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Free, Web Application Vulnerability Assessment Essentials: Your First Step to a Highly Secure Web Site

If an organization isn't taking a systematic and proactive approach to web security, and to running a web application vulnerability assessment in particular, then that organization isn't defended against the most rapidly increasing class of attacks. Web-based attacks can lead to lost revenue, the theft of customers' personally identifiable financial information, and falling out of regulatory compliance with a multitude of government and industry mandates: the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI) for merchants, HIPAA for health care organizations or Sarbanes-Oxley for publicly traded companies.  In fact, the research firm Gartner estimates that 75 percent of attacks on web security today are aimed straight at the application layer.

While they're described with such obscure names as Cross-Site Scripting, SQL Injection, or directory transversal, mitigating the risks associated with web application vulnerabilities and the attack methods that exploit them needn't be beyond the reach of any organization. This article, the first in a three-part series, will provide an overview of what you need to know to perform a vulnerability assessment to check for web security risks. It'll show you what you can reasonably expect a web application security scanner to accomplish, and what types of assessments still require expert eyes. The following two articles will show you how to remedy the web security risks a vulnerability assessment will uncover (and there'll be plenty to do), and the final segment will explain how to instill the proper levels of awareness, policies, and technologies required to keep web application security flaws to a minimum - from an application's conception, design, and coding, to its life in production.

Just What Is a Web Application Vulnerability Assessment?

A web application vulnerability assessment is the way you go about identifying the mistakes in application logic, configurations, and software coding that jeopardize the availability (things like poor input validation errors that can make it possible for an attacker to inflict costly system and application crashes, or worse), confidentiality (SQL Injection attacks, among many other types of attacks that make it possible for attackers to gain access to confidential information), and integrity of your data (certain attacks make it possible for attackers to change pricing information, for example).

The only way to be as certain as you can be that you're not at risk for these types of vulnerabilities in web security is to run a vulnerability assessment on your applications and infrastructure. And to do the job as efficiently, accurately, and comprehensively as possible requires the use of a web application vulnerability scanner, plus an expert savvy in application vulnerabilities and how attackers exploit them.

Web application vulnerability scanners are very good at what they do: identifying technical programming mistakes and oversights that create holes in web security. These are coding errors, such as not checking input strings, or failure to properly filter database queries, that let attackers slip on in, access confidential information, and even crash your applications. Vulnerability scanners automate the process of finding these types of web security issues; they can tirelessly crawl through an application performing a vulnerability assessment, throwing countless variables into input fields in a matter of hours, a process that could take a person weeks to do manually.

Unfortunately, technical errors aren't the only problems you need to address. There is another class of web security vulnerabilities, those that lay within the business logic of application and system flow that still require human eyes and experience to identify successfully.  Whether called an ethical hacker or a web security consultant, there are times (especially with newly developed and deployed applications and systems) that you need someone who has the expertise to run a vulnerability assessment in much the way a hacker will.

Just as is the case with technical errors, business logic errors can cause serious problems and weaknesses in web security. Business logic errors can make it possible for shoppers to insert multiple coupons in a shopping cart - when this shouldn't be allowed - or for site visitors to actually guess the usernames of other customers (such as directly in the browser address bar) and bypass authentication processes to access others' accounts. With business logic errors, your business may be losing money, or customer information may be stolen, and you'll find it tough to figure out why; these transactions would appear legitimately conducted to you.

Since business logic errors aren't strict syntactical slip-ups, they often require some creative thought to spot. That's why scanners aren't highly effective at finding such problems, so these problems need to be identified by a knowledgeable expert performing a vulnerability assessment.  This can be an in-house web security specialist (someone fully detached from the development process), but an outside consultant would be preferable. You'll want a professional who has been doing this for a while. And every company can benefit from a third-party audit of its web security. Fresh eyes will find problems your internal team may have overlooked, and since they'll have helped hundreds of other companies, they'll be able to run a vulnerability assessment and quickly identify problems that need to be addressed.

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