By now you’ve probably noticed that we’re spending a lot of time discussing the non-technical issues of web application security. We felt we needed to start more on the business side of the problem since many organizations really struggle to get the support they need to build out a comprehensive program. We have many years invested in understanding network and host security issues, and have built nearly all of our security programs to focus on them. But as we’ve laid out, web application security is fundamentally different than host or network security, and requires a different approach. Web application security is also different from traditional software security, although it has far more in common with that discipline. In today’s post we’re going to get a little (just a little) more technical and talk about the specific technical and non-technical reasons web application security is different, before giving an overview of our take on the web application security lifecycle in the next post.

Part 1 Part 2

Why web application security is different than host and network security

With network and host security our focus is on locking down our custom implementations of someone else’s software, devices, and systems. Even when we’re securing our enterprise applications, that typically involves locking down the platform, securing communications, authenticating users, and implementing security controls provided by the application platform. But with web applications we not only face all those issues- we are also dealing with custom code we’ve often developed ourselves. Whether internal-only or externally accessible, web application security differs from host and network in major ways:

  • Custom code equals custom vulnerabilities: With web applications you typically generate most of the application code yourself (even when using common frameworks and plugins). That means most vulnerabilities will be unique to your application. It also means that unless you are constantly evaluating your own application, there’s no one to tell you when a vulnerability is discovered in the first place.
  • You are the vendor: When a vulnerability appears, you won’t have an outside vendor providing a patch (you will, of course, have to install patches for whatever infrastructure components, frameworks, and scripting environments you use). If you provide external services to customers, you may need to meet any service level agreements you provide and must be prepared to be viewed by them just as you view your own software vendors, even if software isn’t your business. You have to patch your own vulnerabilities, deal with your own customer relations, and provide everything you expect from those who provide you with software and services.
  • Firewalls/shielding alone can’t protect web applications: When we experience software vulnerabilities with our enterprise software, from operating systems, to desktop applications, to databases and everything else, we use tools like firewalls and IPS to block attacks while we patch the vulnerable software. This model of shield then patch has only limited effectiveness for web applications. A web application firewall (WAF) can’t protect you from logic flaws. While WAFs can help with certain classes of attack, out of the box they don’t know or understand your application and thus can’t protect custom vulnerabilities they aren’t tuned for. WAFs are an important part of web application security, but only when part of a comprehensive program, as we’ll discuss.
  • Eternal Beta Cycles: When we program a traditional stand-alone application it’s usually designed, developed, and tested in a controlled environment before being carefully rolled out to select users for additional testing, then general release. While we’d like all web applications to run through this cycle, as we discussed in our first post in this series it’s often not so clean. Some applications are designated beta and treated as such by the development teams, but in reality they’ve quietly grown into full-bore essential enterprise applications. Other applications are under constant revision and don’t even attempt to follow formal release cycles. Continually changing applications challenge both existing security controls (like WAFs) and response efforts.
  • Reliance on frameworks/platforms: We rarely build our web applications from the ground up in shiny new C code. We use a mixture of different frameworks, development tools, platforms, and off the shelf components to piece them together. We are challenged to secure and deploy these pieces as well as the custom code we build with and on top of them. In many cases we create security issues through unintended uses of these components or interactions between the multiple layers due to the complexity of the underlying code.
  • Heritage (legacy) code: Even if we were able to instantly create perfectly secure code from here on forward, we still have massive code bases full of old vulnerabilities still to fix. If older code is in active use, it needs just as much security as anything new we develop. With links to legacy systems, modification of the older applications often ranges from impractical to impossible, placing the security burden on the newer web application.
  • Dynamic content: Most web applications are extremely dynamic in nature, creating much of their content on the fly, not infrequently using elements (including code) provided by the user. Because of the structure of the web, while this kind of dynamically generated content would fail in a traditional application, our web browsers try their best to render it to the user- thus creating entire classes of security issues.
  • New vulnerability classes: As with standard applications, researchers and bad guys are constantly discovering new classes of vulnerabilities. In the case of the Web, these often effect nearly every web site on the face of the planet the moment they are discovered. Even if we write perfect code today, there’s nothing to guarantee it will be perfect tomorrow.

We’ve listed a number of reasons we need to look at web applications differently, but the easiest way to think about it is that web applications have the scope of externally-facing network security issues, the complexity of custom application development security, and the implications of ubiquitous host security vulnerabilities.
At this point we’ve finished laying out the background for why we consider it so important to build a web application security program, and some of the challenges web applications create. Much of this material was just to give you the context to define your own program and prioritize the components we’re about to detail. In our next post we’ll show you the web application security lifecycle, followed by a detailed series of posts on the individual elements- from web application firewalls, to penetration testing, to secure development.