With over 2.5 million terabytes of data generated every single day , it is undeniable to predict that future business decisions will solely rely on these chunks of data. In order to fine-tune business processes and to know the behavior of customers, decision makers are already lining up a set of technologies and procuring solutions to perform data analysis on a larger level to pre handedly strategize their marketing and operation decisions.
In addition, the wide array of applications that processes this data is seeking the urgent need for security among businesses. From financial data to personal details of customers, all types of data is transacted and viewed through online web applications. This makes it critical for web applications to stay secure and immune to cyber-attacks.
To understand how secure these web applications are, organizations need to identify security gaps that are left behind during the web application development process. They also need to discover security misconfigurations or exploitable vulnerabilities that can potentially invite a serious data breach.
A meticulous web application security testing can find all these gaps along with hidden vulnerable points in an application that runs the risk of getting exploited by a hacker. A complete security test allows an organization to detect security loopholes and cyber threats both internally and externally. It also lets you make an informed decision towards putting your security plan.
Let’s now dig deep into why web application security is required and what are the steps to carry out web application security testing.
Why is web application security testing required?
With the spike in web-based applications, cyber crimes became commonplace. Over 2,000 confirmed data breaches that took place in 2019 and several hundred in 2020  paint a rather grim picture for web security. These data breaches were impactful and caused businesses to not only lose data but also revenue and business reputation.
The most common factor linked to data breaches was either business delaying identifying vulnerabilities in their applications or not implementing a risk assessment for their internal operations.
As far as the need for security for web applications is concerned, here are a couple more reasons why web application security testing is required for businesses:
- Errors in programming invite hackers
Cybercriminals often spend a considerable amount of time to find vulnerable areas in an application and that leads them to bugs crept in during programming. Errors such as improper file permissions, unchecked input fields, and insecure admin folders, or any other misconfigurations allow attackers to use methods like code injection and account takeover very easily.
- Security flaws create obstruction
Going back to the drawing boards repeatedly due to security concerns leads to a lot of precious time loss that could be used in productive activities. If security is considered as an afterthought, it does not fully encompass all areas of an application. Security infused and tested during each software development cycle can change this.
Developers should also check on the overall security infrastructure and investigate weak spots with every update in the application to improve performance and efficiency. This is an alternate way to embed security into the application itself rather than implementing it as an add-on. Patching security flaws during the SDLC (Software Development Lifecycle) is the ideal way to keep a check on the security of the application. It becomes time-taking and complex if left for later.
Steps in web application security testing
The reconnaissance phase is a crucial part of a security analysis since it helps in uncovering vulnerabilities and exposing areas requiring a revamp. Testers then use this information to conduct further testing. In passive reconnaissance, testers gather information about the system without actually interacting with it. This information is generally public knowledge that can be gathered by simple searches. Whereas, in active reconnaissance, testers probe the application using various tools to gather details. Below are some tools and their usage:
- Nmap: Nmap network scanner helps in fingerprinting an application, by gathering details like OS, software, a scripting language used by the server, also any open ports and services running.
Nmap (Source: Wikipedia)
- Shodan scanner: This network scanner helps you find any publicly available data about the IP.
Shodan Scanner (Source: SafetyDetectives)
Further steps include looking up DNS, examining the source codes, extracting information from linked external sites.
2. Testing and exploitation
Once testers have information about vulnerabilities and weak spots, they design their tests and exploits centered on those. Often a complete security test consists of standard checks and custom-made exploits for the application. Various tools are used, and most of them are open-sourced. Some tools are listed below:
- W3af: Web application framework is a scanner that helps in quickly finding vulnerabilities and is an easy way to find information about the target.
W3af (Source: W3af)
- Burp Suite: It is a complete security testing tool, available as both a free and paid version. From vulnerability scanners to automated exploits, it has numerous features.
- SQLMap: As the name suggests, SQL injection is one of the strong suits for this tool. It is open source as well as provides automated solutions for testing. You can do everything from reconnaissance to scanning for vulnerabilities and running exploits.
SQLMap (Source: SQLMap)
- Metasploit: A very commonly used tool for information gathering and running exploits. It offers both pre-made or custom codes for testing.
- Hydra: This tool specializes in cracking login methods. Easy to use and fast, this tool is capable of exposing a weak login method in an application.
These are some of the ways testers proceed with analyzing the security standards of your application:
3. Password Cracking
In some cases, this is the first step, in which the login methods are tested. Testers try to crack the credentials using various techniques such as brute force, code injection, security bypass, etc. it can also be done through cookie theft or session hijacking. Tools such as Hydra are used to gain unauthorized access to the application.
4. URL editing
There are chances that sensitive information may be passed in website headers through HTTP GET methods. A tester checks for these lapses and detects how secure requests are between server and clients. Snooping and man-in-middle attacks are possible by editing these headers for fetching crucial data or corrupting the requests.
5. SQL Injection
Attackers can execute malicious code through input fields and access databases in your application. To test if this is possible, testers execute SQL Injection exploits and ensure that harmful scripts are unable to cause any damage. Tools such as SQLMap have exploits that can prod the application to uncover such vulnerabilities.
6. Cross-Site Scripting (XSS)
Testing an application for XSS vulnerabilities is an important step to protect both the application and users. If due to any coding bugs or security gaps, the application accepts HTML scripts, attackers can steal information from users as well as compromise the application.
The last step in complete security testing is to report and support. A detailed web application security testing can provide a descriptive explanation of all vulnerabilities and specific workarounds for fixing those vulnerabilities. The objective of web application security testing is to find vulnerabilities before cybercriminals do and fix them. Web applications need to protect themselves to keep information such as customer data safe and away from attackers.
Security is no more only an additional feature but a basic necessity.
We hope that following the steps mentioned above for conducting comprehensive web application security testing will ensure that all vulnerabilities within applications are fixed and the organization’s systems are protected against today’s rising modern threats.
About the Author:
Kanishk Tagade is a Cybersecurity Evangelist, Security Researcher, Enterprise Growth Marketer, Community Member of the Data Security Council of India and Corporate contributor at many technology magazines and security awareness platforms. He is also a social micro-influencer for the latest cybersecurity defense mechanisms, Digital Transformation, Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence and IoT products.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this guest author article are solely those of the contributor, and do not necessarily reflect those of EC-Council.