Closing the door to Web application vulnerabilities

Continuous scanning necessary to secure Web applications

November 18, 2013

Continuous scanning necessary to secure Web applications

The rapid growth and adoption of the Internet and Web-based applications has been at the expense of security. Hardly a day goes by without news of yet another website or application being compromised, giving cybercriminals access to millions of customer records and financial details.

South Africa is no exception to the global cybercrime threat and we have seen many sites breached and sensitive data lost. We have, for example, seen the Mangaung website hacked and serving malware, Elan Systems was also hacked and sensitive data posted online, and even the SA Police’s website was hacked.

“The problem is that the application architecture of the Internet was originally designed for sharing static information in a connectionless state, and not for traditional transaction-based applications,” says Hedley Hurwitz, MD of Magix Security. “The interface we all use to access the Internet, the WEB browser, downloads code from a server and runs it in real time, only connecting to the server again the next time it needs data or instructions. The browser runs instructions contained in instruction sets, or precompiled code, and depends on the local security settings of the browser and device to protect the user. It is therefore relatively easy to insert malicious instructions or code between the originating server and the user’s browser.”

These weaknesses are called Web Application Vulnerabilities. When criminals exploit them through methods such as cross-site scripting, SQL injections and numerous others, they are able to gain unauthorised access to computers and servers, and the information therein.

Once breached, Hurwitz says, the criminals can steal databases with sensitive personal or corporate data, credit card numbers and so forth. Moreover, syndicates can infect the server or desktop with malicious code that can be used to raid bank accounts, or grab intellectual property and sell it to competitors.

“Then there’s the potential for reputational damage which can be devastating,” adds Hurwitz. “If businesses lose customers’ trust, they lose business.”

Unlike traditional application development architectures, WEB-based applications cannot be tested in quality assurance environments alone and then trusted to behave securely thereafter. The only way to prevent intrusion via Web Application Vulnerabilities is to scan your live, public-facing, Web applications regularly and test whether they are vulnerable to the latest techniques criminals use. These scans perform a range of simulated attacks against a website to see where they are vulnerable.

The problem is that this requires the hosting company to purchase the right Web Application Vulnerability scanning tools, keep them updated, and run them at regular intervals. A better option is to use a Web Application Vulnerability scanning service. This is a hosted service in which a trusted third party is tasked with running scans on your Web applications and delivering regular reports on where you may be vulnerable and what you should do to remedy the situation.

While the Internet has changed the way we socialise, conduct business and even learn, is has also left us vulnerable to attacks. In the Web application space, regularly scanning your websites for vulnerabilities is critical to ensure your customers have a safe experience and that your company doesn’t lose money, competitive advantage or its reputation.