What is Application Security Testing and Why Is It Important?

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What Is Application Security Testing?

Application Security Testing (AST) is a process for identifying, reporting on and eliminating security weaknesses in software applications, including the code base and its framework, whether those applications run on-premises or in the cloud. The goal of an AST program is to reduce the number of vulnerabilities in the organization’s applications before they can be exploited and to mitigate the potential impact of undetected vulnerabilities. Beyond vulnerability detection, AST can also help identify root causes of vulnerabilities, provide insights into the organization’s security posture and help to establish compliance to regulations.

Application security testing encompasses not only the security considerations associated with application development and design, but also systems and processes to protect applications after they are deployed. Application security can include hardware, software and procedures that discover or minimize security vulnerabilities.

Why is Application Security Important?

Weak application security has been shown to be a significant contributing factor to data breaches, so exploiting security vulnerabilities in applications is a favorite attack method for hackers. In 2022 cyberattacks via web applications and APIs grew 128% over the previous year, and over 50% of all data breaches originated from vulnerabilities in the application layer. Attackers have an assortment of tools and methods at their disposal. They’ll examine your applications looking for poor security configurations, weak encryption, insecure networks, data leakage and inadequate access controls. They’ll try various techniques like SQL injection, URL manipulation, spoofing and cross-site scripting (XSS). When they find a weakness they’ll attempt to exploit it to breach the organization’s defenses and perpetrate their attack. Over 80% of breaches involved the use of stolen credentials and a prime target was web servers storing sensitive information.

What Are the Types of Application Security Testing?

Application development and security teams have a number of different types of AST tools available. These tools have specific use cases and functions and most fall into one of the following categories.

Static Application Security Testing (SAST): SAST is a white box testing method where testing has full access to the application code. SAST examines source code, looking for coding issues such as input validation issues, stack buffer overflow, SQL injection, and insecure references. It can also run on compiled code. These tools are easily integrated into the early stages of the application development process but do produce high levels of false positives.

Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST): DAST is a black box testing method where testing executes code and examines its security defenses at runtime. Testing looks for runtime application security issues such as cookie and session handling, authorization and authentication issues, DOM injection, and execution of third-party components. Like SAST, DAST can produce a large number of false positives.

Interactive Application Security Testing (IAST): IAST tools combine SAST and DAST methods. IAST uses knowledge of application flow and data flow to create advanced attack scenarios and tests if known vulnerabilities can be exploited in the application. IAST tools can reduce the number of false positives, and work well in Agile and DevOps environments where traditional stand-alone DAST and SAST tools can be too time consuming.

Software Composition Analysis (SCA): Software composition analysis, also called origin analysis, examines the open source components and libraries used in the application and checks for known vulnerabilities. SCA can also provide information regarding out-of-date components and libraries, as well as those that have patches available. SCA tools can run on both source code and binary code.

Mobile Application Security Testing (MAST): MAST tools combine DAST and SAST techniques with forensic examination of data generated by mobile applications to check for mobile-related vulnerabilities such as jailbreaking, data leakage, certificate issues and malicious or spoofed wifi connections, in addition to vulnerabilities checked by DAST and SAST.

Penetration Testing in an Application Security Program

A comprehensive application security testing program cannot rely on automated or in-house testing alone. Manual testing and analysis by experienced security researchers needs to be performed to check if weaknesses still exist, and, if found, how they can be exploited. The best approach for this is to combine the above tools and methods with penetration testing

With pentesting, researchers apply human intelligence and think like cybercriminals, looking for ways to break the application. They can use social engineering, phishing, or other methods to gain unauthorized access. They can test the application against historical and developing cyberattack techniques.

Application security testing with the Synack Platform goes beyond a simple scan and noisy report. Our global team of researchers can pentest your assets across web, mobile and cloud applications to find the vulnerabilities that matter. Results from penetration testing are triaged and presented with information about severity and how to replicate the web, mobile, API or cloud application vulnerability.

Researchers look for common and critical vulnerabilities like those in the OWASP Top 10, the OWASP Web and Mobile Security Testing Guides (WSTG, MSTG) and more. And the Synack Platform only displays vulnerabilities as “exploitable” after they have been vetted by internal Synack teams so you can focus on remediating high-priority vulnerabilities that have business impact.

Application Security Testing Best Practices

These are some key topics that should be considered when formulating a comprehensive application security testing program.

Test Early Test Often: 

A comprehensive AST process should include testing throughout the software development lifecycle (SDLC) from initial coding through deployment. It has long been understood in hardware production that fixing design flaws early in the development process is much less costly than fixing them after the design has been produced. It’s the same with software design. It’s easier to fix security weaknesses and build security considerations into an application from the start, rather than needing to patch or remediate security weaknesses after deployment, or worse, after a breach has occurred.  

SAST should be the first testing deployed as it helps identify vulnerabilities in the earliest stages of application development.  Testing at this stage of development can also help developers understand security concerns and help enforce security policies. Then DAST and other tools as appropriate, including pentesting, can identify the broadest range of vulnerabilities.

Since new vulnerabilities are being discovered almost every day – over 25,000 new common IT security vulnerabilities and exposures (CVEs) were identified worldwide in 2022 – it is important to test applications as often as practicable, prioritizing high-impact threats. Testing should also be performed after coding changes and application updates.

Prioritize Remediation:

Identifying a vulnerability is only the beginning. Development and security teams need to work together to fix or otherwise remediate issues as soon as they are discovered. And not all vulnerabilities have equal exploitability or importance to your organization. Prioritize remediation plans based on the potential impact of identified vulnerabilities.

Identify Business-Critical Systems:

Application security testing, even using IAST and pentesting techniques can result in a large number of vulnerabilities. Identify high-priority and business critical systems before creating a schedule for fixing or remediating problems. Frequent testing is essential for all your business-critical systems and may even be required by regulations.   

Don’t Forget Internal Interfaces:

Attackers often exploit weak authentication or other vulnerabilities in internal systems after they have  penetrated the security perimeter. AST can help ensure that connections and integrations between internal systems are secure.

Involve All Stakeholders:

Security is not the responsibility of the security team alone. It is everyone’s business. Developers, testers, and operations teams all have responsibility for ensuring the security of applications. They all need to be aware of potential threats and be involved in remediation. 

Learn More about Synack Application Security Testing

Synack provides true application security testing as a service. Get broad application testing coverage and pentest your mobile, web, cloud apps and associated APIs all in one platform. To learn more about how Synack penetration testing can be an integral tool in your application security testing program, click here.

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