Developing Secure Web Applications: 6 Best Practices

Emily Heaslip
August 4, 2021
Developing Secure Web Applications: 6 Best PracticesDeveloping Secure Web Applications: 6 Best Practices
Emily Heaslip
August 4, 2021
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When businesses think about maintaining cybersecurity, the first thing that comes to mind is often endpoint and network security. However, web application security is becoming increasingly important. There have been numerous high-profile attacks on web applications in recent years; in 2020, for instance, the Twitter accounts of famous people were compromised as part of a bitcoin scam.

Forrester’s 2020 The State of Application Security report found that says the majority of external attacks occur either by exploiting a software vulnerability (42%) or through a web application (35%). Optimal web application security starts in the design phase and continues well after the web application release. Here are six web application security best practices to integrate into your workflows. 

Take an Agile approach to web application security

The Agile methodology is commonly used by software development teams to work in small, consumable increments. Agile is collaborative, quick, and informed by data along the way, so teams can improve security as needed. The goal of Agile is to deliver a secure web application faster and with fewer headaches. It’s a flexible approach that allows teams to course-correct during the process. 

The Agile approach means web application security is taken into consideration starting at the design phase using threat modeling. The development team will partner with a security team to assess whether the web application design has any vulnerabilities. The threat modeling team takes a range of factors into account, asking questions such as: 

  • Are we encrypting sensitive data at rest and motion?
  • Is there a strong password policy in place?
  • Are there multiple levels of user privileges and are we abiding by the Principle of Least Privilege (PoLP)?
  • Is the application performing input validation?

It’s important to build checks into your web development process. As you plan your design and workflow, schedule security testing along the way. It can be difficult, costly, and time-consuming to go back and correct a security vulnerability once an app is finished and ready to launch. The Agile approach is iterative, meaning your security can be quickly tested throughout development as needed.

Conduct a threat assessment

A comprehensive threat assessment will tell you two things: what needs protecting, and what are the threats. Start by creating a list of the assets that you will need to protect upon completion of your web application. Simultaneously, develop a list of potential threats, as well as the probability they will happen. 

Be realistic about what threats you can feasibly address. A zero-day exploit, for instance, is probably not a threat you should prioritize. “You also need to be honest about what kind of measures you think your team can maintain in the long run. Pushing for too much can lead to your security standards and practices being ignored. Remember that security is a marathon, not a sprint,” wrote one expert.

This assessment will also help you guide security measures that you implement during the development process to keep your assets safe. 

Be paranoid about web application security

During coding and development, trust nothing and no one unless authenticated. “A good rule of thumb is to consider all input to be hostile until proven otherwise,” wrote another expert. “Input validation is done so that only properly-formed data passes through the workflow in a web application. This prevents bad or possibly corrupted data from being processed and possibly triggering the malfunction of downstream components.” 

To keep your coding secure, consider implementing some of these measures: 

  • Input checks
  • Command injection
  • SQL injection
  • Security headers: HTTP strict transport security (HSTS), X-XSS-protection, X-content-type-options, X-frame-options, etc.

In addition to these secure web application protocols, be proactive about who can access your dev environment as you work.

Implement role management

Not everyone involved in the web application development process needs to have access to everything. Identity and access management (IAM) best practices dictate that you should only permit the right people to access the right resources at the right time, and for the right reasons. This includes implementing: 

  • Privileged access management (PAM): tools and practices that restrict and monitor access to the organization’s most critical and sensitive systems. PAM is concentrated on granular control, visibility, and monitoring those with the most privilege and user access. 
  • Password management: these tools enable a user to store all of their login credentials in one centralized, private, encrypted repository. 
  • Principle of Least Privilege (PoLP): give minimal access to any user or component, and only increase those privileges when explicitly instructed to do so by an administrator.  

[Read more: 5 Identity and Access Management Best Practices]  

Other role management practices to consider include multifactor authentication, single secure sign-on (SSO), and testing for complex passwords to make it harder for hackers to break in. Ask users to regularly update their passwords too to lower the risk of cyber threat. 

Encrypt your data

Encryption is an absolute must for web application security best practices. Many web developers implement encryption for data in transit, but data at rest must also be protected. Always use HTTPS and make sure your SSL is up to date. And, be as thorough as possible when encrypting your information. 

“When using Web Services and APIs, you should not only implement an authentication plan for entities accessing them, but the data across those services should be encrypted in some fashion. An open, unsecured web service is a hacker’s best friend (and they have shown increasingly smarter algorithms that can find these services rather painlessly),” noted one web solution provider.  

Encryption is often required to be compliant with the NIST framework and other regulatory requirements. As much as possible, stick to well-known encryption services rather than trying to encrypt your data in-house. 

Perform a regular web application security audit 

Once your web application has launched, move into the maintenance phase, which involves regular monitoring and testing for vulnerabilities. Penetration testing and vulnerability scanning work well when performed by a third-party freelancer through a bug bounty program such as HackerOne or BugCrowd. 

For monitoring, it’s best to automate your web security as much as possible. A tool like Nightfall can continuously scan structured and unstructured data for any sensitive data that might be exposed within your applications. Our machine-learning-based detectors can be applied to any application environment via our APIs. You can create custom regexes to detect where the sensitive data is within your logs, databases, and other environments to set up automated rules to get alerts before any information is exposed. 

With the Nightfall Developer Platform, you can protect sensitive information in all your application log platforms. Nightfall is the first and only data protection platform that can integrate with any SaaS or cloud infrastructure to detect and classify information like PII, PHI, secrets & credentials, and more — all in real-time. 

Web application security checklist

Follow this checklist to improve your web application security as you begin the development process. 

  • Plan ahead to continuously test app security
  • Conduct a threat assessment before the design phase
  • Implement input validation
  • Enforce the principle of least privilege
  • Use strong password practices
  • Encrypt data at rest + in motion
  • Perform regular security testing
  • Continuously monitor for unsecured data

Learn more about how Nightfall can keep your information secure by scheduling a demo at the link below.

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