Security Risk Assessment in Web Application Security

By | December 20, 2005

Even though the Intranet server has greater vulnerability, the value of the asset creates a lower relative risk value than the e-commerce server. Performing an overall security risk assessment this way allows organizations to make wise decisions when it comes time to deploy scarce resources to optimize the protection of their assets. Security risk management is a process of managing an organization’s exposure to the threats to its assets and operating capabilities. The goals of the security risk management process are to provide the optimal level of protection to the organization within the constraints of budget, law, ethics, and safety.

How Web Applications and Web Servers Create Risk

One of the most critical sources of risk to organizations today resides within their Web servers. This is because Web servers and applications open systems and information to be accessed by suppliers, partners, and customers. Performing a security risk assessment and implementing adequate security risk management policies in this area can be critical. Compromised Web servers can damage organizations in many ways, from surrendering customer privacy data and accepting fraudulent transactions to indirectly damaging corporate prestige as the result of a defaced homepage. While it may seem that a myriad of bad things can happen as the result of a million different vulnerabilities, we can succinctly categorize the core “points of pain” to be addressed in your Web security risk management plan in a few primary areas:

Default configuration. Web servers often are installed with default configurations that may not be secure. These insecurities include unnecessary samples and templates, administrative tools, and predictable locations of utilities used to manage servers. Without appropriate security risk management, this can lead to several types of attacks that allow hackers to gain complete control over the Web server.

User input validation. Web sites and applications need to be interactive in order to be useful. However, Web applications that do not perform sufficient validation of user input screens allow hackers to directly attack the Web server and its sensitive databases. Invalid input leads to many of the most popular attacks. A thorough security risk assessment on your organization’s internal and external Web applications can reveal what, if any, actions need to be taken.

Encryption. It is a sad fact that although modern encryption algorithms are virtually unbreakable, they are underutilized. In years past, performance considerations were cited as a factor in limited usage of encryption. However, today’s high-performing CPUs and specialized cryptographic accelerators have broken down the price/performance barriers related to encryption. The issue with limited encryption has more to do with poor application design and a lack of awareness among developers. Nearly all Web traffic passes in the clear, and can be snooped by an alert hacker.

Secure data storage. While it is critical to secure data in transit, it is just as important to implement security risk management policies that ensure that data is being stored securely. This includes encrypting data at rest, but it does not stop there. Many Web applications store sensitive files on publicly accessible servers, rather than on protected servers. Other applications do a poor job of cleaning up temporary files, leaving valuable data accessible to the hacker who knows how to find it.

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