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Barracuda Product Blog

What needs to be heeded when checking web applications? (Part 1)

by Oliver Wai, Product Marketing Manager This article was originally published in Pentesting Magazine's Nov 22, 2011 issue. Anyone developing a new software program will usually have an idea of the features and functions that the program should master. The subject of security is, however, often an afterthought. But with web applications, the backlash comes quickly because many are accessible for everyone worldwide. They are currently being used by hackers on a grand scale as gateways into corporate networks. Web Application Firewalls (WAFs) make it a lot more difficult to penetrate networks. In most commercial and non-commercial areas the internet has developed into an indispensible medium that offers users a huge number of interesting and important applications. Information procurement of any kind, buying services or products but also bank transactions and virtual official errands can be conducted easily and comfortably from the screen. Waiting times are a thing of the past and while we used to have to search laboriously for information, we now have the search engines that deliver the results in a matter of seconds. And so browsers and the web today dominate the majority of daily procedures in both our private as well as working lives. In order to facilitate all of these processes, a broad range of applications is required that are provided more or less publically. Their range extends from simple applications for searching for product information or forms, up to complex systems for auctions, product orders, internet banking or processing quotations. They even control access to the company’s own intranet. A major reason for these rapid developments is the almost unlimited possibilities to simplify, accelerate and make business processes more productive. Most enterprises and public authorities also see the web as an opportunity to make enormous cost savings, benefit from additional competitive advantages and open up new business opportunities. This requires a growing number of – and more powerful – applications that provide the internet user with the required functions as fast and simply as possible. Developers of such software programs are under enormous cost and time pressure. An increasing number of companies want to use the functionality of these socalled web applications for their business processes and offer their products, services and information as quickly as possible, simply and in a variety of ways. So guidelines for safe programming and release processes are usually not available or they are not heeded. In the end, this results in programming errors because major security aspects are deliberately disregarded or are simply forgotten. The productive use usually follows soon after development, without developers having checked the security status of the web applications sufficiently. Above all, the common practice of adapting tried and tested technologies for developing web applications is dangerous, without having subjected them to prior security and qualification tests. In the belief that the existing network firewall would provide the required protection if possible weaknesses were to become apparent, those responsible unwittingly grant access to systems within the corporate boundaries. And thereby, they disclose sensitive data and make processes vulnerable. But conventional protection systems do not guard against apparently legitimate connections that attackers build up via web applications. As a result, critical business processes that seemed secure within the corporate perimeter are suddenly freely accessible in the web. Conventional security strategies such as network firewalls or Intrusion Prevention Systems are no longer expedient here. Particularly in association with the web, the security requirements for applications have a different focus and are much higher than for traditional network security. The requirements of service providers who conduct security checks on business-critical systems with penetration tests should then also be respectively higher. While most companies in the meantime protect their networks to a relatively high standard, the hackers have long since moved on to a different playing field. They now take advantage of security loopholes in web applications. There are several reasons for this: Compared with the network level, you don’t need to be highly skilled to use the internet. This not only makes it easier to use legitimately, but also encourages the malicious misuse of web applications. In addition, the internet also offers many possibilities for concealment and making action anonymous. As a result, the risk for attackers remains relatively low and so does the inhibition threshold for hackers. Many web applications that are still active today were developed at a time when awareness for application security in the internet had not yet been raised. There were hardly any threat scenarios because the attackers’ focus was directed at the internal IT structure of the companies. In the first years of web usage in particular,professional software engineering was not necessarily at the top of the agenda. So web applications usually went into productive operation without any clear security standards. Their security standard was based solely on how the individual developers rated this aspect and how high their respective knowledge was. Figure 1. This model (based on Everett M. Rogers adoption curve from “Diffusion of innovations”) shows a time lag between the adoption of new technology and the securing of the new technology. Both exhibit the similar Technology Adoption Lifecycle.

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