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Web applications are today an integral part of most business operations. They are commonly used for storing, processing, or transmitting data as a part of various business operations. However, these web applications are often exposed to huge cyber risks. They attract malicious hackers who exploit the application vulnerabilities for their personal gain and thereby raising major web application security concerns. To address this growing concern a thorough Penetration testing should be performed to proactively assess the applications and identify vulnerabilities in them. The security testing technique is an effective way of identifying security gaps and addressing them immediately. Covering more on this and elaborating on the technique in detail we have explained the importance of web application penetration test and the testing process. But before that let us understand what a web application penetration test is, a bit in brief. 

What is a Web Application Penetration Test? 

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Performing the web application Penetration test involves simulating an attack on the application to gain insight into the web application from an attacker’s perspective. This could be using SQL injection techniques etc. The steps include scoping, reconnaissance and gathering information, discovering vulnerabilities, exploitation of vulnerabilities, and developing reports. 

Web application penetration testing can be performed manually or automated for evaluation and identifying vulnerability, and threats to web applications. The objective of performing this test is to identify security weaknesses across the web application including the flaws in application logic, coding, and security configurations to name a few. The test helps identify vulnerabilities and prioritize resources to accordingly mitigate them.

Why do Businesses Need Penetration Testing? 

Considering the evolving threat landscape and growing rate of cybercrimes performing a penetration test on web applications is essential. Taking into account the fact that most web applications comprise sensitive data, it is essential that organizations take measures to secure these web applications. Organizations must consider performing the web application penetration test as a part of the Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC) to ensure best practices against various web application vulnerabilities. Here are some reasons why we believe performing penetration tests is important for business:

  • A penetration test is an effective way to identify unknown 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 the risk. 
  • The test helps users discover the most vulnerable route for attack and its possible impact.
  • The test helps you find security flaws and loopholes that can result in a breach and/or theft of sensitive data.

Why does the Web Application Require a Penetration Test? 

The basic objective of performing a penetration test is to identify known and unknown vulnerabilities and implement measures to mitigate them.  The assessment helps you find security flaws in systems while testing the effectiveness of security measures, policies, and procedures implemented. The reason why Web Application requires a Penetration Test is that it helps identify security flaws in people, processes, and policies. Read on to understand the relevance of the three components  

Evaluates People

Penetration tests evaluate how well prepared and aware the employees are of the current cyber threats and whether or not they are equipped to deal with risks and potential breaches. It further helps determine whether or not employees require advanced training programs relevant to cyber security and techniques to protect sensitive data.  

Evaluate Process

The assessment 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 whether the processes are followed appropriately by the employees. The penetration test helps discover loopholes in the process and facilitates fixing these security gaps in the process. 

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Evaluate Policies

Security policy forms the base of any business operations and processes. It also forms the foundation of any cybersecurity program. So, performing a penetration test may also detect gaps in policies if any, and facilitate addition or implementation of new policies. So, for instance, certain companies may focus on preventing cyber threats by implementing certain security policies. However, they may not have specific policies for dealing with incidents of breaches or attacks. So, during the process of penetration tests, such gaps in policies are highlighted and businesses are recommended to 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 security flaws and gaps in the web applications, penetration test reports will provide a detailed insight into the security posture of your web application. This further helps in the decision-making, especially in terms of prioritizing resources to immediately fix the gaps that require immediate attention. The report works as a guide for developers and programmers to fix the gaps that can result in hacks. This could be specifically in terms of building strong code, and secure web applications by placing an appropriate amount of resources.  

Now that we are aware of the importance of a web application penetration test, let us learn and understand the different web application vulnerabilities that one needs to defend against.

Web Application Vulnerability Types

Advancements in technology and the evolving threat landscape have resulted in the discovery of new types of vulnerabilities. The popular Open Web Application Security Project also known as OWASP is an open community of IT professionals who aims at highlighting vulnerabilities and making the web safer for users and other entities. Given below are some of the most common web application vulnerabilities listed in the OWASP Community.  

Injection

An injection is a security flaw that enables various types of attacks on an application. Malicious Actors stage an attack with injection flaws in applications leading to unintended actions that allow the attackers to access sensitive data. An injection attack is a way in which the attacker provides certain malicious inputs in the web application that results in alteration and execution of commands that further result in compromise of the data and web application service. Leveraging such flaws, attackers may delete, alter, damage data, or create a scenario of denial of services that can impact your business. 

Broken Authentication

Broken authentication is a vulnerability that facilitates attackers to exploit flaws in applications and stage an attack on the users. In this type of vulnerability, the hacker accesses information such as passwords and key that facilitates them to compromise user identity. By this we mean the hacker impersonates a legitimate user and gains unauthorized access to the systems, networks, and applications comprising sensitive data. Broken authentication is a classic example of inappropriate  

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Identity and access management controls and failure session management and credential management.

Sensitive Data Exposure

Any sensitive and important data that is meant to be protected especially against unauthorized access but gets exposed and is publically visible can be described as sensitive data exposure.  It is a kind of vulnerability wherein important data is exposed unknowing and may result in a high level of risk. Some of the most common sensitive data exposure include Lack of Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protocol that authenticates and encrypts data, Misconfigured cloud storage locations storing data in plaintext, Data transmitted in clear text, Outdated or weak encryption algorithms, Weak or default cryptography keys, etc. This vulnerability is very different from a data breach where the hacker steals information and the data is exposed. On the contrary, 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 breach in systems and applications. So, for ensuring maximum and high-level security, implementing effective IAM and PAM controls is essential. However, broken access controls on the contrary can hamper these efforts. Broken access control is a vulnerability that allows 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 leverage of this vulnerability to stage their attack and affect the operations of the business.

Security Misconfiguration

Security misconfiguration is a vulnerability wherein the security controls of the web applications are misconfigured or left with insecure patches. This is one of the most common vulnerabilities seen in most web applications. It is a vulnerability that often crops up in systems and applications due to failure in the process to change default passwords and security settings. This is again one of the most common security misconfigurations discovered in web applications. Security misconfiguration vulnerability includes using default passwords, lack of secure password policy, unpatched software, file misconfigurations, poor web application firewall policies, etc. 

Cross-Site Scripting

Cross-site scripting is a kind of attack wherein malicious scripts are injected into a trusted web application. The attack works by manipulating a vulnerable web application and executing malicious code into the user’s application and compromising the interaction with the application. So, typically when the malicious script is injected and the user opens the web page on their browser the malicious code downloads and executes in the browser. Thereafter the user gets redirected from a legitimate site to a malicious one. Cross-site scripting vulnerability allows an attacker 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) is a cybersecurity issue that occurs in a web application when a developer uses 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 unauthorized access and compromise of data. Although IDOR is not a direct security threat, yet it allows hackers to stage attacks and access unauthorized data.

Cross-Site Request Forgery

Cross-Site Reference Forgery also popularly known as XSRF, “Sea Surf,'' and Session Riding is an attack that tricks the victim into submitting their identity and privilege to perform unwanted activities. It is a type of attack that uses social engineering techniques that forces the user to perform undesired actions such as change of information, like username and password, in a web application.  There are numerous ways in which the user can be tricked to perform this forced and unwanted activity.  So, for instance, the attacker generates a malicious request that tricks the user to click the link sent via an email or chat.  This action leads the user to log into the web application and execute unwanted actions. This technique is known as the Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF). Here the attacker gets an opportunity to stage an attack where the user is forced to perform unwanted actions or unauthorized activities such as transferring of funds, unauthorized purchases, change of email address, etc. 

Failed Logging & Monitoring

Insufficient logging and monitoring is a vulnerability that occurs due to log failures. So typically speaking when the organization's log fails to capture necessary information such as Logs and Audit trails of the organization’s activity and events can result in a possible breach or attack. Event logs and audit trails give an insight into the organization’s activities. It generates reports on the happenings and activities in your systems, networks, and applications. Such information helps detect anomalies and incidents that could impact the security of the organization’s operations and infrastructure. Collecting the right event log data is essential to prevent and mitigate risks. Some of the most common vulnerabilities of failed logging and monitoring include failed logins, failed logs of error, failed logs of high-value transactions, failure to monitor applications and API logs for abnormal activity, and lack of real-time alerts, detection, escalation, and response. Such vulnerabilities can lead to high-level security risks and even incidents of a breach. 

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 and also by probing the web application. 

Active Reconnaissance

Active reconnaissance, means directly probing the target system to get an output. Here the attacker engages with the target system and conducts a port scan to find any vulnerabilities.

Passive Reconnaissance

Passive reconnaissance means collecting information that is readily available on the internet. This process does not require any direct engagement with the target system. It is mostly done by using public resources or using platforms like Google for collecting information. 

Scanning

This is the second step of a web application penetration test. Post the reconnaissance phase, the tester moves on to the next scanning phase. At this stage, the target application is tested to inspect the application and understand its performance on a real-time basis. The scanning phase involves specifically identifying open ports and discovering vulnerabilities in the application. The basic objective of conducting a web application scanning is to detect vulnerabilities and misconfigurations in web-based applications and in the platforms they run on.  

Gaining Access

After collecting all relevant information pertaining to the application, at this stage, the tester stages an attack on the application to uncover a target’s vulnerabilities. Thereafter the tester tries to exploit the identified vulnerabilities by escalating privileges, stealing data, and intercepting traffic. This is done to gauge the level of risk, damage, and impact that it can cause to the application and business. 

MaintainingAccess

The next stage after the attack is to maintain access and see if the vulnerability can be used for prolonged access and presence in the exploited application. This is to understand whether through this vulnerability the attacker can maintain access long enough to gain in-depth access to sensitive systems, networks, and information. This process typically imitates the advanced and persistent threat that an attacker stages to remain in the application for months to steal sensitive information. 

Report & Analysis

Report and Analysis is the final stage of a web application penetration test. Here the results of the penetration test are compiled into a report and provide details such as highlighting the specific vulnerabilities exploited, sensitive data that is exposed, amount of time the penetration tester maintained access and remained undetected. All the information collected from the test is then analyzed and security solutions to address these vulnerabilities are provided in the report. The Penetration Testing reports are informative and provide actionable guidance for closing the gaps. The report helps organizations patch vulnerabilities and secure their applications and data against detected and undetected threats. 

Testing Methods

Web application penetration tests are performed using different testing techniques or methods. 

Depending on the objective of performing the web application penetration test, the certain test helps achieve the objective of performing such assessment. Given below are the different types of Penetration testing methods explained for a better understanding. 

External Testing

An external penetration test involves targeting the assets of the company from external sources. By this, we mean assets visible on the internet including web applications, company websites, emails, domain name servers, etc.  The testing basically simulates an attack on an application through externally visible devices and applications and gaining unauthorized access to extract valuable data. So, in an external testing process, the common targets include Domain Name Server, Web application, Email Server, Website, Web Application Firewalls, etc are the external sources that the attackers exploit. 

Internal Testing

An internal penetration test involves targeting the assets of the company from internal sources. By this, we mean accessing applications by simulating an attack as a malicious insider. This need not necessarily mean simulating a rogue employee but staging simulating an attack by performing various social engineering tactics such as first staging a phishing attack and stealing the employee’s credentials. This test exposes the insider threat that the sensitive data is exposed to in the organization.  Such screening helps identify employees who are likely to respond to social engineering or phishing attacks. 

Blind Testing

In Blind testing, the tester simulates a real-life attack on applications but with information gained from the security team. Here the organization’s security team will know about the attack when and where it will occur and prepare for it accordingly. However, they will have limited information about the breach strategy and the tester’s technique of staging a breach. The blind testing technique highlights the effectiveness of the organization’s current cyber security program and also gives an insight into how an actual attack would take place.

Double-Blind Testing

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 the time to build their defenses for the attack. This testing technique helps examine the security monitoring systems, incident identification, alert systems, and response procedure of the organization. Such testing is important to identify the weakness in the application and process. 

Targeted Testing

Targeted testing is a scenario wherein both the tester and security team work together in the process of targeted testing on the application. Both the parties are aware of the activities and stages of testing performed during the test. This test works as an important training exercise that provides the security team with real-time feedback from a hacker’s perspective.

Key Takeaways

Penetration test exploits weaknesses or vulnerabilities in web applications. They further test and verify the effectiveness of security controls in place. This way it allows the organization to proactively identify weaknesses in the application before the real-world hacker gets an opportunity to exploit the identified vulnerabilities. So, as a security recommendation, we suggest organizations proactively run a web application penetration test to address potential vulnerabilities that could impact the application and prevent any security incidents. Depending on the goals of a penetration test, the testers can use a technique that can provide the organization with detailed insight into their security posture and defenses against various threats. Performing the web application penetration test is a great way to patch the security gaps and vulnerabilities that may otherwise go unnoticed.

Author Bio

Narendra Sahoo (PCI QSA, PCI QPA, CISSP, CISA, and CRISC) is the Founder and Director of VISTA InfoSec, a global Information Security Consulting firm, based in the US, Singapore & India. Mr. Sahoo holds more than 25 years of experience in the IT Industry, with expertise in Information Risk Consulting, Assessment, & Compliance services. VISTA InfoSec specializes in Information Security audit, consulting and certification services which include GDPR, HIPAA, CCPA, NESA, MAS-TRM, PCI DSS Compliance & Audit, PCI PIN, SOC2, PDPA, PDPB to name a few. The company has for years (since 2004) worked with organizations across the globe to address the Regulatory and Information Security challenges in their industry. VISTA InfoSec has been instrumental in helping top multinational companies achieve compliance and secure their IT infrastructure.