Planning an App? Have You Considered These 15 Application Security Best Practices?

By Neha Baluni
Application Security Best Practices

Usually, business leaders focus on marketable concerns such as features, user interface, user experience, availability, and general stability, delegating the task of ensuring application security to IT executives and app development companies.

But the past several years have seen many setbacks in application security. And the future too does not seem too bright for those who do not follow application security best practices diligently. As according to Juniper Research, the average cost of a data breach is expected to exceed $150 million in 2020.

These figures insist business leaders to begin thinking security early on and take things in their own hands such as creating standards and policies under application vulnerability management while ensuring to follow application development security best practices and allocating a dedicated budget for app security.

On app security front, you must address two key concerns; first is application vulnerabilities and second is access control. In our journey of app development, we have come across many companies or business owners who do not have the initial blueprint of the application security best practices, which is necessary for building secure, scalable apps.

To help companies prepare better understand the app security requirements, we have come up with a list of application security best practices checklists from the perspective of business leaders, covering vast threat landscape.

These techniques begin from understanding the mobile or web application security risks and further cover web and mobile app security best practices so that you can have more confidence in your application.

Let us first evaluate application security risk touchpoints essential to address the practice of finding vulnerabilities and take actionable measures.

application security risk touchpoints

At these touchpoints, your application security is at risk. You need to identify the software vulnerabilities at these touchpoints which attackers can leverage to their advantage.

The book, The Art of Software Security Assessment-Identifying and Preventing Software Vulnerabilities defines “software vulnerabilities as specific flaws or oversights in a piece of software that allow attackers” to:

  • Do malicious expose
  • Alter sensitive information
  • Disrupt or destroy a system
  • Take control of a computer system or program

By creating a robust application security strategy that effectively addresses security concerns at these touchpoints and applying a robust and secure development cycle without radically changing the development framework and processes, you can combat app vulnerabilities on all three fronts:

  • Existence: vulnerability in the application
  • Access: Hackers gaining access to the vulnerability
  • Exploitation: The extent of hacker’s capability to exploit the vulnerability for their advantage

A report on the app security hype cycle by Gartner urges IT managers to “go beyond identifying common application development security errors and protecting against common attack techniques.” It recommends the use of tools and technology along with the implementation of standard compliance policy to discover vulnerabilities before the hackers do.

To combat application security challenges, business leaders must focus their attention on these top 15 application security best practices. Implementing these practices would help them understand the threat landscape and take crucial decisions. Most of these practices are platform neutral and relevant to a range of app types.

1. Track Your Application Infrastructure

According to IDG, a modern enterprise has more than 372 mission-critical applications.

An effective application security program is contingent upon a multitude of factors such as an organization’s ability to align skills, create traction to encourage IT and security teams to take proactive measures, and optimize their security program leveraging on app security best practices.

You cannot perform all these without knowing which component of your application infrastructure is most vulnerable. Tracking application infrastructure should be the first step to creating a robust app security program. And while doing so, treat every component of the application infrastructure as unknown and insecure.

Analyze the components from the security perspective to determine what each component will require to prevent non-application components from interacting with the data you send and receive.

In your analysis, cover all the software platforms from development to runtime enablers. This step would help you determine the necessary network access controls to be implemented at the time of development so that only approved users and traffic sources can access application resources.

2. Perform Software Security Risks Assessment

Now that you have a list of the components of application infrastructure, the next step is to find the security vulnerability to each component.

Through the assessment, you can create a systematic approach to determine protocols for software security policy implementation when users or systems attempt to access any component of the software infrastructure.

At this stage, you can create a strategy for a NAC system ensuring following capabilities:

  • Create policies for all operating scenarios
  • Develop a policy for security compliance
  • Carry out detailed profiling of all users and their devices
  • Plan for guest networking access followed by guest registration, guest authentication, and guest sponsoring
  • Strategy for better incidence response to block, isolate, and repair non-compliant machines
  • Enable integration with multiple security and network solutions through open/RESTful API

These measures are part of both mobile and web application security best practices. It will create awareness among all your application security stakeholders so that they can collaborate to strengthen your network security infrastructure, warn against suspicious traffic, and prevent infection from insecure nodes.

3. Enforce Secure Coding Standards

With coding, the implementation of app security best practices begins.

Usually, cybercriminals leverage on bugs and vulnerabilities to break into an application. They try to tamper your code using a public copy of your software application.

To prevent the attacks, make the application tough to break through. Harden your code keeping in mind the operating system and framework vulnerabilities. While doing so, here are the factors you need to consider:

  • Any modules or servers that application does not require
  • Possibility for remote code execution
  • Maximum script execution time
  • Software language access to filesystem
  • Location of session information
  • Servers, services, and software language configuration files
  • Security extensions used by servers
  • Incoming and outgoing traffic
  • Access management

Missing any element of the list while coding could lead to loopholes for attackers to exploit the system.

Besides, some application security measures are specific to the programming language. Make sure to hire software developers who are well aware of the application security best practices in context with particular language such as:

Java Application Security Best Practices for Secure Coding

OWASP Python Security

C++ Secure Coding Standard

PHP Security

Ruby on Rails Security Guide

The documentation in the links is technical in nature. Being a business leader you can simply go through the list of measures required and define the coding standards for developers or your mobile or web application development company.

4. Create App Permissions

Data sharing between two apps is one of the necessary operations done now-a-days. Data sharing activity between the apps becomes critical when un-secure permissions are used for developing the app. Utilization of signature-based permissions is nothing but an app defending itself from the firmware of another app by querying the sign-in keys signature.

Hence, if the data sharing activity shall be processed between the two apps, the two apps must be signed in with the same sign-in keys. However, if the two apps are already signed-in with same sign-in keys, the data sharing is directly undertaken.

5. Limit the Access to Content Providers

Content providers are the section of application which has its own user interface for provider’s client, generally other applications, that helps in secure data access and communication. Content providers have a user interface which presents app data, for an external client, in the form of data sets in tabular form. It is important for content providers to restrict the sets of data which can be accessible by the clients.

Hence, a smart app developer must provide the permissions for their content providers to define what set of data are provided for the client. If no such permissions are provided the content provider’s data can be read, write completely which can corrupt the provider’s data.

A content provider allows private access for their content and assigns signatures certificates to client applications to restrict the data access. Hence, when an application queries for the data, it is essential that the application must have these permissions, which makes the content provider’s data secure.

6. Encrypt All Data

In the current world, data security is one of the major issues being faced all over the world. Data encryption provides the security of data being exchanged by the two applications. Data encryption basically means to systematically de-structure data in such a way that even if a third party acquires the data, it could not be misused.

This concept is not new, as it has been used since ages where the messages were sent in a cryptic form which could only be deciphered by the authorized user. App developers use different data encryption techniques, but most of them revolve around the encryption keys. There are generally two types of encryption schemes. They are:

  • Symmetric Encryption where the encryption and decryption are done using the same set of encryption key by both communicating parties.
  • Asymmetric Encryption— Here, there are two sets of keys, one public and another private. The combination of both will work for decryption.

The data encryption has now become ever so important with the onset of data-driven world. As an app developer, it is the responsibility to encrypt all the data with more secure and advanced data encrypting and decrypting algorithms.

7. Use Libraries Cautiously

While app development is an innovative task which requires creativity to its core, scripting the backend code is a tedious task. To accelerate the app development task, the app developers rely heavily on third-party libraries and open source repositories.

These third-party open-source codes are not updated regularly and can be overwritten with hidden malicious firmware, which could make your app vulnerable and susceptible to data theft and provide access to sensitive information.

Although, there is no definite solution to solve this issue, a rigorous updating process of these open source libraries and keeping tracks of updating of these vulnerabilities will help to lower the risk.

As an app developer, placing a series of checkpoints in the code and changing the class or method name could make it difficult for attackers to access the app’s data using libraries. Use of device update system information to keep tabs on insecure communication can also help.

8. Use Authorized APIs Only

APIs are generally used for streamlining the app development process and bring out the recommended actions when needed. It is a known fact that slackly coded apps provide attackers with the loopholes, onto which they thrive on. It is recommended to use centrally authorized APIs as best practices.

However, app developers tend to cache the authorization data, which helps in easy manipulation of information and making the developer’s life easier, but also providing discrepancy to be exploited by hackers.

9. Ensure Proper Session Handling

Sessions information are used to establish variables such as localization settings and access rights. This applies to every interaction users have with the application for a specific duration. It helps to create a track of anonymous user after their first request and then use the sessions after the user is authenticated. This way users can be identified on any subsequent requests.

Ensure Proper Session Handling

Image Source: cheatsheetseries.owasp.org

By implementing session management capabilities, you can:

  • Apply security access controls
  • Gain authorized access to the users private data
  • Enhance the usability of an application

A unique Session ID or token is generated for each user to track their progress within the application and ensure authentication. The Session ID connects user authentication credentials to HTTP traffic and authorized access controls. For secure session management, a Session ID must have the following features:

  • Not have a descriptive name and unnecessary details
  • Long enough so that attackers have to go through multiple ID values to identify a valid session
  • Meaningless to prevent information disclosure

These features in Session ID keep it safe from disclosure, capture, brute force, or prediction, which prevent targeted or generic session hijacking

10. Store Data Safely

App development platforms provide data storage option for developers, depending on the requirements such as the bulk of data to be stored, types of data and its accessibility. If the app contains access to sensitive data which shall be stored privately, internal storage should be the preferred option.

Adding additional encryption layers over the primary layer of encryption could help in case of any adversary or theft, as even private data is accessible.

It is not recommended to store the app data in the external or removable storage devices as when the app is deleted; the sensitive data is still saved in the external storage devices such as SD cards. The accessibility of these SD cards can be protected under such cases.

For very basic data types and smaller data sets, database libraries can be used. The measure of security in each of the storage option can be boosted by adding an encryption layer, which boosts the data security.

11. Secure Your Containers

Docker Containers make the deployment process much easier by encapsulating a complete software package into a single portable container. The latest trend in the containerization process is to break the entire process into microservices thus dividing the application into shared and virtualized services. Although micro-service architecture is robust and scalable, it has led concerns for managing application security.

Here are a few measures you can take to secure your containers:

  • Avoid running containers with root-level access
  • Don’t store the credentials in containers instead use environment variables
  • As the default setting for containers is unprivileged, they are not able to access any other devices. Usually, you have to apply the –privileged tag to allow access to all devices but it poses a security risk. And so checking and managing runtime privilege consistently become integral to application security best practices.
  • Evaluate your security needs and consider public or private registries
  • Use third-party security tools to run automated scans for proprietary and open source vulnerabilities from start to finish, including in your registries.

You can use a range of tools such as AWS CloudHSM is a cloud-based hardware security module (HSM) if you are using AWS Cloud, which enable you to create and use your own encryption keys or Docker Content Trust if you are using Docker Hub or Shared Access Signature (SAS) if using Microsoft’s Azure.

Also, follow recognized security standards such as NIST 800-53 and Open Security Controls Assessment Language (OSCAL) standard by NIST for container security.

12. Update Your Servers

Server updates are of two types: new features and bug fixes. Commonly software engineers take great interest in new features and do not show the same level of enthusiasm for bug fixes whereas bug fixes are more crucial update in nature.

Equifax Data Breach

One of the best examples of how ignoring server updates can create havoc on the business is the case of Equifax, one of the largest consumer credit reporting agencies. The agency suffered a massive cyberattack in 2017, in which attackers managed to gain access to the information such as people’s name, address, birth date and social security number.

An investigation discovered that attackers exploited a bug in the open-source Apache Strut Framework that Equifax were using on their online dispute web app servers. Apache software foundation was aware of the vulnerability in the platform in 2017 and has released information about it, along with an update to fix the issue, two months before the attack on Equifax.

Importance of Server Updates

It is essential that companies use server updates, especially bug fixes as the defense against attackers. Always refer to the documentation for your operating system or distribution else keep a manual check to ensure timely software update. At times, software updates create issues. Software engineers can handle it by applying the software updates in a second environment and if they succeed, deploy the updates on a live system.

13. Perform Stringent Testing

Software application security testing forms the backbone of application security best practices. Checking for security flaws helps combat potent and prevalent threats before they attack the system.

Application security testing can easily detect injection flaws when an attacker sends malicious data to an interpreter, which must not be executed without authorization.

In the wake of these requirements, security testing tools have been developed into a very strong market with technology vendors offering a range of automated app security testing tools to perform:

  • Static Testing: Code analysis at a fixed point of time during development
  • Dynamic Testing: Analysis of running code. It stimulates attack on the production system and thus reveals attack patterns
  • Interactive Testing: Includes elements of static and dynamic testing
  • Mobile Testing: Testing in a platform-specific mobile environment

Automated testing tools are either available as an on-premises tool or a SaaS-based subscription service. While selecting the tools, make sure to check the programming language tools support. Some tools support one or two languages and others are designed to test the code in a specific environment such as Microsoft Dot Net.

These days Penetration Testing is very common wherein ethical hackers try to hack the software application to test the organization’s defense systems. Application security vendors provide ethical hacking services with the initial scope and goal-setting, learn about the target, and break into target asset.

14. Choose Automation for Application Vulnerability Management

Growing volume of new vulnerabilities, complex environment, and evolving threat landscape make intelligent automation a necessity for cyber risk reduction.

With automation, you can optimize the manual processes and repetitive steps to stay on top of patching. IT and security teams can increase the speed of information gathering and take action to implement a fix.

Leveraging automation, you can automatically implement compensating controls through your Network Access Control (NAC) systems, Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR) tools, and firewalls.

You can decide on what data sources are needed for the automation of vulnerability discovery in different networks. You can also look for analytics-driven automation to analyze vulnerabilities considering your attack surface.

15. Stay on Top of New Standards

Avoid taking the traditional approach to application security. Today, software security is about creating a strong defense mechanism that allows you to identify the threat combination patterns and fix the issues in advance. Unlike previously, it is not the last thing you do when the application is developed.

You have to start creating standard policies at the very early stage of the app development process and this is only possible if you are aware of where to start your application best practices.

The best way is to follow the recommendations of standard bodies such as OWASP and the NIST. These bodies set standards for secure coding and remove misconceptions around app security.

Following OWASP top 10 policy for application security, you can create security assessment programs—from the inception of the idea to the development and regular maintenance and security audit.

Also, keep checking security advisories and databases such as the National Vulnerability Database (NVD) which keeps a record of the vulnerabilities discovered and reported by security researchers for public consumption.

Implementing the Application Security Best Practices

Business leaders who want their application robust and secure must begin to think about software security right at the beginning, means app security should influence many of their decisions such as the selection of app development company or choosing a technology stack.

Together with their technology partner, they should work on setting up standards and policies and blend the app security best practices well into the software development life cycle.

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