15 Critical Security Tips for Web Development in 2023

Photo of Paweł Malita

Paweł Malita

Updated Feb 24, 2023 • 15 min read
web secuity best practices

Web apps are in constant threat from cybercriminals attacking them and stealing their critical data.

Cybersecurity is up by 600% and is estimated to cost businesses $10.5 trillion by the time 2025 rolls around. And these aren’t the only stats that you need to worry about. With the impact of cybersecurity becoming more and more severe, highly secure website solutions have never been as important as they are today.

What is web application security?

One of the biggest questions in cybersecurity currently is ‘what is web application security?’ In simple terms, web application security refers to the different cybersecurity methods that you can use to protect your web apps from any online threats.

Due to most hackers targeting specific web applications, web app security is a must. There are many examples of web security, ranging from WAFs (web application firewalls), cookies, MFAs (multi-factor authentication), and many more.

What is external website security?

You may wonder what is the difference between external and internal security. In short, external web security refers to the different measures when protecting a specific website from cyberattacks that appear outside of an organization's internal system. Examples of this include SQL and many other types of injections.

Why is external website security needed?

We live in the internet age with almost everything we do having a part to play online. Cyberattacks happen every 39 seconds worldwide, and 560,000 new malware threats occur daily. Because of this, you need excellent external web security to keep your web application and the data of your customers safe.

With many cases of businesses losing millions due to these attacks, external web security best practices are necessary.

Enterprise security planning and why you need it

Regardless of what industry you are in, having a quality enterprise security plan ensures that both your business and web app are safe.

But what is an enterprise security plan? It is a specific plan created to enhance your business's cybersecurity. Creating an enterprise security plan is one of the first things you should do to ensure breaches are completely minimized to reduce its potential impact.

However, enterprise security plans are not only for prevention, but also provide other fantastic advantages for your business. One of these is that it supplies you with an action plan in the event that a potentially damaging breach occurs.

Web security threats

With most businesses using web apps in one way or another, security is of the utmost importance. However, web security risks come in thousands of different forms. Because of this, we’ve listed some of the most common threats that you need to look out for.

Credential stuffing

Credential stuffing is where perpetrators use credentials gained from data breaches on one web app and use it to log into another web app. By hoping that some users use the same account name and password for many different web apps, they would initiate large-scale logins to crash the site.

Brute force attacks

Brute force attacks are similar to credential stuffing. However, instead of using found passwords and usernames, cybercriminals would guess many different combinations of passwords and usernames to overload the web application.

SQL Injection

SQL injection, also known as SQLI, is a type of attack where hackers use SQL code to manipulate the backend of the database, accessing private information. The information that they access ranges from sensitive business data to private customer emails and more.

What’s more, an attack can provide access to the administrative rights of the web applications database. All in all, SQL injections are dangerous when successful on web applications.

Cross-site scripting

Cross-site scripting (also known as XSS) is a type of injection attack, similar to SQLI attacks, where malicious scripts are placed in trusted and secure websites, compromising the users who use these apps.

But how do they do it? They manipulate the web app to execute malicious scripts in a victim's browser, giving them all the access they need to the user's private data.

Cookies are used for millions of websites to save information on your web browser. Cookie poisoning is where the attacker finds the cookies used for a specific web application and changes them to steal all the data that the user trusts the application to keep safe. Millions of users use cookies to store their data and make their lives easier, so this can become a big problem.

Man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack

A MITM (also known as a man-in-the-middle) attack is where a hacker will find themselves between the web application and the user. They will then impersonate the user or the web application so that they can steal personal information from these two parties.

Sensitive data disclosure

Sensitive data disclosure happens when a web application exposes sensitive information without knowing it. This usually occurs when an application doesn’t have enough cybersecurity web development protection.

Insecure deserialization

This basic web security threat is where cyber attackers place malicious scripts into web apps, allowing them to inflict DoS (denial of service) attacks, SQL injections, and many other threats to harm these web apps and their customers. It was recently ranked at number 8 for the most significant threat web applications face when cybersecurity in web app development is concerned.

most common web app security risks
Source: OWASP

Secure web development best practices

As shown above, there are many potential threats to a web apps' security. To overcome and prevent these problems from happening, you need the right application server security best practices. You can use many different methods for secure web development. However, some are better than others.

Take a look at these top tips for improving your web development security best practices below.

Conduct security threat assessment

Each web application provides different business benefits. Therefore, cyber threats will have a unique impact on each business. Before developing the actual product, you need to analyze the threats against their impact and probability of occurring. Based on the analysis results, proper security controls should be prioritized and implemented before launch.

Remember that no applications are 100% secure, so you must accept some risks when cybersecurity is concerned. By applying web application security best practices, you can greatly reduce the probability of threats comprising your systems.

Harden configuration

Secure web applications need an infrastructure to run, and some software components need configurations to be functional. Providers of infrastructure and software components document all web security settings and best practices. Cloud providers publish reference architecture, covering security-oriented architecture designs on their sites.

There are also independent white papers and manuals on the security configuration of software services. Perhaps the most known are CIS Benchmarks. Following those guidelines can save a lot of issues caused by a security misconfiguration.

Document the software changes

Building software that brings value to a business is a process. The source code may change many times, even the parts connected with crucial functionalities. Most of the software’s functionalities will probably have security protecting it.

However, it varies by functionality. You should always analyze each change in terms of its influence on the security of the data. Model the different cyber threats that may affect each functionality and make suitable changes according to the risk analysis.

All these actions should be documented and approved by the risk owner, who is usually the same person as the business product owner. This kind of documentation is a great tracking tool for regulatory requirements, especially if an external audit is needed.

Implement input data validation

One of the most common web security issues in web applications are injections. A malicious user may craft special data and pass it within channels used for interactions with the applications (user data inputs). These users may then execute the code either on the server-side or in the clients’ browsers, causing a security breach.

Modern secure web frameworks used in web applications’ software development implement input data validation to prevent such web application threats and attacks.

Sometimes though, this protection mechanism is disabled or altered by developers. You must create any custom code with the input data validation in mind if you intend for the application to be resilient against injection attacks.

Use encryption for confidential information

Properly implemented encryption is an essential protection mechanism for confidential information. It’s a must-have for all data transferred via public networks. The TLS (Transport Layer Security) encryption is the common standard for encryption in transit. It’s essential, however, to set up this TLS properly: use only certificates signed by a trusted third party and cipher suites considered strong by the industry.

Only dedicated, strong key derivation functions should be used to store passwords in the application. The purpose of utilizing dedicated solutions is to make the offline password cracking as hard as possible without compromising the application’s performance too much.

For the data at rest, we recommend using encryption. If implemented correctly, with encryption keys management in place, such an approach can minimize the impact of some data breaches, such as stealing or extracting a whole database.

Data encryption may also be helpful when external service providers need temporary access to the production environment. There are also hard requirements for encryption in the rest, which is necessary when the IT system stores credit card data.

The downside of encryption is performance issues, especially in search operations, where each record must be decrypted before the compartment can be made. That’s why it’s better to always perform the risk analysis instead of just going for the “encrypt everything” approach.

Update dependencies in your web app regularly

All components used in the web app may contain security vulnerabilities. It’s essential to regularly check and look out for security issues on your web app by creating a web application vulnerabilities list. The rule of thumb is to apply web security fixes as soon as you’ve tested them unless the fixing poses a bigger threat to the business than the vulnerability itself.

In these cases, compensation controls may be applied, for example, in the form of another security layer (network isolation, web application firewall, etc.). It’s all about doing proper risk and cost assessments before making changes.

Implement logging

When launched, your application may be a target of various malicious actors who will try breaching your security controls. Because of this, visibility of such trials is a must.

You should log all security-related events, which will allow you to trace back all actions taken by malicious actors. Those logs must be kept securely for a specific time to allow for forensic analysis. The logged time across all components should be the same to ensure accuracy.

Therefore, you should synchronize all systems clocks with a reliable, external time source. Logs should be secured against unauthorized access, especially to protect them from being altered.

Prepare a backup and recovery plan

When creating the application, especially if it will be a core business tool, you should consider the downtimes. Having a cloud solution with High Availability (HA) won’t protect against all situations, such as data corruption. In these cases, backups come in handy.

You must plan how often you will perform these backups and what technology you will use. You should regularly test the backup recovery to ensure that data is usable. Remember that making data available for users is also the GDPR requirement.

Educate employees

No matter how secure the application is, humans, particularly your employees, will use it. They should be educated on how to handle data securely and be able to create strong, not guessable passwords.

General security standards awareness training will help your employees to recognise phishing attempts and react straight away to other security threats to web applications.

Manage your permissions

Giving full access to everything in any IT system is a very bad idea. The application’s users should have the minimum required permissions needed to perform their daily business activities (principle of least privilege). Emergency, elevated permissions should be temporarily granted and revoked immediately when no longer needed.

If the person is inactive for a specific time, for example, on long-term leave, the account should be suspended. When they leave the company, disable the account. It’s essential to ensure the web application is well protected from malicious agents acting as an employee and having access to all the data.

Implement web app security best practices for users’ authentication

Having strong passwords to IT systems was mentioned already, but sometimes strong passwords are not enough. It’s worth considering implementing multi-factor authentication.

This is where the application’s user or system administrator provides an additional factor, which proves either possession of something (hardware token, mobile device) or who they are (fingerprint, vein pattern, face pattern).

Monitor for anomalies

For every running IT system, you must apply an alerting system to detect potential breaches and notify the person responsible for application maintenance. In case the alert is raised, you should investigate the incident and, if needed, alter the security controls to protect against the newly discovered threat. Many businesses often overlook this requirement, which may lead to high regulatory fines under the GDPR.

Utilize security audits and penetration testing

Cybersecurity threats are constantly evolving, with new vulnerabilities being discovered in software components. That’s why businesses should always measure the security of data processing. Security audits are a great tool to serve that purpose. These audits ensure that all processes related to data processing security are in place and working.

Penetration tests are a great solution for measuring application security. Their purpose is to simulate attacks on systems by using vulnerabilities chaining, which shows web application security issues threatening the business. Regular measuring of data processing security is one of the GDPR requirements, so you should utilize both security audits and penetration testing.

Apply vulnerabilities management

You should always manage and take the correct steps when discovering web security issues during the security measurement process. It’s done by analyzing the web application security risk they pose and planning mitigation actions based on the results. These actions are usually connected with system patching and upgrading, web application firewall rule adjustments, technology deprecation, changes of service providers, and more.

Have a plan for a potential data breach

Despite all that effort, a breach can still happen. There is no such thing as 100% security. In case that happens, it’s better to be ready. Prepare a crisis response cybersecurity team, and be sure that you have a general web application security checklist with up-to-date assets lists, business functions, owners, and recovery procedures.

Make sure to prepare internal and external communication and designate personnel for cooperation with law enforcement and regulatory as well.

Improve security in web development as soon as possible

With the possibility of many different web app cyberattacks occurring, you need to be prepared and have a quality web app security strategy to counter these threats from massively impacting your business and its web apps.

However, by taking on board some of these critical security measures for your web application, you can ensure you are safe from the majority of cyberattacks harming your web app and its customers.

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Paweł Malita

Senior Security Engineer, penetration tester, bounty hunter, and application security verification...
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