Knowledge Base

Application Software Security

Also called ‘apps’ for brevity, ‘application software’ is a program or a cluster of programs comprising of code that allows end users to perform a certain task. Word processors, spread sheets, browsers and database programs are a few examples of the most popular application software used today. Hierarchically, application software sits on top of the system software, and is dependent on the operating system, system utilities and compilers for running properly.

There are two popular ways in which an application software can be used. It can reside on a single machine, and be accessed by an individual to accomplish a particular task. This type of application is called a client side software application. Before the internet became popular, all applications were mostly client side. The phenomenal rise of internet gave rise to a new kind of software application called as the web application. As the name suggests, a web application is deployed over the internet using a server, and can be accessed by end users using the internet. Web applications became popular as internet connectivity became dependable, since they allowed many individuals located in different regions of the world, to access it at the same time. Web applications also made collaboration easier. As an example, an India based exporter could login to the web application of his principal to understand how much goods they were expected to produce, whether any goods were rejected because of quality issues, and other such details. One most excellent example of web based application software is the ubiquitous e-mail. Indeed, e-mail is now omnipresent, and businesses, especially international, just cannot live without e-mails as they are the mainstay of all communication. Other popular web applications include e-commerce sites, social media sites, online banking, etc.

As the popularity of such sites increased – especially those involving payments – cyber security became an increasing concern. Hacking refers to activities that seek to compromise digital devices, such as computers, smart phones and even entire networks. Of course, not all hackers are cyber criminals; some of them genuinely try to find out any coding loopholes before the cyber criminals do. The ethical ones are mostly appointed by companies to find vulnerabilities in their application. But by and large, hacking remains a safety hazard.  

History of Hackers
Most people associate hacking with the internet. But hackers have been in existence even before internet became popular. History shows that there was evidence of Morse code (used for telecommunications in the early 1900’s) being tampered. However, these were sporadic incidences. Hackers came to fore when web based applications grew in popularity and allowed economic transactions. Data pilfering for monetary gains is the most common form of hacking today. When it was first introduced, the World Wide Web was considered as a faster and better way to share data and boost communication. Security was not the primary concern then; efficient data sharing was. The World Wide Web does not have any strict protocols for data sharing. Plus, there are different vendors that have designed different programs using different platforms. Many a times, software applications developed by different vendors need to talk with each other in order to complete a task. All this has given rise to vulnerabilities that the hackers try to exploit.Web applications via browsers are more prone to hacking than through desktop software and operating systems. As more and more people turn to internet for everything ranging from banking, bill payments to purchasing products and services, the opportunities of hacking increase. More so post the COVID 19 pandemic, as people prefer online instead of the traditional way of conducting business.

Types of Vulnerabilities
Each application is different and bring with them unique and significant security threats. A security vulnerability is a coding weakness, flaw, or error that can be exploited by hackers or threat agents in order to compromise an application software. While there are numerous vulnerabilities that can be exploited while hacking, a few of the major web software application vulnerabilities include:

SQL Injection: As one of the most prevalent security vulnerabilities, SQL injections attempt to gain access to database content via malicious code injection. A successful SQL injection can allow attackers to steal sensitive data, spoof identities, and participate in a collection of other harmful activities.. A skilled hacker can even compromise the underlying server or other back-end infrastructure, or perform a denial-of-service attack.

Broken Authentication: When authentication credentials are compromised, user sessions and identities can be hijacked by malicious hackers and put to misuse. Simple to guess user names and passwords are the most common cause for authentication compromise.

Security Misconfiguration: Any component of a security system that can be leveraged by attackers due to a configuration error is called a security misconfiguration. It encompasses several types of flaws that can originate at any level of an application stack, including OS, network, application server, database, framework, or the application code itself.

Phishing attacks, denial of service attacks and Trojan malware campaigns are some of the other common security threats.

Why do these vulnerabilities arise? Most applications are developed in-house by developers who can have limited understanding of security concerns. Typical application developers are coders who are keen on accomplishing the objective of the software and securitycan take a backseat. To deliver their core functionality, web applications normally require connectivity to internal computer systems that contain highly sensitive and are able to perform powerful business functions. If security concerns are not addressed properly, it can lead to vulnerabilities in the future. And of course, even after taking utmost precautions, the hackers usually find a way to breach the application software. Hacking can result in a monetary loss, sensitive data compromise, and loss of face for the affected company. Every year, e-mail frauds, server security breaches and other cyber crimes cost millions of rupees. And these are reported crimes. If you consider the cyber crimes that are not reported, the figure goes up.  

Tools for Application Security
We have seen how software vulnerabilities can be exploited while hacking, and how it results in loss of revenue and credibility. Despite taking the best possible precautions, most of application software is vulnerable. Application software vulnerability can stem from many sources; from application layer to the deployment layer. To reduce overheads, application software development companies use some open source code. While this cuts development cost, it is necessary to screen the code for vulnerabilities or bugs before integrating it with your code.

Remember the adage ‘prevention is better than cure’? It is true of app development as well. The time and cost involved in remediating unsecure code is more after the damage is done. Powerful tools, like those from Synopsys help developers secure code at the program level itself.

There are various types of application security tools available today:

Static application security testing (SAST): these tools scan source code to find known patterns of weaknesses that lead to vulnerabilities. These are very popular for their utility and robustness.

Interactive application security testing (IAST): they work inside the application, and are designed to catch attacks that the other approaches cannot by running an agent that collects event data from running applications. They are best used in combination with other app security tools

Dynamic application security testing (DAST): they run against compiled, or production, code to test for known vulnerabilities in the runtime environment. They are useful in locating various types of vulnerabilities in running applications. Seeker from Synopsis is an example of such a tool.

Run time application self-protection (RASP):  When an application begins to run, RASP can protect it from malicious input or behaviour by analyzing both the app's behaviour and the context of that behaviour. RASP software sits in or near your application while it’s running to monitor and analyze its traffic and behaviour.

Software composition analysis (SCA): essentially an open source component management tool, it generates a report listing all open source components in a given product – including direct and indirect dependencies.

To summarize, as incidences of hacking grow, security threat is becoming a major concern.  Using proven software security tools from a reputed company like Synopsys is a step in the right direction to prevent data theft and to secure applications.