Application security should be a priority for every website owner. Too many companies wait for a data breach or an attack to make website security a priority. Remember there is no software without bugs and weak points. You should take all the measures to protect your website before anything can compromise it. Millions of websites online today, have security vulnerabilities, and an average website can suffer up to 50 attacks per day.
Application vulnerabilities are the software system flaws or instabilities that could be abused to compromise the security of the application. Simply put, a vulnerability is a weakness or a wrong configuration of a website or web application code that creates an opportunity for a hacker to gain control over some parts of your website and/or the hosting server.
The most common way to find vulnerable websites is through automated programs such as vulnerability scanners and botnets. Hackers often create tools to search the internet for platforms such as WordPress, for well known and public vulnerabilities. From here, the breaches in your site can be used to steal data, inject defacement, implement malicious content, and spam the existing content.
Application vulnerabilities classification
Websites and web applications are often the targets of cyber attackers for financial reasons or data theft. No matter if you run an e-commerce business, or you have just a simple small online business, the possibility of an attack is there. Therefore, it is crucial to know what you are up against. Every malicious attack is different based on its specifics and the ability to affect different parts of your site.
The most common website vulnerabilities are classified based on 3 main characteristics: exploitability, detectability, and their impact on software.
- Exploitability refers to the tools needed to manipulate the security vulnerability. When a website can be taken advantage of using only a web browser, the exploitability is high and the lowest exploitability is when more advanced programming and tools are involved
- Detectability refers to how easy it is to detect a threat. The highest detectability is when the information is displayed on the URL, in a form message, or an error message. The lowest detectability is when the malware can be detected only in the source code
- The impact on software or the damage goes from a complete system crash, which has the highest impact, while the lowest impact is when no damage was done to your site
Types of vulnerabilities
Let’s explore the most common website security vulnerabilities, define each type of website security breach, and what impact it has on your business.
1. Injection attacks
A code injection flaw takes place when a hacker is sending invalid data to the web application. The purpose behind this type of attack is to make your software do something that is not designed to do. The most common threat in this category is the SQL injection. This injection is programmed to take data from users by gaining access to the website’s back-end database or alter the database.
The implications of SQL injections are as follows: the hacker will inject malicious content into your database vulnerable fields and will steal sensitive data such as user names, passwords, etc. Besides this, they can change data by inserting information, updating, or even deleting it. Attackers will have the power of an administrator and can perform any operations to corrupt database content.
The objects that are vulnerable to this injection flaw are the input field and the URLs that interact with the database. Another common vulnerability in this category is the command injection that gives hackers permission to pass and execute code on your hosting server remotely. This happens when user input is transmitted to the server, and it is not properly validated.
In this case, attackers can include shell commands with the user information. Command injections are very dangerous because the initiator of the attack can hijack your whole website, your hosting server, and also can use the compromised server in botnet attacks. Keep in mind: anything that uses parameters as input can be vulnerable to code injection attacks.
2. Broken authentication
This vulnerability is allowing any hacker to use manual or automatic hacking methods to acquire control over any account in your system, or even have complete control over it. Websites that have this flaw have logic issues that appear on the application authentication mechanism. Attackers usually use a brute-force approach to guess or confirm valid users in a system. The broken authentication flaw comes in various forms, like;
- Permitting automated intrusions such as credential stuffing (the hacker owns a list of valid usernames and passwords)
- Allows brute-force and other automated attacks
- Permits default, weak, or common passwords (“Password1”, “admin”, “12345”, etc.)
- The system accepts weak and ineffective credential recovery and forgot password processes (knowledge-based answers)
- The system lacks multi-factor authentication
- The successful login IDs do not rotate or they are exposed in the URL (permits URL rewriting)
- The system does not correctly invalidate sessions IDs during logout or inactivity on a certain period of time (single sign-on (SSO) tokens)
Security issues can be attributed to multiple factors such as lack of experience in code writing, security requirements, outdated software, or releasing rushed software development, which is unfinished but functional.
3. Cross-Site Scripting (XSS)
There are two ways to inject cross-site scripting into a website. The first method is by an unknowing user and the second method is by the attacker. Using a user to insert a malicious XSS code, can be done via email. They can receive a message that includes a fake link to confirm a fake registration account. This way, the script is into one of the URL parameters.
If the web application permits the user to pass special characters in the website address, the malicious code will be injected and carried out as a legit part of the website. Phishing is the way to execute the injection. In the second method, the attackers usually target input forms to check for any breaches and process the code.
When the website returns data that was passed immediately, then the hacker knows that a vulnerability exists. XSS can damage your website in many ways such as stealing sensitive data (user credentials, session cookies), permitting keylogging (recording every pressed key and sending the data to the hacker), altering website’s content.
4. Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF)
This malicious attack tricks users into doing something they don’t intend to do. CSRF works this way: a third-party website is sending a request to a web application where a user is already authenticated, for example, their bank or favourite clothing shop. The hacker will get access functionality through the user’s browser. We strongly advise you to pay attention to any suspicious links, emails, messages, that come from web applications such as social media, emails, online banking, web interfaces for network devices.
5. Sensitive data exposure
Sensitive data exposure is a widespread website security vulnerability that is exploited to take advantage of defective protection resources. This vulnerability usually happens when confidential data is being transmitted through the network, but also data can be compromised when at rest. Some examples of sensitive data that must be protected, include:
- Credit card numbers
- Credentials of user accounts
- Medical information
- Social security numbers
- Other personal details
Business owners must understand how important protecting user’s data and privacy is, and they should respect and comply with the local privacy laws.
6. Insecure direct object references
This flaw happens when a web application trusts user input and exposes a reference to an internal implementation object such as files, database records, database keys, and directories. When a reference to an internal object is exposed in the URL, a cybersecurity attack to manipulate the URL and get access to a user’s data can take place. A common vulnerability is a password reset function that needs only user input to decide whose password is going to be reset.
7. Security misconfiguration
Security misconfiguration includes multiple types of vulnerabilities which at the core have a lack of website maintenance or lack proper configuration. The configurations must be implemented and deployed for the application, web server, database server, web platform, frameworks, and application server. This security breach gives hackers access to private data and website features. The result might compromise the whole system.
We are going to give you some examples of security misconfigurations to keep your eye on: the application runs with debugging feature enabled in production, you have the directory listing enabled on the server, your website is running on outdated software such as WordPress plugins or old PhpMyAdmin, using the default keys and passwords, you reveal stack traces (error handling information) to the attacker.
8. Broken access control
Access control refers to the limitation on what sections or web pages users can reach, based on their needs. eCommerce websites, for example, will not give access to the admin panel where you add products, or set up promotions. By allowing your visitors to reach your website’s login page, you open a door for hackers to attack you. Here is a list of examples of broken access control:
- Access to hosting control or administrative panel
- Access to your server via FTP, SFTP, or SSH
- Access to applications on your server
- Access to your database
By allowing this kind of access, attackers can access unauthorized functionality and data, gain access to sensitive files, and even change access rights.
How to prevent website security vulnerabilities
It is very important for any online business to know the threats they are facing and give more importance to application security. Why risk everything you build, when you can protect yourself and your clients?
- Injection attacks – To prevent injections attacks, you to filter your input properly. All your inputs, not the majority of them. If you have 500 inputs and 499 are successfully filtered, that one input can become an attack opportunity. Have confidence in your framework’s filtering functions. Also, keep your data separate from commands and queries. Use a safe Application Programming Interface (API), use server-side input validation, implement settings and restrictions to limit data exposure. Moreover, whitelist the input fields and avoid displaying error message details that can be used by hackers
- Broken authentication – For broken authentication prevention, use a framework. This is the most straightforward way to avoid this security flaw. Pay attention not to expose any credentials in your URLs or Logs, and check if your authentication and session management requirements are meeting the OWASP Application Security Verification Standards
- Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) – For (XSS) cross-site scripting prevention, the first step is to sanitize inputs. This process refers to replacing special HTML characters such as curly braces, angle brackets, etc. into HTML entities, as they ensure proper request processing. Furthermore, you can install a firewall designed to mitigate XSS attacks, apply context-sensitive encoding, and you can also enable a content security policy (CSP)
- Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF) – For cross-site request forgery, you should store a secret token in a hidden form field that is not accessible to the third party site. This method protects users from CSRF attacks because hackers that send the request have to guess the token value. The better news is that after a user logs out, the token will be invalidated. Besides that, you can also implement CAPTCHA or Re-Authentication mechanisms
- Sensitive data exposure – To prevent sensitive data exposure, it is important to think of both cases: the data in transit and the data in storage. For transit data use HTTPS with a proper Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificate and do not accept any connection that is not HTTPS. For the data in storage, do not store sensitive data if it’s not necessary, encrypt all the stored data, keep your encryption keys secret, and encrypt your backups
- Insecure direct object references – To protect your application from insecure direct object references, implement user authorisation properly and frequently. Avoid exposing object references in the URLs, verify the authorization of every reference object, and avoid storing data internally. Do not rely only on CGI parameters
- Security misconfiguration – A security misconfiguration breach can be avoided by having a reliable automated build and deploy process that can run tests on deploy
- Broken access control – Broken access control can be avoided by adopting and implementing a security-first philosophy software. Work with a developer to deny by default access to any resources that are not for the public, minimize CORS usage, disable webserver directory listings, ensure file metadata, log access control failure, and alert admins when repeated failures take place
No matter what stage is your business right now, security is crucial for any online website or web application. To sum it up, take note of the following:
- The top 3 security threats are injections, authentication flaws, and cross-site scripting (XSS)
- The most vulnerable platform is WordPress, if you are looking for a very secure platform, go for custom development. Because of its unique code, it leaves almost no open door for common attacks
- To make sure that your website is not vulnerable, scan and monitor your website regularly. In case you find any inconsistency, take action immediately
- To prevent your website from being attacked, strive to keep your application up to date, use a website application firewall (WAF), and use a malware scanner