Web applications: Easy to build, hard to secure

Successful companies all over the world have switched to web applications to carry out their businesses. Web applications not only provide a sophisticated solution to meet the digital market’s requirements but also serve as a medium to maintain a healthy interaction between the company and its employees and customers.

Web applications are now easy to develop, deploy, and maintain. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of frameworks to provide a platform to develop scalable, reliable, and robust web applications. Here are some of the advantages of web applications and the reasons behind their rise to prominence.

Web Applications

Improved interoperability

Web applications offer far better interoperability compared to a standalone desktop or mobile application. For instance, it is much easier to integrate a web-based e-commerce system with a web-based payment gateway than to establish a communication between two proprietary systems.

Web-based architecture makes it very easy to scale and rapidly integrate enterprise systems as per the business requirements. They also help in improving business processes and workflows.

Easier installation and maintenance

Installing, upgrading, and maintaining web-based applications is a far simpler operation compared to standalone desktop applications. If an application requires an update, it can be simply upgraded in the host servers and every user can access the updated version once the deployment has finished. There is no need for users to update the web-applications on their PCs.

Highly scalable

Increasing the capacity and the ability to scale up web applications is also a very cost-effective and simple process. A burgeoning business might not have a heavy user base, so it can start with minimal hardware capacity with minimal load on the server. But when the same business starts expanding and the user base grows, the company can easily increase their capacity and infrastructure to accommodate the increased users. This involves almost zero or minimal downtime. Therefore, as the workload on the web applications increases, the infrastructure needed can also be increased seamlessly.

No download hassles

This is the best advantage of web applications from the end-users perspective. You don’t have to download an application to use the services. All you need is a compatible browser with Internet access to use a web application.

Use less storage space

When you’re using a web application, all your user data is stored and managed by the company. You don’t have to allocate space and memory on your device to use a web application. Users can access their web application account from anywhere in the world; all they need is an active Internet connection.

Although web applications provide convenience, ease, and efficiency, they also come with several security threats. These security threats can cause potential damage and significant impact on the businesses if not handled and secured properly. The exponential growth in web applications has paved the way for complex and distributed IT infrastructures that are getting harder to secure.

Web applications are not just an easy means to start a business but are now also the most preferred means for cybercriminals to intrude and take down the businesses.

Common web app security vulnerabilities

  • SQL injections
  • Cross-site scripting
  • Cross-site request forgery
  • Session hijackings
  • Improper error handling
  • Information leakage
  • Broken authentication
  • Insecure communications
  • Malicious file executions
  • Failure to restrict URL access
  • Buffer overflow
  • DNS vulnerabilities

To ensure that a web application is safe, there are multiple things that need to be done. Prior vulnerability checks, firewall health tracking, prior information gathering, and checking for denial of services are high on the basic checklist that needs to be considered. Here are some of the best practices to be implemented and followed by organizations to ensure the safety and security of the web applications.

Best practices

Prioritize the web applications

Surprisingly, many companies do not have a clear idea of the general information about their web applications, including the number of applications in use and the assets used in these web applications,.

Without having a good insight on how the web applications are being used, security experts cannot build a security model to secure the apps. To create a security model, the organization and its security team must have a complete blueprint of all the assets that are in use, including an impact and dependency analysis, inventory sheets, and the apps’ version management and update history. Defining priorities for the applications in the application inventory is an effective approach to ensuring security. An ideal web applications categorization can be done on the basis of the priority and business impact. Example: Very critical, critical, serious, and normal.

After this, an overall risk assessment can be done on the basis of the vulnerabilities of the web applications. Creating a custom threat and vulnerability priority model can be helpful in drawing the overall risk assessment and severity analysis. This can help in identifying and fixing the high-priority issues before the ones with low priority and impact.

Filter user inputs

Every web application contains some kind of input field, where a user provides data. Most web applications today accept different formats of content from users, which includes text, images, videos, and file attachments. These input fields in a web application serve as a gateway to enter into the underlying web application.

web application security

A hacker with a right set of skills can easily use these input fields in a web application to corrupt or take over the web application. SQL injections are one of the most common issues that are caused by unrestricted user inputs. With the number of input fields increasing in a web application, the amount of effort needed to secure them must also increase.

Principle of least privilege

Even after a web application goes live after a series of tests and all the necessary security measures, there are still a lot of areas that need to be taken care of. Access management is one such essential, which can make or break the security of web applications.

Every web application has a specific set of privileges, roles, and accesses that can be set, customized, and modified. It is highly advisable to confine the privileges and accesses of web applications to the least permissive settings. For instance, not every user of the web application needs to have an admin right. Only the highly authorized set of people must be able to make changes at the system level. Confining these higher privileges to only a few will minimize the risks associated with accesses and privileges.

Application monitoring

Web application firewalls can also monitor the applications apart from just keeping them safe from attacks. Monitoring applications is one of the best practices in web application security. Monitoring applications give an insight into the type of traffic flowing in, the vulnerabilities being blocked, the kind of responses and inputs the application is receiving, and more. Application monitoring can also help optimize web applications technically by considering the turnaround time for a request. Application monitoring serves as an effective means of predicting and avoiding DDoS attacks.

Proper testing

Before any web application goes live, proper testing must be done. Businesses these days heavily rely on automated testing, which helps to find critical vulnerabilities in applications. However, automated testing cannot perform anything at a logical level. Therefore, penetration testing must be done by the security experts, making sure no logical flaws exist in the web application.

Stay updated

The security administrators must ensure timely updates of web applications. Updates in the modules or the packages of a web application must be taken care of promptly. It is also important to retire the web applications that are not in use anymore or serve no purpose. Even a small web application, which is not being used or monitored regularly, can create an opening for hackers to bring down the system.

Update the passwords frequently

This is a safety measure that every web application user must consider. Use of strong passwords, consisting of a combination of special characters, numbers, and letters must be mandated in order to stay safe.

web application security


Security administrators must spend time defining the right authentication process for the web applications. Using industry standards and implementing the authentication as per the application and its priority must be done.

Handling sessions

A web session consists of a series of HTTP requests and responses of a user. A session refers to a certain time period, which involves the communication of two systems over a network. A web application session is usually user-initiated and will last to the end of the communication. However, many active sessions can be triggered from one session, which might be hidden from the user. Properly handling sessions is a very important aspect of web application security as a failure in doing so might result in various session-based vulnerabilities such as session hijackings, session sniffing, and cross-site scripting attacks.

Using a web application firewall

A web application firewall (WAF) is a security mechanism that is primarily meant to protect web applications from cyberthreats and attacks. A web application firewall works just like a normal firewall and monitors, filters, and blocks unwanted and unsecured HTTP traffic to flow into the web applications. WAF proves out very effective in protecting web applications against cross-site scripting, SQL injections, and session hijacking, and other access-related issues.

web application security

Cookies are crucial

Cookies, although a crucial aspect in web applications security, are often overlooked and can provide an opening for cyberattacks. Cookies allow users to be remembered by the sites they visit and aid in better, faster, and more efficient usage. However, these cookies also contain valuable information that can be exploited by attackers. There are certain aspects that need to be implemented in order to minimize the risk of cyberattacks.

  • A cookie must never be used to store sensitive or critical information.
  • Consider encrypting the information in cookies.
  • Always monitor and control the expiry dates of cookies.

To be secure, an organization needs to be consistent. All the security measures we’ve discussed might not be confined to a onetime process. All the security measures must be given due priority and all the essential security checks must be performed in a timely manner to make sure that you stay safe.

The devil is in the details

Every company will have its own software development lifecycle (SDLC) when a web application is built. Different security measures fit at different places and can be handled differently altogether. But to create safe web applications, every minute thing needs to be considered apart from building and maintaining web applications securely. Every employee must receive training on web application security model, standards, awareness, and controls.

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