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What is Modern App Sec?

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the fundamentals of modern app sec
  • Explore what modern app sec can do for your software
  • Learn the advantages of having an app sec team

Threat actors constantly look for software vulnerabilities, and modern application security (App Sec) aims to find these vulnerabilities before deployment to production to reduce risk and the possibility of a critical data breach. After code is deployed to production, modern app sec continues to monitor it for bugs and potential exploits. The process is generally done by a specific security team on staff, but much of the monitoring and scanning for vulnerabilities can be performed with automation scripts. Your security team will help set up these scripts and instruct developers and administrators on best practices.

What does an app sec team do?

Modern app sec teams automate much of the scanning used to find vulnerabilities. You could have an internal team perform security scans, or you can hire outside consultants to put security automation in place. Scanning should be done prior to software being deployed to production, but even scans miss issues. For example, a good third-party scanner should find outdated software and libraries and alert administrators and developers that vulnerable libraries are used in a web application, but it might not find logic bugs that introduce vulnerabilities. 

Automation can find many common vulnerabilities, but a pentester is occasionally necessary. Penetration testers can be used to test the application so that common security issues can be addressed early in the development lifecycle. For example, scanning automation will find common vulnerabilities, but a human reviewer can find problems that would allow an attacker to deliver a cross-site-scripting (XSS) payload.

Consultants and security personnel help educate developers on common vulnerabilities, which will result in more secure coding practices. When coding software, a security approach to engineering will help eliminate many of the common issues seen in the wild. Modern app sec teams can educate developers and help them think like hackers as they develop their code. The result is more secure applications for the organization, fewer data breaches, and the ability to detect attacks before they become critical data breaches.

Modern application security and a team of people who carry out best practices have several purposes aside from ensuring that your software and data are safeguarded. It also deals with:

  • Incident response: should an attacker exploit a vulnerability, application security best practices define the processes used after a breach from mitigating damage and remediating the issue to collecting evidence for an investigation.
  • Guidance: a security team will help guide administrators, developers, and stakeholders on the best ways to defend network resources.
  • Compliance: any organization that must follow regulatory standards can benefit from a team that understands compliance and the right tools to monitor and secure infrastructure that keeps your organization compliant.

What are some types of application security?

The type of application security necessary for your organization depends on the type of software, where it runs, how it runs (e.g., web application versus a server service), the risks associated with the application, and the infrastructure used to host it. You could have other factors involved in developing an application security plan, but these few questions will be considered during the planning stage of most software.

Some types of application security cover:

  • Authentication: developers might code custom procedures that handle authentication, or they could use a third party. Security reviews will test authentication for vulnerabilities, and modern application security will add multi-factor authentication (MFA) for better defenses from phishing and stolen credentials.
  • Authorization: authorization rules within the application control the resources accessible by authenticated users. Attackers will attempt to bypass authorization rules and elevate privileges. Modern application security will use controls and scans to ensure that users can only access files and data based on defined authorization rules and cannot elevate their privileges using various exploits.
  • Data encryption: compliance and best practices require certain information to be encrypted. Should the server be compromised, encrypted data would be unreadable and unusable. Social security numbers, passwords, credit card and bank account numbers, and other sensitive data should always be encrypted at-rest and in-motion. A security scan and manual review of files and database tables tells you if any data violates compliance rules and could be breached.
  • Logging and monitoring: your applications should always be monitored for potential ongoing attacks or suspicious activity. The observability that monitoring and logging offers tells administrators when the application has been compromised so that they can mitigate the issue.
  • Testing: testing code is standard in a development environment, but testing for security vulnerabilities is not. Good modern app security will include scanning for vulnerabilities and configuration issues during the testing phase of the development lifecycle.

Modern application security covers most of the common software you could have in an environment, which is more than just web services. You need application security for server software (e.g., services that run in the background), mobile device applications, IoT, cloud resources (e.g., containers), and the security controls themselves. Protecting your organization resources is a continuous battle that expands as you add more resources to your environment. 

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