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Key Vulnerabilities in Applications and How to Secure Them

February 22, 2024
Written by
Vishnu Prasad K

We're more connected than ever, and because of that, the need for application security is also increasing. If you use a smartphone, laptop, or any device, then this concerns you. Surprisingly, a large number of apps we use daily have vulnerabilities – weak spots that hackers could potentially exploit. Did you know that there are 101 apps with trojan viruses on the Google Play Store? What's worse is - these apps have over 421 million downloads.

This blog is all about peeling back the layers of application vulnerabilities. These aren't just technical glitches; they're potential risks that could affect any of us. We're going to explore some of the most common types of vulnerabilities that have been making the rounds in the past few years. Think of SQL Injection, where a seemingly harmless input field on a website can turn into a hacker's playground, or Cross-Site Scripting (XSS), which can turn a trusted website into a launchpad for malicious scripts.

So, whether you're a security engineer, a developer, or just someone who loves using apps (and who doesn't?), this blog is for you. It's about understanding the threats and learning how we can protect ourselves in this digital age.

Table of Contents

App Vulnerability #1: Injection Flaws

App Vulnerability #2: Broken Authentication

App Vulnerability #3: Sensitive data exposure

App Vulnerability #4: XML External Entities (XXE)

App Vulnerability #5: Broken Access Control

App Vulnerability #6: Security Misconfiguration

App Vulnerability #7: Cross-Site Scripting (XSS)

App Vulnerability #8: Insecure Deserialization

App Vulnerability #9: Using Components with Known Vulnerabilities

App Vulnerability #10: Insufficient Logging and Monitoring

App Vulnerability #11: Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF)

App Vulnerability #12: API Security Vulnerabilities

Application security is an ongoing journey

App Vulnerability #1: Injection Flaws

Injection flaws stand as one of the most critical and prevalent security vulnerabilities in application development. They occur when an application sends untrusted data to an interpreter as part of a command or query. The attacker's hostile data can trick the interpreter into executing unintended commands or accessing unauthorized data. Injection flaws can exist in any part of an application that accepts input, and it can affect SQL databases, NoSQL databases, LDAP servers, or any other code that parses input data.

The Heartland Payment Systems hack in 2008 was one of the most significant data breaches in history that involved SQL Injection. 130 million credit and debit card numbers were compromised, which resulted in substantial financial losses, legal repercussions, and a damaged reputation.

Types of injection flaws

  1. SQL Injection happens when attackers manipulate SQL queries in database-driven applications, potentially accessing or altering data and database structures.
  2. Similar to SQL Injection but targeting NoSQL databases, NoSQL Injection is where attackers exploit vulnerabilities to manipulate or retrieve data.
  3. OS Command Injection occurs when attackers execute arbitrary commands on a system through a vulnerable application that can allow attackers to take control of the host operating system.
  4. Template Injection involves injecting malicious content into templates, which are then processed by the server or client-side template engines that can lead to remote code execution or other unintended actions.
  5. XSS (Cross-Site Scripting) is the injection of malicious scripts into web pages, which are then executed in the context of the user's browser, potentially leading to data theft, session hijacking, and other exploits.
  6. LDAP Injection exploits vulnerabilities in web applications that construct LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) statements based on user input that allow attackers to modify LDAP statements and potentially gain unauthorized access to information in the LDAP directory.
  7. Header Injection occurs when HTTP headers are manipulated through unvalidated user input that can lead to various attacks such as response splitting, cross-site scripting, and web cache poisoning.

How to prevent injection flaws?

  1. Implement rigorous validation and sanitization of all user inputs to prevent malicious data from being processed.
  2. Use prepared statements and parameterized queries in SQL databases to keep data separate from code to reduce the risk of injection.
  3. Employing Object Relational Mapping tools can help abstract database queries to make it harder for attackers to exploit vulnerabilities.
  4. Periodically reviewing code and conducting security audits can identify and address potential vulnerabilities.
  5. Training developers in secure coding practices and raising awareness about injection flaws is essential for prevention.

App Vulnerability #2: Broken Authentication

Broken authentication is when the authentication process in an application is flawed and allows attackers to compromise passwords, keys, or session tokens or to exploit other implementation flaws to assume other users' identities. Session Management, on the other hand, involves maintaining a user's state and data across multiple requests. Vulnerabilities in session management can lead to session hijacking, where an attacker takes over a user's session, gaining unauthorized access to their data and functionalities within the application.

In 2018, Marriott International, a popular hotel chain, suffered a massive data breach that exemplified how damaging the impact of broken authentication is. The breach affected Marriott's Starwood division, and it was partly due to vulnerabilities in their authentication process. Attackers exploited these weaknesses to gain unauthorized access to the reservation system and compromise the personal data of about 500 million guests. This information leak included sensitive information like names, contact details, passport numbers, and even credit card numbers in some cases. The incident not only resulted in substantial financial losses for Marriott but also raised significant concerns about data privacy and security in large organizations. 

Why does Broken Authentication happen?

  • Password strength policies that are inadequate and failure to protect them against brute force attacks
  • Unencrypted or poorly protected session cookies that can be easily intercepted or stolen
  • Failing to securely generate and validate session IDs that can lead to session fixation or hijacking
  • Not implementing additional layers of security, like two-factor authentication, which can significantly reduce the risk of unauthorized access

Best practices for secure authentication

  1. Enforce strong password requirements and implement account lockout mechanisms after a certain number of failed login attempts.
  2. Use secure, random session IDs and ensure that session cookies are protected with the HttpOnly and Secure flags.
  3. Implement MFA to add an extra layer of security beyond just username and password.
  4. Conduct regular security audits and reviews to identify and fix vulnerabilities related to authentication and session management.
  5. Educate users about the importance of secure practices, like using strong, unique passwords and being aware of phishing attacks.

App Vulnerability #3: Sensitive Data Exposure

Sensitive data exposure risks arise when an application fails to adequately secure sensitive information like personal data, financial details, or confidential business information. It can lead to a range of issues, from identity theft and financial fraud to significant reputational damage for the organization responsible for safeguarding this data.

Yahoo disclosed in 2016 that at least 500 million user accounts were affected by a breach in 2014. The exposed data included names, email addresses, telephone numbers, dates of birth, hashed passwords, and in some cases, encrypted or unencrypted security questions and answers. The impact of the breach was extensive, not only because of the sheer volume of affected users but also due to the sensitivity of the exposed data. It compromised the personal and security information of half a billion people, which led to potential identity theft and fraud risks. 

Types of data most at risk

  1. Personally Identifiable Information (PII): This includes names, addresses, social security numbers, and any data that can be used to identify an individual.
  2. Financial Information: Credit card numbers, bank account details, and transaction histories are prime targets for cybercriminals.
  3. Health Records: Medical histories and health insurance information are highly sensitive and subject to stringent regulatory protections.
  4. Corporate Information: Trade secrets, intellectual property, and internal communications can be exploited for corporate espionage or public exposure.

Encryption and other protection mechanisms

  1. Encrypting data both at rest and in transit is fundamental. Using strong encryption standards and regularly updating encryption keys are crucial practices.
  2. Implementing strict access controls ensures that only authorized individuals can access sensitive data.
  3. Masking data in non-production environments can prevent exposure during testing and development.
  4. Regularly auditing data access logs and monitoring for unusual access patterns can help in early detection of data breaches.
  5. Adhering to data protection regulations like GDPR, HIPAA, etc., is essential for legal compliance and maintaining user trust.

App Vulnerability #4: XML External Entities (XXE)

XML External Entities (XXE) attacks are a type of security vulnerability that targets applications parsing XML input. They occur when an application processes XML input that includes a reference to an external entity, which can lead to unintended consequences.

The SolarWinds cyber attack in 2020 involved the exploitation of vulnerabilities within the SolarWinds Orion software that affected numerous government agencies and large corporations. Part of this attack included the exploitation of an XXE vulnerability, which allowed attackers to interfere with the processing of XML data within the software. Manipulating XML inputs, the attackers were able to insert malicious code and compromise the integrity of the software's operations. This breach not only highlighted the severity of XXE attacks but also underscored the importance of securing software against such vulnerabilities.

How XXE vulnerabilities occur in applications

  1. Improperly configured XML parsers. When an XML parser is configured to process external entities without proper validation, it becomes vulnerable to XXE attacks.
  2. Handling untrusted XML data: Applications that accept and process XML data from untrusted sources without adequate security checks are at risk.
  3. Exploiting DOCTYPE Declarations: Attackers can exploit DOCTYPE declarations in XML documents to execute malicious code or access unauthorized data.

How to mitigate XXE vulnerabilities

  1. One of the most effective ways to prevent XXE attacks is to configure the XML parser to disable the use of external entities and Document Type Definitions (DTDs).
  2. Implement strong input validation checks for all XML data received from untrusted sources.
  3. Where possible, consider using less complex data formats like JSON, which are less susceptible to XXE attacks.
  4. Conduct regular security audits of your application to identify and fix potential vulnerabilities related to XML parsing.
  5. Ensure that all software components, especially those related to XML processing, are kept up-to-date with the latest security patches.

App Vulnerability #5: Broken Access Control

Broken access control vulnerabilities occur when an application fails to properly enforce restrictions on what authenticated users are allowed to do. Essentially, this flaw happens when users can perform actions or access data that they are not supposed to. This can include viewing sensitive files, modifying other users' data, or accessing administrative functions. Broken access control stems from inadequate enforcement of access control rules by the application that lets users bypass these rules and exploit the system's functionalities beyond their intended permissions.

In the United States Postal Service (USPS) data breach in 2018, a vulnerability in the USPS website exposed the personal data of over 60 million users. The flaw was in the API of the USPS "Informed Visibility" service, which was designed to provide businesses with real-time tracking data. However, due to broken access control, any authenticated user on the USPS website could access not only their own account details but also the data of other users, including email addresses, usernames, user IDs, account numbers, street addresses, phone numbers, and mailing campaign data. This breach was a result of inadequate access control measures that highlight the importance of robust access control systems in protecting sensitive user data.

Tips for Robust Access Control Systems:

  1. Ensure users have the minimum level of access necessary to perform their tasks.
  2. Regularly review and update access controls to ensure they align with current user roles and responsibilities.
  3. Implement strong authentication, including multi-factor authentication, to verify user identities.
  4. Use ACLs to define who can access what resources in your application.
  5. Monitor and log access control events to detect and respond to unauthorized access attempts promptly.
  6. Make sure that every team member has access only to the resources and information necessary for their roles.
  7. Implement RBAC to assign system access to users based on their role within the organization.

App Vulnerability #6: Security Misconfiguration

Security misconfiguration is a common vulnerability that occurs when an application or server is not securely configured, often leading to unnecessary security risks. It can happen at any level of an application stack, including network services, platforms, web servers, database servers, frameworks, custom code, and pre-installed virtual machines, containers, or storage. Misconfigurations can result from using default configurations or incomplete configurations, open cloud storage, unnecessary services running, and verbose error messages containing sensitive information.

The Equifax data breach in 2017 is one of the largest in history, and it was primarily due to a security misconfiguration in the company's web application framework, Apache Struts. Equifax failed to properly update their software, which leaves a known vulnerability unpatched. This oversight allowed attackers to exploit the vulnerability and gain access to the company's systems. As a result, the personal information of approximately 147 million consumers, including names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses, and in some cases, driver's license numbers, was compromised. Additionally, credit card numbers for approximately 209,000 U.S. consumers were also accessed.

Examples of common misconfigurations

  1. Default credentials. Leaving default usernames and passwords unchanged.
  2. Unnecessary features enabled. Having features, services, or pages enabled that are not needed for the application's functionality.
  3. Verbose error messages. Displaying error messages that provide too much information, which can be exploited for attacks.
  4. Open cloud storage. Misconfigured cloud storage that allows unauthorized access to data.
  5. Outdated software. Running outdated or unpatched software that contains known vulnerabilities.
  6. Open cloud storage. Misconfigured cloud storage, like an S3 bucket with a weak policy, that permits unauthorized access to data.
  7. Insecure ACLs. Access Control Lists (ACLs) that are too permissive could let anyone read or write objects and lead to unauthorized data access or modification.

Guidelines for secure configuration

  1. Conduct regular audits of your configurations across the entire application stack.
  2. Apply the principle of least privilege to all systems and services.
  3. Turn off any services or features that are not required for the application's purpose.
  4. Always change default settings and passwords and use secure defaults.
  5. Keep all software and dependencies up to date with the latest security patches.
  6. Ensure that error messages give away minimal information that might be useful for an attacker.

App Vulnerability #7: Cross-Site Scripting (XSS)

Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) is a web security vulnerability that allows attackers to inject malicious scripts into web pages viewed by other users. It happens when an application includes untrusted data on a web page without proper validation or escaping that enables attackers to execute scripts in the victim's browser context. These scripts can access any cookies, session tokens, or other sensitive information retained by the browser and used with that site. XSS attacks can also deface websites or redirect users to malicious sites, making them a significant threat to web application security.

The vulnerability works by exploiting the trust a user has for a particular site. Since the malicious script comes from what seems to be a trusted source, the victim's browser executes the script. The attacker can use this vulnerability to bypass access controls such as the same-origin policy, which is designed to segregate different websites from each other within the browser.

Different types of XSS vulnerabilities

  1. Stored XSS: This is when malicious scripts are stored on a target server, such as in a database, message forum, visitor log, or comment field. When other users access the stored data, the malicious script executes in their browser.
  2. Reflected XSS: In this case, the malicious script comes from the current HTTP request. It is when a user is tricked into clicking a link to submit a form or navigate to a malicious website that causes the attacker's payload to be sent to the vulnerable website, which then reflects it back to the user's browser.
  3. DOM-based XSS: This type happens when the vulnerability exists in the client-side code rather than the server-side code. It happens when the web application's client-side scripts write data provided by the user to the Document Object Model (DOM) without proper sanitization.

Prevention and mitigation strategies against XXS vulnerabilities

  1. Make sure that all user input is sanitized before being rendered on the page to prevent malicious scripts from being executed.
  2. Enforce a strong CSP to reduce the severity of any XSS vulnerabilities that do occur.
  3. Modern web frameworks like React and Angular automatically escape XSS because of their secure design.
  4. Validate and sanitize all user inputs to ensure they conform to expected values.
  5. Escape user data before output, regardless of whether it is stored or reflected.
  6. Conduct regular security audits and code reviews to identify and fix potential XSS vulnerabilities.
  7. Strong cookie directives such as httpOnly can significantly reduce the impact of an XSS attack by preventing access to cookie data via client-side scripts.

App Vulnerability #8: Insecure Deserialization

Insecure deserialization is a vulnerability that arises when an application deserializes data from untrusted sources without adequate precautions. Deserialization is the process of converting data structured from some format (like JSON, XML, or binary formats) into an object in a programming language. When this process is not securely managed, it can lead to serious security issues.

Potential impacts of insecure deserialization

  1. Attackers can exploit insecure deserialization to execute arbitrary code within the application's context.
  2. By feeding corrupt or malicious serialized objects to the application, attackers can crash the system, which leads to a denial of service.
  3. Insecure deserialization can allow attackers to tamper with serialized data that may alter application logic or data integrity.
  4. Attackers can manipulate serialized objects to escalate their privileges within the application.

Best practices for secure serialization and deserialization

  1. The most effective way to prevent insecure deserialization vulnerabilities is to avoid deserializing objects from sources you do not trust.
  2. Validate all data before deserialization to ensure it has not been tampered with.
  3. If you must serialize objects, use safe serialization libraries and techniques that minimize risks.
  4. Implement robust logging and monitoring to detect and respond to deserialization attacks quickly.
  5. Conduct regular security audits of your codebase to identify and remediate insecure deserialization vulnerabilities.

App Vulnerability #9: Using Components with Known Vulnerabilities

Using components with known vulnerabilities refers to the risk associated with incorporating third-party components, such as libraries or frameworks, into an application without addressing known security flaws within these components. This arises when outdated or unpatched software components are used, which may contain security holes that have been publicly disclosed and can be exploited by attackers. The risk is aggravated by the fact that these vulnerabilities are often well-documented and easily accessible to attackers, which makes applications that use such components prime targets for exploitation.

Risks of using outdated or vulnerable components

  1. Increased attack surface. Each unpatched component can provide an entry point for attackers.
  2. Data breaches. Exploiting these vulnerabilities can lead to unauthorized access and data breaches.
  3. Legal and compliance risks. Using vulnerable components can result in non-compliance with security standards and regulations.

Strategies for keeping components updated

  1. Keep all components up to date with the latest security patches.
  2. Use tools to manage and track dependencies to ensure you are aware of any vulnerabilities.
  3. Enforce automated testing to detect vulnerabilities in dependencies.

Tools for vulnerability scanning

  1. OWASP Dependency-Check: An open-source tool that identifies project dependencies and checks if there are any known vulnerabilities.
  2. Snyk: A tool that helps to find and fix vulnerabilities in dependencies.
  3. Black Duck: Provides automated solutions for securing and managing open source software.

App Vulnerability #10: Insufficient Logging and Monitoring

Insufficient logging and monitoring in application security is the failure to adequately track and record actions within an application, which can prevent or delay the detection of malicious activities or policy violations. It happens when an application does not generate enough logs, especially concerning events that could indicate a security incident, or when the monitoring systems are not strong enough to alert the team in real time about potential breaches. Without sufficient logging and monitoring, attacks such as data breaches, system intrusions, and ongoing malicious activities can go unnoticed for extended periods, which can increase the damage caused by such incidents.

In the Target data breach in 2013, attackers stole credit and debit card information from 40 million Target customers. It happened through a third-party HVAC vendor, which attackers used to gain access to Target's network. Despite having a security system that detected the breach, the lack of effective logging and monitoring meant that the alerts were not adequately followed up. The breach went unnoticed for weeks, which gave the attackers time to collect data and compromise millions of accounts.

Consequences of insufficient logging

  1. Lack of adequate logging can lead to significant delays in detecting security breaches.
  2. Insufficient logs make it difficult to trace the source or method of an attack.
  3. Failure to meet legal and regulatory requirements for data protection and incident reporting.

Recommendations for effective logging and monitoring

  1. Implement a comprehensive logging strategy that includes all critical system and user activities.
  2. Use tools that provide real-time monitoring and alerting for suspicious activities.
  3. Regularly audit logs to identify potential security threats or policy violations.
  4. Ensure that logs are securely stored, protected from tampering, and regularly backed up.
  5. Integrate logging and monitoring systems with incident response plans for quick action on detected threats.

App Vulnerability #11: Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF)

Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF) is a web security vulnerability that lets an attacker induce users to perform actions that they do not intend to on a web application in which they are authenticated. In a CSRF attack, the attacker exploits the trust that a web application has in a user's browser. It's when a malicious website, email, or program causes a user's web browser to perform an unwanted action on a trusted site for which the user is currently authenticated. The attacker tricks the victim into making a request (like transferring funds or changing an email address) that uses the user's authentication credentials without their knowledge, essentially performing actions on behalf of the user.

Examples of CSRF attacks

  1. Changing account details: An attacker could create a malicious website or email that, when visited by the user, automatically submits a form to change the user's email address on a particular service.
  2. Unauthorized transactions: A CSRF attack could be used to submit a transaction on a banking website where the user is logged in, transferring money without the user's consent.

Countermeasures and prevention techniques

  1. Using a unique Anti-CSRF token that is checked on the server side to prevent CSRF attacks.
  2. Setting cookies with the 'SameSite' attribute to help prevent cookies from being sent in cross-site requests.
  3. Validating the HTTP referer header to ensure that requests are coming from trusted sources.
  4. Using custom request headers that are not automatically included by the browser in cross-site requests.
  5. Requiring user interaction, such as re-entering a password or CAPTCHA, for sensitive actions can mitigate CSRF attacks.

App Vulnerability #12: API Security Vulnerabilities

API (Application Programming Interface) security vulnerabilities occur when the interfaces that allow software applications to communicate with each other are not adequately protected. This can lead to a range of security issues, as APIs often expose business logic and sensitive data. The growing reliance on APIs in modern software development, especially with the rise of cloud services and microservices architectures, has made API security increasingly important. Vulnerabilities in APIs can lead to unauthorized access, data breaches, and service disruptions.

Common API vulnerabilities

  1. Broken Object Level Authorization: This is when API endpoints do not properly verify if a user is authorized to access specific resources that can lead to unauthorized information disclosure or modification.
  2. Broken User Authentication: Insecure implementation of authentication mechanisms in APIs can allow attackers to assume the identity of legitimate users.
  3. Improper Asset Management: Poorly managed APIs, especially in large environments with many microservices, can lead to undocumented or outdated APIs being exposed to attackers.
  4. Lack of Rate Limiting: Without rate limiting, APIs are vulnerable to brute force attacks and Denial of Service (DoS) attacks.
  5. Exposure of Sensitive Data: APIs that expose sensitive data without proper security controls can lead to data breaches.

Best Practices for Securing APIs

  1. Use robust mechanisms like OAuth, OpenID Connect, and JWT (JSON Web Tokens) for securing access to APIs.
  2. Conduct regular security audits and penetration testing to identify and fix vulnerabilities.
  3. Employ API gateways for managing, monitoring, and securing API traffic.
  4. Use HTTPS to encrypt data in transit and ensure sensitive data is adequately protected.
  5. Enforce rate limiting to prevent abuse and mitigate brute force attacks.
  6. Maintain an up-to-date inventory of all APIs and make sure that documentation includes security policies and access controls.

Application security is an ongoing journey

2,220 cyber attacks everyday, that's one every 39 seconds. In a world where data breaches are the norm, security has become a collective responsibility. 

Application security is not a one-time task but an ongoing process. It involves staying informed about the latest threats, continuously updating and testing systems, and fostering a culture of security awareness within organizations. Tools and technologies play a crucial role, but they must be complemented by proactive policies, regular audits, and a commitment to best practices.

AppSecEngineer offers a comprehensive suite of training programs specifically designed for businesses and enterprises looking to enhance their application security skills. Our platform provides a hands-on, full-stack security training environment, focusing on a variety of crucial areas such as Cloud Security, Kubernetes, DevSecOps, and more. Our training programs represent a valuable resource for businesses seeking to enhance their application security posture, combining expert knowledge with practical, real-world application.

The responsibility to fortify these applications against threats lies with everyone involved in the application lifecycle – from developers and security professionals to end-users – to contribute to a safer digital ecosystem.

Source for article
Vishnu Prasad K

Vishnu Prasad K

Vishnu Prasad is a DevSecOps Lead at we45. A DevSecOps and Security Automation wizard, he has implemented security in DevOps for numerous Fortune 500 companies. Vishnu has experience in Continuous Integration and Continuous Delivery across various verticals, using tools like Jenkins, Selenium, Docker, and other DevOps tools. His role sees him automating SAST, DAST, and SCA security tools at every phase of the build pipeline. He commands knowledge of every major security tool out there, including ZAP, Burp, Findsecbugs, and npm audit, among many others. He's a tireless innovator, having Dockerized his entire security automation process for cross-platform support to build pipelines seamlessly. When AFK, he is either pouring over Investment journals or in the swimming pool.

Vishnu Prasad K


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