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What is application security, and why is it important?

Application security (AppSec) is the process of securing applications against external threats by finding and fixing security vulnerabilities. AppSec includes hardware, software, and software security procedures (e.g., application security testing) businesses use to identify and tackle flaws in the system. Learn more about AppSec and why it’s crucial for organizations.

What is application security, and why is it important?

Types of application security

Here are the three main application types companies need to secure.

Web application security

Companies use web applications all the time. Web applications are software that runs on a web server and can be accessed over the internet. These applications are often critically important for the business and contain sensitive user data, making them a valuable target for cybercriminals.

Typically, web applications accept client connections over insecure networks, exposing them to various vulnerabilities. While the internet has addressed some web application vulnerabilities (by introducing HTTPS, for example), many remain. We’ll cover these security risks in more detail below.

API security

API security is critically important for organizations. API security vulnerabilities can cause (and have caused in the past) the most significant data breaches in organizations. Common API security weaknesses are unwanted exposure of data and weak authentication.

Cloud-native application security

Companies also need to secure their cloud-based platforms, applications, and infrastructure. Cloud-native application security is built-in from the software development process to the production environment, granting applications multiple layers of security.

How does application security work?

Application security measures are typically built into the software development lifecycle. The application security tools and actions aim to make it harder for cybercriminals to exploit vulnerabilities to gain unauthorized access to web applications, including systems and sensitive data.

If an organization takes application security seriously, it should prevent attackers from accessing, altering, or deleting proprietary or sensitive application data.

An organization’s actions to ensure application security are called security controls or countermeasures. According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a countermeasure is a safeguard “for an information system or an organization designed to protect the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of its information and to meet a set of defined security requirements.”

For example, the organization may add specific application security controls to minimize the security risks of web application vulnerabilities at the coding level. Or it may use application firewalls to determine file execution and data handling.

Why is application security important?

Application security plays a vital role in protecting critical data, customers, and businesses – and preventing successful cyberattacks on the application.

Cybersecurity statistics show that hackers always look for opportunities to attack, and applications are no exception. Application security can help reveal weaknesses and prevent those attacks at an application level.

Let’s look at the importance of application security in more detail.

  • Application security takes a proactive approach that focuses on attack prevention. While reactive measures matter too, by being proactive, organizations are more likely to prevent damage from being done.
  • Today’s applications are typically connected to the cloud and are available over various networks, creating more security vulnerabilities. These weak spots make attacks against the assets stored in the cloud (e.g., sensitive data, application code, and operations) more likely. Application security helps decrease the likelihood and impact of such attacks.
  • Identifying and fixing security vulnerabilities decreases the risk of an attack and helps reduce an organization’s attack surface – or the number of methods a hacker can use to break into a company’s network.
  • App vulnerabilities are common. Hackers may find ways to use and combine even the non-critical vulnerabilities to launch an attack on a system or app. Application security helps reduce the number of vulnerabilities, lower the impact of attacks, and prevent attackers from escalating privileges within applications.

Common application security weaknesses and threats

Various organizations track application security weaknesses over time to better understand application security trends and make it easier for security teams globally. Tracking common vulnerabilities allows them to stay informed about the threats and monitor how they may be evolving.

One such organization is the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP), a globally recognized non-profit foundation that guides the creation, purchase, and maintenance of secure software applications.

According to OWASP, here are the 10 most critical application vulnerabilities:

  • Broken access control is when an unauthorized user gains access to restricted resources. Cybercriminals can bypass standard security procedures and access systems or sensitive information.
  • Cryptographic failures expose sensitive app data (e.g., passwords, email addresses, or credit card information) on a weak or non-existent cryptographic algorithm.
  • Injection allows external attackers to pass on malicious code through an app to another system, potentially compromising backend systems and clients connected to the vulnerable application.
  • Insecure design is the lack of security controls in the design phase and the failure to anticipate security threats in the code design phase. Examples of insecure design include unprotected credential storage, trust boundary violations (e.g., accepting HTTP requests), or improper separation of entities with varying rights, privileges, and permissions.
  • Security misconfiguration could make an app component vulnerable to an attack. An example of this vulnerability could be software with a known list of standard configuration files that a cybercriminal could access and exploit.
  • Vulnerable and outdated components could also lead to software weaknesses. This flaw may appear when software developers use unsupported or out-of-date software, forget to fix underlying issues, or don’t regularly scan for vulnerabilities. Developers may also code the application using AI-based tools, bringing additional risks. For example, the security of GitHub Copilot and similar tools needs to be taken into account before they are used for development.
  • Identification and authentication failures could lead to significant software vulnerabilities. An example is a system permitting automated attacks (e.g., credential stuffing), brute-force attacks, or weak default passwords like “Password1” or “admin.”
  • Software and data integrity failures. If the code and infrastructure don’t protect against integrity violations, it may lead to unauthorized access, system compromise, or malicious code. For example, an application may rely on libraries, plugins, or modules from untrusted sources.
  • Security logging and monitoring failures may lead to missing security threats. Keeping logs includes tracking auditable events (e.g., failed logins), warnings, and errors that generate inadequate or unclear log messages. When organizations don’t log these events, detecting and preventing breaches becomes difficult. Unmonitored networks also make it easy for hackers to employ various tools for DDoS attacks and remain undetected.
  • Server-side request forgery vulnerabilities occur when a web application fetches a remote resource without validating the user-supplied URL. The attacker can use this vulnerability to make the app send a custom request to a malicious or unexpected destination.

Top 3 ways companies can improve application security

Keeping applications secure for organizations. Here are the top three ways to ensure their applications are as safe as they can be:

1. Follow the OWASP top ten

The OWASP list of vulnerabilities is crucial because it contains the most important known application security flaws in one place. Created by security experts worldwide, the list is accessible to companies globally. Organizations should use it to implement application security testing that security and development teams can use to improve their web application security.

Companies must be aware of these critical vulnerabilities in all stages of the application lifecycle and take the necessary security measures to prevent these flaws in their platforms.

2. Conduct an application security audit

Even the most security-minded teams can sometimes miss a flaw due to preconceived filters and biases. Getting an independent auditor to review the app and identify overlooked weaknesses could be invaluable for an organization and its customers. An audit helps security teams discover vulnerabilities and conduct threat assessments using specialized tools.

NordVPN has been audited by world-class specialists several times to ensure that the app is secure for its users. As expected, the experts didn’t find any critical vulnerabilities. It is also a good idea to automate application security testing to identify vulnerabilities regularly and make the audit process more manageable.

3. Use real-time monitoring, and protection

Real-time monitoring can help identify security issues quickly and effectively and is one application security best practice.

Use web application firewalls (WAFs) to protect your application. A web application firewall is an excellent cybersecurity tool for filtering and monitoring incoming and outgoing traffic.

Application firewalls protect web apps from attacks like SQL injection, cookie poisoning, and cross-site scripting.

Boost your cybersecurity with NordVPN

It is the responsibility of app creators to ensure the apps you use are safe and secure. However, you can take your overall cybersecurity into your own hands – and increase your online privacy and protection by using a VPN.

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