Skip to main content
December 10, 2015

5 Steps to a Better Application Security Program

Application Security Best Practices: 5 Steps to a Better AppSec Program

Effective application security — AppSec — isn't easy. As noted by eWeek, payment apps on both iOS and Android devices lack not only encryption but are at risk of tampering, which "could potentially enable an attacker to reroute funds." Despite the challenge of tracking down and securing vulnerabilities, however, many companies have taken on the task of designing an AppSec program to meet corporate needs and protect company assets. Here are five application security best practices to help improve end results.

1. Inventory your apps

The first step in improving your AppSec program is to take inventory. As noted by Dark Reading, companies need "a single point of reference for metadata about applications." This covers information such as points of contact, other apps the program regularly interacts with in addition to the sensitivity of handled data and the dependency of particular apps. Here, creating an inventory goes far beyond just drilling down to a raw number of apps in use; but rather building a comprehensive, searchable database that lets you quickly find what you're looking for. This is clearly preferable to tracking down individual developers — who may or may not still support their applications. Consider a practical example: IT security tools detect strange behavior from a common app. Instead of racing against the clock to find and fix the problem before a chain reaction of dependent app failure begins, using an up-to-date inventory lets you map critical dependencies and either reroute or shut down connected apps as necessary.

2. Live the lifecycle

It's easy to talk about the secure development lifecycle (SDL). The popular buzzword has made its way into C-suite boardrooms and chances are IT staff will be asked to implement some form of SDL to ensure apps are secure before they're ever deployed in live environments or outside corporate servers. The problem? In many cases, SDL is little more than lip-service: IT departments are often stuck with insufficient budgets or put other tech priorities higher up the list. Without effective SDL, however, the outcome is a foregone conclusion — live apps are in dire need of security fixes, forcing IT teams to pull them down and spend time and money "shoehorning" in better protection.

So what does living the SDL really look like? It starts with recognizing security as a fundamental building block of application development, just as important as clean code or streamlined function. Building this kind of repetitive testing and revision into everyday tasks can be time-consuming and complex, however, so businesses are often better served by leveraging a cloud-based AppSec provider to help get their SDL up to speed.

3. Understand risk in/risk out

Are there more ways in or more ways out of your network? In other words, are hackers facing an infinite catalog of vulnerabilities, or do they have access to near-limitless forms of attack? In fact, there are only two ways to steal or compromise data: access and trust. Malicious actors must either bypass security protocols to directly access your data or abuse the trust of a login server or third-party provider to gain indirect access. What's more, there are a finite number of vulnerabilities in any system based on the type of network architecture, applications and hardware used. Meanwhile, attackers aren't limited when it comes to attack configuration: From location to encryption and coding language to method of delivery, malware makers have almost unlimited potential when it comes to compromising your network. The takeaway? Blacklist-based AppSec won't work since attackers will simply develop new ways to avoid the list and infiltrate your system. Whitelist-based alternatives, however, can significantly reduce the chances of an unexpected attack.

4. Learn the layers

How many layers are in your security ecosystem? Application and network are easy to identify, but there are actually eight layers that all offer unique attack avenues. At the very top is the "human" layer — how workers interact with applications has a huge impact on security. Are they using strong passwords, keeping credentials secret and regularly updating their OS security? The application layer is next, and underneath is presentation, a transitory layer between apps and the network where code is interpreted and abstracted, making it a tempting target for hackers. The transport layer also offers opportunities for malicious actors: If data isn't encrypted or attackers are able to deny access to transport services, apps simply won't work.

The bottom line? Protecting apps isn't enough: Layers both above and below app code must be secured to encourage effective AppSec.

5. Evolve your ecosystem

Last on the list of application security best practices is understanding the need to evolve security ecosystems as your tech landscape becomes more complex. Think of it like this: Every new app added to the corporate database is one more competing for the attention of security programs. What's more, the interaction between this new app and existing applications increases your total attack surface, putting already strained security measures at risk of failing outright. The trick? Balancing controls, interactions and vulnerabilities to minimize total attack surface without limiting needed protection.

A better AppSec program doesn't happen by accident. Take inventory, live SDL, understand risk and learn the layers to effectively evolve your ecosystem and improve overall application security.

Take Your Learning a Step Further With the Ultimate Guide to Getting Started With Application Security

Photo Source: Pexels

Doug Bonderud is a freelance writer passionate about the evolution of technology and its impact on companies, stakeholders and end-users alike. Want to know more? Follow Doug on Twitter.

Love to learn about Application Security?

Get all the latest news, tips and articles delivered right to your inbox.