Guide to Web Application Penetration Testing
Web applications are an integral part of most business operations responsible for storing, processing, and transmitting data. However, these systems are sometimes exposed to web application security vulnerabilities and risks. They attract malicious hackers who exploit these application security trends for their personal gain, thereby raising major web application concerns.
To address this growing concern, a thorough penetration testing web application should be performed to assess and identify the network security issues within them proactively. Pentesting a website is an effective way of identifying security gaps so they can be addressed immediately. In this article, we will discuss what penetration testing is and how to utilize it to protect your web applications from current and future network security threats.
What is a Web Application Penetration Test?
Penetration testing web applications is a technique that aims at evaluating and gathering information concerning the possible cyber security vulnerabilities and flaws in the web application system. This tactic gathers detailed information on how these network security issues could compromise the web application and impact business operations.
Pentesting a website involves simulating attacks in network security on the application to gain insight into an attacker’s perspective. This could be using SQL injection techniques and others that include steps like scoping, reconnaissance, gathering information, discovering web application security vulnerabilities, exploits in cyber security, and developing reports. Penetration testing for websites can be performed manually or automated to help you find weaknesses in your application security trends so that the logic, coding, and security configurations can be adjusted to mitigate such network security issues.
Why do Businesses Need Penetration Testing?
Considering the evolving threat landscape and growing rate of cybercrime, performing penetration testing on websites so you can take into account all web application security vulnerabilities that could compromise your data is essential. Organizations must consider pentesting a website as a part of the Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC) to ensure the best practices to use against various web application security vulnerabilities. Here are some reasons why we believe penetration tests are important for business:
- A penetration test is an effective way to identify unknown cybersecurity vulnerabilities.
- The test helps validate the effectiveness of the overall security measures implemented.
- The Penetration Test is essential to augment the web application firewall from the web application security perspective.
- Penetration tests help businesses identify and prioritize resources to mitigate network security issues.
- The test helps users discover the most vulnerable route for attacks in network security and their possible impact.
- The test helps you find security flaws and loopholes that can result in sensitive data and/or cloud security breaches.
Why does the Web Application Require a Penetration Test?
The basic objective of performing a penetration test is to identify known and unknown cybersecurity vulnerabilities and implement measures to mitigate them. The assessment helps you find flaws in web application systems as well as the effectiveness of security measures, policies, and procedures being implemented. The reason why pentesting a website is so valuable is so network security issues can be identified and taken care of ahead of time. Here are the three main components evaluated when pentesting a website:
Penetration tests evaluate how well prepared and aware the employees are of the current network security threats and whether or not they are equipped to deal with risks and potential cloud security breaches. It further helps determine whether or not employees require advanced training programs in terms of cyber security and techniques. This can help workers to protect sensitive data from any cyber security vulnerabilities.
Pentesting a website also determines whether or not the processes implemented are effective and in line with the cybersecurity programs. It is important to verify whether or not the processes have been set as per the established policies and employee integration. The penetration test helps discover loopholes in the process and facilitates fixing these network security issues in the process.
Security policy forms the base of any business operations and processes. It also forms the foundation of any cybersecurity program. So, penetration testing for websites may also detect gaps in policies and facilitate the addition or implementation of new policies. For instance, certain companies may focus on preventing network security threats by implementing certain security policies. However, they may not have specific policies for dealing with incidents of breaches or attacks in network security. During the process of penetration tests, such gaps in policies are highlighted, and businesses should implement policies that focus on responding to attacks. The test further highlights whether or not the security personnel is equipped to respond to situations and further prevent significant damage.
Prioritization of Resources
By revealing the network security issues and problems within web applications, penetration test reports can help decision-making in regards to prioritizing resources to immediately fix the gaps that need immediate attention. This information works as a guide for developers and programmers to fix web application security vulnerabilities by building strong code and secure websites. Now that we are aware of the importance of a web application penetration test let us learn and understand the different network security threats to defend against.
Web Application Vulnerability Types
Advancements in technology and the evolving threat landscape have resulted in the discovery of new types of web application security vulnerabilities. Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) is an open community of IT professionals who aim to highlight network security issues to make the web safer for users and other entities. Below are some of the most common web application threats listed in the OWASP Community:
An injection is a web application security flaw that enables various types of attacks in network security. Malicious actors stage an attack to access sensitive data by inputting certain malicious information into a web application, causing alterations to the system and to command execution, and compromising data and web application services. Leveraging such flaws, attackers may delete, alter, or damage data and create Denial of Service attacks that can impact your business.
Broken authentication facilitates cybercriminals to stage attacks on users as a result of exploits in cyber security. A threat actor accesses information like passwords and keys that help to compromise a user’s identity. The hacker impersonates a legitimate user and gains unauthorized access to the systems, networks, and applications. This can be a result of cyber security vulnerabilities such as poor identity and access management controls, poor session oversight, and poor credential management.
Sensitive Data Exposure
Any sensitive and important data meant to be protected against unauthorized access could be breached during Sensitive Data Exposure attacks in network security. These web application security vulnerabilities can put companies at higher risk levels. The most common Sensitive Data Exposure attack is the Lack of Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protocol that authenticates and encrypts data, misconfigures cloud storage locations, transmits data in clear text, utilizes outdated or weak encryption algorithms and cryptography keys, and more. This network security threat is very different from data and network security breaches, where hackers steal information and reveal data. Instead, Sensitive Data Exposure is a vulnerability that is generated unknowingly, leaving information visible to the public.
Broken Access Control
Access controls are critical to prevent unauthorized access and data breaches in systems and applications. To ensure maximum and high-level security, implement effective IAM and PAM controls. However, broken access controls can tamper with these efforts, as broken access controls are web application vulnerabilities that allow hackers to gain unauthorized access to sensitive data and resources. This can result in a high-level risk of data tampering, alteration, damage, or theft. Attackers can take advantage of these weaknesses to stage their attacks and impact business operations.
Security misconfiguration is a vulnerability wherein the security controls of the web applications are misconfigured or left with unsafe security patching. Security misconfigurations are one of the most common web application security vulnerabilities that enter systems due to a company's failure to change default passwords and security settings. These breaches can result from utilizing default passwords, not enforcing secure password policies, ignoring unpatched software, incorrectly configuring files, implementing poor web application firewalls, and more.
Cross-site scripting is a kind of attack wherein malicious scripts are injected into a trusted web application. This works by manipulating a vulnerable web application, executing malicious code, and compromising the user’s interaction with the application. Typically, when the malicious script is injected, the user opens a web page on their browser where the malicious code downloads and executes in the browser, redirecting users from a legitimate site to a malicious one. Cross-site scripting vulnerabilities grant attackers the ability to hijack the user’s session and take over the account, thereby resulting in account compromise.
Insecure Direct Object References
Insecure Direct Object References (IDOR) are network security issues that occur in a web application when a developer utilizes an identifier for direct access to an object in the internal database and does not implement additional access control and authorization checks. This results in data access and compromise. Although IDOR is not a direct network security threat, it allows hackers to stage attacks in network security that provide them access to unauthorized data.
Cross-Site Request Forgery
Cross-Site Reference Forgery (XSRF, “Sea Surf,'' or Session Riding) is an attack that tricks the victim into submitting their identity and privilege to perform unwanted activities. These attacks in network security use social engineering techniques that force users to perform undesired actions, such as changing information in a web application. There are numerous ways in which the user can be tricked to perform this forced and unwanted activity. If an attacker generates a malicious request via an email or chat, users could log into the web application from where attackers can transfer funds, make unauthorized purchases, change email addresses, and more.
Failed Logging & Monitoring
Insufficient logging and monitoring is a vulnerability that occurs due to log failures. When the organization's log fails to capture necessary information, such as logs and audits, an organization’s activities and events can leave trails that allow for cloud security breaches and other attacks in network security. Logs and audits are reports on the happenings and activities in your systems, networks, and applications that can detect anomalies and incidents impacting the security of the organization’s operations and infrastructure. Collecting the right event log data is essential to preventing and mitigating network security issues and threats. Some of the most common web application security vulnerabilities include failed logins, failed logs of error, failed logs of high-value transactions, failed application and log monitoring, and lack of real-time alerts, detection, escalation, and response. Such problems can lead to high-level security risks and breaches.
Penetration Testing Process
Active and Passive Reconnaissance
The initial first step to a Web Application Penetration Test is to conduct an active and passive reconnaissance. This is also popularly known as the evidence-gathering stage, where the tester gathers information from freely available data by probing the web application.
Active reconnaissance means directly looking at the target system to get an output. The attacker engages with the target system and conducts a port scan to find any web application security vulnerabilities.
Passive reconnaissance means collecting information that is readily available on the internet. This process does not require any direct engagement with the target system and is mostly done by using public resources or using platforms like Google for collecting information.
This is the second step of pentesting a website. At this stage, workers inspect the application to understand its performance on a real-time basis. This step involves identifying open ports and discovering cybersecurity vulnerabilities in the application. The basic objective of conducting a web application scan is to determine network security issues and misconfigurations in web-based applications so that they can be mitigated.
After collecting all relevant information pertaining to the application, the tester stages an attack on the application to uncover a target’s weaknesses. Thereafter, the tester tries to take advantage of these exploits in cyber security to escalate privileges, steal data, and intercept traffic. This is done to gauge the level of risk, damage, and impact that can be caused if web application security vulnerabilities are ignored.
Next, testers see if they can maintain prolonged access and presence in the exploited application. This is to understand whether the attacker can gain in-depth access to sensitive systems, networks, and information for the duration of time they are actively inside the web application. This process typically imitates the advanced persistent network security threats that an attacker stages to remain in the application for months at a time to steal sensitive information.
Report & Analysis
The results of pentesting a website are compiled into a report and provide details regarding the web application security vulnerabilities exploited, the sensitive data exposed, and the amount of time a penetration tester maintained access and remained undetected. All the information collected from the test is then analyzed, and security solutions are provided as actionable guidance for closing security gaps. The report helps organizations with security patching to protect against all network security threats.
Pentesting a website can be done through various methods depending on the objectives you hope to achieve through an assessment. Let’s discuss the different types of penetration testing methods:
An external penetration test involves targeting the assets of the company that are visible to the internet, including web applications, company websites, emails, and domain name servers. Applications face simulated attacks in network security from externally visible devices and applications, gaining unauthorized access to extract valuable data.
An internal penetration test involves targeting the assets of the company from inside the company, posing as a malicious insider. This does not necessarily mean simulating a rogue employee, but instead, it could involve staging an attack using various social engineering tactics in hopes of stealing the employee’s credentials. This test exposes the insider threats that sensitive data is exposed to in an organization. Such screening helps identify employees who are likely to respond to social engineering or phishing attacks and try to mitigate the cyber security vulnerabilities at risk.
In blind testing, the tester simulates a real-life attack on applications but with information gained from the security team. The organization’s security team will know when and where an attack will occur so they can prepare for it accordingly. However, they will have limited information about the breach strategy and techniques. The blind testing strategy highlights the effectiveness of the organization’s current cyber security program and gives an insight into how an actual attack would take place.
In the double-blind testing technique, the security team will have no prior knowledge of the simulated attack. So, similar to a real-world attack, the team will not have time to build their defenses. This testing technique helps examine the security monitoring systems, incident identification, alert systems, and response procedures of the organization, all of which are valuable in finding any web application security vulnerabilities that could interfere with the security patching process.
Targeted testing is a scenario wherein both the tester and security team work together in the process of targeted testing on the application. Both parties are aware of the activities and stages of testing that will be performed. Overall, targeting testing can be utilized as an important training exercise that provides the security team with real-time feedback from a hacker’s perspective.
Final Thoughts on Web Application Penetration Testing
Pentesting a website helps to identify where there are web application security vulnerabilities and exploits in cyber security in general. Finding these weaknesses is useful for helping workers to do any security patching needed ahead of time so that real-time attacks are not as harmful, if harmful at all. We suggest organizations proactively run a web application penetration test to address potential network security issues that could impact the company during a security incident. Depending on the goals of a penetration test, testers can utilize techniques that provide organizations with opportunities to improve security posture and general defenses against various network security threats. Performing the web application penetration test is a great way to patch security gaps and vulnerabilities that may otherwise go unnoticed.