Blog  How Web App Pen Testing Helps You Outsmart Hackers

How Web App Pen Testing Helps You Outsmart Hackers

| Blog, Penetration Testing

pentesting, penetration testing

Today’s organizations depend on web applications to build products, engage customers, and grow their business. From email services and content management systems to collaboration tools and marketing automation, web applications form a huge chunk of the foundational technologies that drive all digital businesses.  

Unfortunately, web apps also constitute a massive attack vector cybercriminals love to exploit. In fact, some of the worst cybercrimes in history that caused millions of dollars in damages (including the Solar Winds Supply Chain Attack and the Kaseya Ransomware Attack) were orchestrated through the exploitation of software vulnerabilities in web-based applications.  

Penetration testing counts among the essential tools cybersecurity experts use to mitigate such web-based risks. In particular, organizations conduct web application penetration testing (WAPT) to proactively uncover and remediate hidden vulnerabilities in web applications before evil hackers can exploit them.  

Here’s how WAPT can help thwart malicious attempts to breach your network, steal your money, and ruin your brand.  

What Is Web Application Penetration Testing?

Penetration testing (or pen testing) is a cybersecurity process that uses the tools and techniques of cybercriminals to launch simulated attacks on an information system for the purpose of detecting and remediating weaknesses in an organization’s security infrastructure. WAPT is a type of pen testing that focuses on web applications, which are software programs that run on web servers and are accessed by users via a web browser.  

Planned and executed by certified pentesters (or ethical hackers), web application penetration testing helps organizations achieve the following: 

  1. Objectively assess the effectiveness of their security measures. 
  2. Discover vulnerabilities in the design, code, or configuration of a web app that can be exploited by malicious actors. 
  3. Proactively address web app vulnerabilities before they become costly incidents.  
  4. Meet regulatory and compliance standards. 

Why Do You Need Web Application Penetration Testing?

WAPT ranks among the most effective methods for proactively uncovering and addressing hidden vulnerabilities in a web application’s design, configuration, or code. These vulnerabilities can be exploited by threat actors to gain unauthorized access to sensitive data or critical systems. Either case can lead to devastating consequences.  

WAPT helps blunt the success rate of these attacks by enabling companies to proactively find and fix security issues. Because many regulatory standards and industry frameworks require penetration testing, WAPT also helps companies achieve regulatory compliance.  

Devastating Potential of Web App Exploitation

Their usefulness, ubiquity, public-facing components, and data-handling features turn web apps into hot targets for malicious hackers. These threat actors use different techniques (such as code injection, cross-site scripting, and phishing) to exploit web app vulnerabilities. A successful exploitation attempt can bypass security measures, breach a network, and pull off cybercrimes such as identity theft, financial fraud, cyber sabotage, and ransomware attacks.  

Some of the most damaging cyberattacks that exploited web app vulnerabilities include: 

  1. Solar Winds Supply Chain Attack – This attack impacted around 18,000 enterprises around the world including government agencies. The attackers used a backdoor in a web app’s library to inject malicious code into legitimate software updates, enabling threat actors to remotely access a victim’s environment.  
  2. Kaseya Ransomware Attack – This attack exploited a vulnerability in Kaseya’s remote monitoring and management software package to inject ransomware, causing massive downtimes and financial damage in more than 1000 companies that used the software.    
  3. Equifax Data Breach – This attack took advantage of Equifax’s belated patching of a known Apache Struts exploit to breach the credit reporting company’s network, steal trade secrets, and plunder more than 160 million private records of US, British, and Canadian citizens. The attack caused massive damage worth more than US$500 million. 
  4. Heartland Payment Systems Data Breach – This attack used SQL injection to create backdoors on several corporate systems, enabling the theft of sensitive data including 130 million credit and debit card numbers. Heartland reported that it lost a minimum of US$12.6 million in damages including legal costs and fines.   

Common Web Application Vulnerabilities and Exploitation Methods 

Web applications can have different vulnerabilities and be exposed to several types of attacks including the following:  

  1. Application Flooding. Web apps that cannot handle large volumes of requests/transactions can be used to execute Denial of Service (DoS) attacks.  
  2. Application Lockout. Improper application design may allow hackers to lock users from their accounts.  
  3. Code Injection. This technique allows threat actors to disguise and send malicious code as legitimate input to a web application.  
  4. Cryptographic Failure. This vulnerability can lead to the unintended exposure of sensitive data. 
  5. Misconfiguration. Threat actors can exploit errors or gaps in how networks, web servers, databases, and other web app elements are configured.  
  6. Unpatched Software. Lax patching and updating practices allow malicious hackers to exploit software vulnerabilities. 
  7. Authentication/Access Control Failure. This vulnerability emerges when a hacker acquires unauthorized access to the system via stolen passwords, user credentials, and session tokens.  
  8. Email phishing. This technique exploits human vulnerabilities using fraudulent email communication.  
  9. Buffer Overflow. A web app that does not properly handle buffer overflows is susceptible to attacks such as the execution of arbitrary code, denial of service, data corruption, and system crash.  

Benefits of Web App Pen Testing

A well-designed and properly executed WAPT delivers the following benefits: 

  • Improved security. By proactively identifying and prioritizing vulnerabilities, you can promptly take corrective action and beat cyber criminals at their own game.  
  • Improved regulatory posture. Many security frameworks such as PCI DSS and SOC 2 require or recommend penetration testing. WAPT helps meet those requirements. 
  • Reduced risk of financial and reputational damage. By remediating detected vulnerabilities, you decrease your attack surface, which limits the likelihood of a successful and costly breach.  
  • Enhanced security awareness and culture. Regular pen testing helps establish a mature culture of security which significantly bolsters your organization’s cyber resilience. 
  • Improved software/web development process. Integrating security as an essential element in your development workflows can uncover a wide variety of bugs. Fixing those bugs will help improve your product or service, which elevates customer experience and satisfaction.   
  • Peace of mind. While there is no bullet proof solution to cyberattacks, subjecting your systems to a well-planned WAPT and taking steps to close security gaps provides assurance that you have taken all reasonable steps to protect your assets and customers.  

The Web Application Pen Testing Process 

Typically designed and executed by certified or licensed pentesters, WAPT involves a series of stages and can use several approaches, frameworks, and tools. Approaches:

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  • Black box testing — The pentester has no prior knowledge of the web app. 
  • White box testing — The pentester has full knowledge of the web app, including its source code. 
  • Gray box testing — The pentester has limited knowledge of the web app, typically having user-access level to certain information systems.  
  • External pen testing — Simulated attacks originate from outside the system or network. 
  • Internal pen testing— Simulated attacks originate within the company’s network, which replicate the behavior of a malicious insider such as a disgruntled employee.  

Stages 

  • Planning/Scoping — The organization and the pen testing team establish the scope and objectives of the pentest.  
  • Information Gathering — Depending on the chosen approach, pentesters gather as much information about the web app’s environment, IP address, users, design, source code, and configuration. 
  • Vulnerability Scanning — Pentesters use vulnerability scanning tools to detect and identify the web app’s vulnerabilities.  
  • Manual Testing — Pentesters manually probe the web app for other exploitable vulnerabilities. 
  • Exploitation, Access, and Escalation — Pentesters attempt to exploit discovered vulnerabilities. If allowed in the plan or scope, pentesters may escalate the breach to gain insight on potential extent and damage a real attack can achieve.  
  • Reporting — Pentesters present the test results, analysis, and recommendations.  
  • Remediation— Pentesters and the organization develop and implement a remediation roadmap to address weaknesses and bolster web app security.  

Frameworks 

There are several security frameworks that prescribe standards or provide guidance on how pen testing should be performed. These include PCI DSS, OWASP, ISECOM, and NIST.  

Tools 

Pentesters use a variety of tools to simulate real-world cyberattacks. These include automated vulnerability scanning software such as Invicti, fuzzers like Burp Suite, and hacking tools like Metasploit and Cobalt Strike.  

Final Takeaway 

Any resource that can help you navigate the worsening state of cybercrime is a must-have for the sustained protection of your business. Given how much today’s companies rely on web applications, web application pen testing is definitely one such resource.   

Remember, some of the worst cybercrimes in history were orchestrated using web app vulnerabilities. Don’t wait for your company to figure in the victim list. Stay ahead of evil hackers by using their own tactics against them. 

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