known security vulnerabilities and provide bug fixes, which can improve the overall performance and security of the application.

It’s essential to keep all software components up to date, including the operating system, web server, database, and any third-party software used in the application. By regularly updating software, organisations can ensure that they are protected against the latest threats and that their web application remains secure.

🧪 Vulnerability Scanning & Penetration Testing

Vulnerability scanning and penetration testing are essential tools for identifying potential weaknesses in a web application. Vulnerability scanning uses automated tools to identify known security vulnerabilities, while penetration testing is a more in-depth process that simulates a real-world attack to identify potential weaknesses.

Regularly performing these tests can help organisations identify and address potential vulnerabilities before attackers can exploit them. In addition, by periodically performing vulnerability scanning and penetration testing, organisations can ensure that their web application is secure and that any potential weaknesses are addressed promptly.

📊 Risk Assessment & Threat Modelling

Continuous risk assessment and threat modelling are essential for proactively identifying and mitigating threats to a web application. Risk assessment involves identifying potential hazards, evaluating the likelihood and impact of these threats, and determining the best course of action to mitigate them.

Colleagues engaged in a team meeting at the office

Threat modelling is creating a detailed model of the web application and its security, which can be used to identify potential threats and evaluate the effectiveness of existing security controls. By continuously assessing and evaluating potential risks and dangers, organisations can take proactive measures to mitigate them and ensure that their web application remains secure.

🎯 Incident Response & Disaster Recovery

Developing and implementing an incident response plan is essential for responding to security incidents and ensuring business continuity in case of disasters. An incident response plan outlines the steps to take in case of a security breach or other security incident.

Disaster recovery involves having a strategy to ensure that the organisation can continue operating in the event of a disaster, such as a data centre failure or a significant security breach. By having a well-defined incident response plan and disaster recovery plan in place, organisations can ensure that they are prepared to respond to security incidents and maintain business continuity, even during a disaster.

Final Words: Web App Security Risks 📋

In conclusion, protecting your web applications from security risks is crucial for protecting your sensitive data and the users that access it. With continuous technological advancements, new threats are bound to emerge, making it imperative that organisations stay vigilant and proactive in their approach to web application security.

Some best practices include conducting regular security assessments, implementing a web application firewall, using secure coding practices, keeping software and components up to date, and educating your employees on the importance of web application security. Following these guidelines can reduce the risk of a security breach and ensure that your web applications remain secure against prevalent and evolving threats.

If you need more information about web app security risks and how to mitigate them, feel free to reach out to us for a friendly discovery call. We’re always eager to hear from you!

Published on February 08, 2023

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