What Is Application Security & Why Is It Essential?

An application gives your customers access to your products and services from anywhere with a functional internet connection. With a tap on a phone or a stroke on a keyboard, they're working with you in a format you've designed and branded for your company. 

While apps can be amazing assets, they can also be incredibly vulnerable to attack. And when they are attacked, the damage can be catastrophic. 

In April of 2020, for example, a hacker pulled down and published records from 20 million Android app users. The hacker claimed to have 19 million more. 

Solid application security practices ensure that you build your app with safety in mind. And the processes you use to test the app ensure that you're always prepared for the next threat. 

How Does Application Security Work? 

It's relatively easy to understand why any company would want to perform at least some application security testing. But determining how and when to tackle the work is a bit trickier. 

In general, it takes at least five months to build an app. And a great deal of time should be devoted to testing your app against threats. The code you use here can either leave you open to attack or prevent one from happening in the first place. 

But when your app is up and running, application security testing via audits can ensure you both find and fix new problems clever hackers uncovered. 

Common techniques companies use include:

  • Whitebox security reviews. An expert walks through the source code, searching for security flaws and coding issues. 
  • Blackbox security reviews. An expert attempts to hack the app, and you're notified of any techniques that seemed to work. 
  • Vulnerability testing. Some companies offer hacker teams to test your product and report anything found. 

With so many opportunities and tools available, it's really up to you to find the technique and timing that work for your company. 

Common Application Security Techniques 

Let's dig into the nitty-gritty of application security testing. Know that some companies use several of these methods at the same time to keep their products safe and secure, while others use only one or two. Here’s a great list of application security and penetration testing tools.

In general, four main testing types exist.

  1. Dynamic: The code you're running within your app right now is analysed line by line. If you use this technique along with a hired hacker trying to break in, you'll see the attack unfold in real-time. 
  2. Static: Examine one part of your code very carefully during the development stage. Think of this as code proofreading to ensure you don't make crucial mistakes. 
  3. Interactive: Combine static and dynamic techniques to tear your code apart and examine it closely.
  4. Mobile: Ask a hacker to attempt an attack while running the app on a mobile device. 

In addition to testing, you could use a product to help ensure that your app is safe and secure. Plenty exist, but most tools operate in one of these models:

  • Alert: A tool like this can't prevent a hacker from getting inside. But once your walls have been breached, you'll know about it. 
  • Detection: A threat-detection tool looks over your network (or the cloud environment) to assess where you're vulnerable to an outsider. 
  • Protect: A runtime application self-protection (RASP) tool that combines alerts and detections. These tools can even shut down the app itself in the middle of an attack. 

As new threats emerge and more companies invest in apps, it's likely new and better tools will be developed too.

Why Does Application Security Matter? 

An attack on your app can be absolutely devastating. For example, experts say a hacker inside your app could steal login details, passwords, email content, and financial details. When the breach is released, your customers won't blame the hacker. Your customers will blame you, and it could take you years to recover. 

The mobile nature of apps also enhances your risks. Your app runs over your network, into the cloud, and back again. Each entry and exit is a vulnerability point just waiting for a hacker to find it. 

The five most common app security risks include:

  1. Injection. Unsafe data is sent as a command or query, which allows data access without authorisation. 
  2. Broken authentication. Hackers compromise keys, passwords, and more when functions related to session management or authentication break down. 
  3. Sensitive data exposure. Financial information, health care records, and more are exposed due to encryption problems. 
  4. XXE. Old XML processors don't completely shield data. 
  5. Broken access control. Authentication problems let people see what they shouldn't. 

Your app could have other buried risks, such as scripting problems, older components, or poor monitoring. Any or all of these issues could allow someone to walk right into your app and out again with very sensitive data. 

Application Security Challenges You Should Know About 

Hackers can be very clever, and it can be incredibly difficult to find and eliminate every single risk you face as you serve your customers with an app. 

Common challenges facing anyone hoping to conduct app security include:

  • Language. Some testing tools work only in Java. Others work best in Microsoft.Net. You must find one that works with the code you've used, even if it's not your first choice. 
  • Teams. Plenty of people are involved in an app, including security teams, coding teams, marketing, and customer service. Sometimes, what helps one group harms another. Clear communication is critical. 
  • Clouds. Anytime you push data to the cloud, you run the risk that people will see things that just aren't meant for them. 

You can overcome these issues. Many IT professionals do. But you should keep them in mind as you work.

Security Standards and Regulations 

You may want to protect your customers and your data. But you may make mistakes. About half of all apps have some kind of vulnerability baked right in. Following standards may help. 

Formalised standards help you understand what's acceptable for your app and what experts consider a major problem. Following those rules could help you prove to customers that you take their privacy, security, and safety seriously. 

Dozens of standards exist, including versions written by these entities:

  • CERT Coordination Center
  • Common Weakness Enumeration 
  • Defence Information System Agency 
  • International Organisation for Standardisation
  • International Electrotechnical Commission 
  • Open Web Application Security Project 
  • Payment Card Industry 

A few governmental rules, such as the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), may also apply in your regulatory environment. 

These regulations can be incredibly technical. Just one set of rules from the National Institute of Standards and Technology runs to 55 pages. It's best to read them and truly understand them before development begins in earnest, so you can create your app accordingly. 

Get Help From Experts 

Few writers check their own work. They ask their editors to weigh in and ensure they've done everything properly. Coding teams should do the same. 

Work with someone who can walk through your app forwards and backwards, and tell you about any problems that will harm your company's health. Listen to those experts carefully, and take all of their recommendations to heart. 

If you're looking for a trusted partner, consider Okta. We offer a trusted platform to secure your company's valuable assets, and we'd love to work with you. Contact us, and let’s get started. 

References

Hacker Claims Popular Android App Store Breached: Publishes 20 Million User Credentials. (April 2020). Forbes

How Long Does It Take to Develop a Mobile App? (October 2017). Medium. 

If These Apps Are Installed on Your Phone, You Can 'Easily' Be Hacked. (December 2020). Forbes

OWASP Top Ten. The OWASP Foundation. 

How 85 Percent of Mobile Apps Violate Security Standards. (October 2018). TechRepublic. 

Vetting the Security of Mobile Applications. (April 2019). National Institute of Standards and Technology.