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Flying Naked: Why Most Web Apps Leave You Defenseless

Even the best-funded and "mature" corporate AppSec programs aren't testing all their web applications and services. That leaves many applications with no real security in place.

The way forward
Over the past 10 years, many organizations have created a separate application security group that does scanning and testing. But in the past few years, software development has simply exploded, making the AppSec group a bottleneck and putting it under continual pressure to go faster and handle a larger portfolio, which lowers the bar and produces fewer results.

To find answers, let’s zoom in on a specific vulnerability -- clickjacking  -- where the attacker frames your web page, makes it transparent, and floats it over its own site. When users try to click on the buttons and links on the attacker’s site, they actually click on your transparent page, doing things the user didn’t intend. As long as the unwary victim is logged in, these hijacked clicks can cause real effects in your application. Fortunately, the defense is very simple: Just add an X-FRAME-OPTIONS: SAMEORIGIN header to all your pages.

Compare that to performing a penetration test or scan on every application in your portfolio for this problem, which would take forever. We’re looking for a continuous, real-time way to monitor the whole portfolio at once. Fortunately, there are a lot of ways to accomplish this. My suggestion is to use a passive tool (like OWASP’s ZAP) to verify that the X-FRAME-OPTIONS header is set on all your pages in a test environment. If you’re interested, you can check your website's headers for yourself using a free online tool I wrote called CheckYourHeaders (named after a great Beastie Boys album).

Here are three ideas that you can use to transform your organization to a continuous application security approach.  Remember, vulnerabilities are like termites -- every second they go undiscovered, they get more expensive.

Idea 1: Stop doing application security one-application-at-a-time. Instead, look to continuous, real-time, positive, portfolio-wide monitoring as described above. Over time, you can convert all of your security concerns into continuous, real-time monitoring and move away from the periodic tests. Instead of starting over from scratch each year, you can improve continuously 

Idea 2: Standardize defenses. Help your developers by giving them a great set of enterprise security defenses. Verifying applications at portfolio scale is considerably easier if you’ve adopted standard defenses. For example, you might adopt the OWASP ESAPI library for input validation, output encoding, and encryption. You could use log4j for logging. Or implement an authentication gateway that relies on LDAP.

Idea 3: Train in secure coding. Training works. One company I worked with had a 74 percent reduction in vulnerabilities on teams where at least half of the developers were trained. If you’d like to know what your development teams know and don’t know about application security, try the free tool, Secure Coder Analytics. It’s simple to sign up and invite a team of developers. Then, each developer takes a fully randomized and anonymized 20-question quiz drawn from hundreds of well vetted questions.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below. And remember: Nobody wants to see a naked app.

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Editors' Choice
Kirsten Powell, Senior Manager for Security & Risk Management at Adobe
Joshua Goldfarb, Director of Product Management at F5