Mimecast: Defending Against Common Types of Web Application Attacks

Learn about the types of web application attacks, how they can affect your business’ websites and applications, and how to defend yourself against them.

Key points:

  • Web applications can be vulnerable to attack, which can allow cybercriminals to access sensitive data and other information.

  • Common web application attacks include cross-site scripting, SQL injections, path traversal, local file inclusion, and DDoS attacks.

  • Automated vulnerability analysis, web application firewalls, and proper testing can help protect against web application attacks.

Web application attacks are on the rise and studies show they are one of the leading causes of data breaches. Almost half (43%) of the 3,950 data breaches were attributed to attacks on web applications, in one report, a number that doubled from 2019 to 2020.[i]As these attacks become more common, it is important that organizations know what they are up against, how to mitigate risk, and how to secure websites against them.

What is a web application?

A web application is software that runs on a web server and that a user can access through a web browser with an active internet connection. This differs from local software applications, which run directly on a user’s device. Web applications are generally easy to install on the user side and can often be customized to meet a company’s specifications. Examples of web applications include hosted messaging and messaging, content management systems, and e-commerce services.

When a user accesses a web application, it triggers a request to the web server over the Internet. The web application queries a content database and then generates content based on the request from the client (user’s machine). The web application server sends the results back to the web server, which interprets and executes the scripts and displays the requested content on the user’s screen.

Why are web applications vulnerable to attack?

Web applications can be exposed to attacks for a variety of reasons, including system faults resulting from incorrect coding, misconfigured web servers, application design flaws, or failed form validation. These weaknesses and vulnerabilities allow attackers to access databases that may contain sensitive information. Because web applications must be available to customers at all times, they are an easy target for attackers to exploit.

Cloud containers, which bundle application software with the things they need to run, have recently been identified as particularly vulnerable when they are not properly secured or contain insecure items.[ii]The use of open source code and the reliance on application programming interfaces (APIs) have also exacerbated security concerns.[iii]

Common types of web application attacks

Web applications can be attacked by various vectors. Common types of web attacks include cross-site scripting, SQL injection, path traversal, local file inclusion, and distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks.

  • Cross-site scripts (XSS): In an XSS attack, an attacker injects a piece of malicious code into a trusted website or web application. Since the user’s browser thinks the script is from a trusted source, it will run the script. XSS attacks can be used to steal data or perform other malicious acts on the visitor’s computer. Although this method is considered unsophisticated, it is common and can cause significant damage.
  • SQL injection (SQLI): SQLIs occur when an attacker interferes with requests that a Web application sends to its database. An SQLI can allow intruders to obtain sensitive data from the database. An attacker could modify or delete this data, or inject code that could modify the content or behavior of the web application.
  • Crossing the path: This attack, also known as directory traversal, allows the wrong actor to manipulate paths to folders outside of the web root folder, which can then be used to access web application files, directories, and commands.
  • Inclusion of local files: This technique prompts the web application to expose or run its files on the web server. These attacks occur when the web application treats a malicious attack as a “trusted entry.” An attacker can use a path or directory traversal to find out more about files on the server, and then invite the Web application to run the local file. Local file inclusions can result in information disclosure, XSS, and remote code execution.
  • DDoS attacks: These attacks occur when an attacker bombs a web request server. Attackers can use a network of compromised computers or robots to mount this attack, which can cripple a server and prevent legitimate visitors from accessing your services.
  • Cross-Site Request Infringement (CSRF): CSRFs occur when an attacker deceives or forces an end user to perform unwanted actions on an application in which they are already authenticated. This can be done via an email or chat link and, if successful, may result in a funds transfer or email address change, for example.
  • XML External Entity (XXE): This attack relies on an improperly configured XML parser in the code of an application. This attack can lead to the disclosure of confidential data such as passwords, denial of service, server side request forgery, and other system impacts.

Tips for Protecting Against Website Attacks

While there are a variety of web application attacks, there are also processes, technologies and methods to protect against them. Different approaches to web application security address different vulnerabilities.

  • Automated vulnerability analysis and security testing help organizations find, analyze, and mitigate vulnerabilities and configuration errors – hopefully before the attack happens. These tests help organizations identify security weaknesses that need to be addressed.
  • Web Application Firewall are hardware and software solutions that protect against application security threats by filtering, monitoring, and blocking malicious traffic from traveling to the web application. These tools are continually updated with new rules designed to detect the latest attack and exploitation techniques.
  • Secure development tests is a practice in which security teams look at threats and attacks that could impact an application or product in order to make it as secure as possible. Secure development testing can uncover the latest security risks and attack vectors early in the product lifecycle. It also helps develop effective approaches to prevent website attacks and minimize the consequences of violations.

The bottom line

Web application attacks can be devastating events for organizations, which is why it is crucial to understand the types of attacks that can occur as well as how best to secure web applications. With appropriate development, testing, and security processes and programs in place, businesses can mitigate risk and protect their web applications from harm.

[i]“2020 Data Breach Investigation Report,” Verizon

[ii]“96% of third-party container applications deployed in the cloud infrastructure contain known vulnerabilities,” ZDNet

[iii]“The State of Application Security, 2021,” Forrester

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Mimecast limited published this content on November 18, 2021 and is solely responsible for the information it contains. Distributed by Public, unedited and unmodified, on November 18, 2021 01:12:05 PM UTC.

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