The problem of application security is nothing new, in fact, as far back as 1965, Multics CTSS (a text editor) on IBM 7094 had a vulnerability — if multiple instances of the system editor were opened, it would be possible for any user to read the password file.
Today, however, the problem of application security is bigger and more crucial than ever since more and more people are using a variety of apps that are becoming more complex every day. Apps often need access to sensitive data such as corporate or personal information, which if lost or stolen, becomes a liability for the individual or organization.
In fact, the amount of information stolen from apps is astounding. For example, 5 billion records were exposed in 2018, this data included sensitive data such as email addresses, bank accounts, passport info, etc. That’s why it’s more important than ever to secure apps, thus the need for application security.
Application security is the process of finding bugs, fixing them, and enhancing the security of apps. Although it mostly happens during the development phase, it includes post-development deployment technologies as well because the runtime environment can also boost or hinder an app’s security.
This is why there are numerous technologies and tools for securing apps, from assessing coding threats to evaluating encryption, assessing runtime threats, and auditing user permissions.
Software Composition Analysis (SCA)
Software Composition Analysis (SCA) encompasses a set of tools that analyzes the open-source components of an application. It’s essential because you can’t secure your app if you don’t know its components. Since modern apps contain a majority of open-source apps, SCA proves to be a crucial security technology.
Apart from identifying the components, SCA tools provide various information about those libraries, such as their licenses, any live security vulnerabilities, etc. That means, they tell you about bugs so that you can fix them in your apps.
Additionally, some advanced tools offer more features — mostly for enterprises. For instance, they can feature “automatic policy enforcement” by referencing each component with your organization’s policies and taking configured actions, say sending an approval request to an expert or failing the build process.
Software Container Technology
Software container technology, or container technology, is a set of technologies for standardizing the packaging of an application along with its dependencies. Among many, the popular container technologies are Docker, Kubernetes, etc.
According to Google Cloud, “containers offer a logical packaging mechanism in which applications can be abstracted from the environment in which they actually run. This decoupling allows container-based applications to be deployed easily and consistently, regardless of whether the target environment is a private data center, the public cloud, or even a developer’s personal laptop.”
Though the primary benefit of container technology is application portability, it helps with the app security problem as well. In a container, an app is isolated or sandboxed from other apps running on the same machine. So, if another app is compromised, an attacker can’t use it to access or attack a contained app.
However, software containers are not explicit security boundaries, unlike virtual machines. That means a container may get compromised from the outside, say if the container’s daemon or hypervisor is undermined. The solution is to secure containers by hardening docker security and container security in general.
A virtual machine is an emulation aka virtualization technology that emulates a computer system inside a physical machine. That means you can run another or multiple computers inside a single physical computer. For instance, you can run Windows OS and Ubuntu (a popular Linux distribution) on a Windows PC.
According to Microsoft Azure, it gives “users the same experience on a virtual machine as they would have on the host operating system itself. The virtual machine is sandboxed from the rest of the system, meaning that the software inside a virtual machine can’t escape or tamper with the computer itself.”
Among its various advantages, a virtual machine offers an isolated environment for an application, like a software container. That means, if the host operating system or one of its apps is compromised, an attacker won’t be able to infect the operating system or the application inside the virtual machine.
Moreover, virtual machines are more secure than software containers. Google Cloud explains, “the most common misconception about container security is that containers should act as security boundaries just like VMs, and as they are not able to provide such guarantee, they are a less secure deployment option.”
Interactive Application Security Testing (IAST)
Interactive Application Security Testing (IAST) is a group of security tools that focuses on real-time detection of security issues in an app’s code. They analyze the execution flow and the incoming traffic while monitoring the app itself.
Since IAST tools do the analysis from within the app, they have access to the source code, dataflow and runtime control, memory and stack trace information, web requests, and the app’s components. That’s why they can pinpoint the issue, thereby allowing app developers to quickly verify and fix the vulnerability.
That’s the advantage of IAST tools over DAST (Dynamic Application Security Testing) tools. DAST tools, while reporting the issues, don’t provide any info about the source code that’s responsible for the issue. However, IAST tools pinpoint the security issue in the source code, thereby easing debugging work.
Runtime Application Self-Protection (RASP)
Runtime Application Self-Protection (RASP) is a technology that helps apps to protect themselves in real-time by identifying and blocking threats. It works as if a web application firewall is bundled directly with the application runtime.
RASP protects the app by intercepting and validating the calls and accompanied data requests from the application to a system. If it detects an attack, it blocks the related calls, thereby protecting the app. For instance, it stops calls from an app to a database if it interprets the calls as an SQL injection attack.
In fact, RASP can take other actions as well when it finds a threat such as ending a user’s session, stopping the app’s execution, or alerting the security expert.
It’s a good practice to use a mix of technologies to solve the application security problem. IAST and SCA help secure an app during the development phase, and the others help secure it during the deployment phase. It’s suggested that you should implement essential security measures and tools in both these phases.
In fact, RASP along with virtual machines works well at securing your apps from an array of attacks. However, containers with recommended security measures can replace virtual machines and help secure your apps combined with RASP.