From banking and finance to healthcare, there’s seemingly a web or mobile application for just about every aspect of our personal and business lives. Whether it’s an individual consumer accessing our investment accounts via smartphone, or a business owner managing inventory on a tablet, web applications have come a long way in terms of making our lives easier and more efficient. There’s just one catch. The more we use applications to handle sensitive information, the more tempting it is for hackers to break in an attempt to steal valuable data.
The question is, how can businesses across the board take a proactive security approach to their critical web applications? And what vulnerability assessment tools are available to ensure that your web application security is two steps ahead of potential hackers?
In the financial services industry, for instance, only roughly 5 percent of all attempted cyber attacks are successful. And one of the big reasons for that low success rate is that big banks like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan were early adopters of what’s known as Penetration Testing.
A penetration test, also known as a “Pen Test,” is a simulated cyber attack against your applications to check for exploitable vulnerabilities. In the context of web application security, penetration testing is commonly used to augment a web application firewall (WAF). Thankfully, there are a variety of pen testing tools for web applications available to suit the specific security needs of your business, industry, and customers.
With the right web app penetration testing tools, you’ll be able to protect your site (and mobile apps) against a security breach. Read on for our top five penetration testing tools for web applications to help protect your website, mobile, and web apps.
Pen Testing in a Nutshell
Before diving into specific tools for a vulnerability assessment, let’s first take a closer look at how pen testing works from an application standpoint. In reality, there are two separate types of penetration testing: Network and Application. While network penetration testing focuses on detecting vulnerabilities across all your IT systems, application pen testing is geared towards web and mobile applications. More specifically, application pen testing tests the security of the custom code that an application is based on.
Web application pen testing tools basically serve to simulate various forms of cyber attacks from external hackers and malicious actors. These cyber criminals normally attack the underlying code and software that an application runs on. They do so to achieve a variety of different objectives, from stealing confidential data of your customers to installing ransomware that you’ll have to pay a small fortune to have removed.
Pen testing tools are designed to spot security vulnerabilities ahead of time before cyber attackers causes damage. It could be a flaw in the coding or insecure use of the underlying software that companies aren’t aware of, but that introduce additional vulnerabilities into the application. Once a vulnerability is detected, companies remediate the situation by re-coding or reconfiguring the application, using either in-house or outsourced software development teams.
1. Security Scanning
Web application security scanning tools perform precisely what it sounds like they do, which is scan for potential vulnerabilities in any given web application. Most security scanning tools are automated, so they scan your websites, web applications, and web services around the clock to find potential security flaws. These tools can significantly help your company improve its cybersecurity.
Some of the typical functions that security scanners perform in relation to common, potential vulnerabilities:
- SQL Injection Detection
- Reflected Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) Detection
- Local File Inclusion Detection
- Remote File Inclusion Detection
- Unvalidated Redirect Detection
- Old Backup File Detection
Once a security scanner detects web application vulnerabilities, it generates an automated report or alerts so that the vulnerability can be addressed as soon as possible. One thing to bear in mind is that security scanners do, on occasion, produce what’s known as a false positive. The scanner may pick up on what it thinks is a severe vulnerability, which might not end up being the case after a closer investigation. Various security scanning tools have different levels of functionality as it relates to preventing false positives, so it’s important to work with your cybersecurity partner to develop a plan to fully investigate any issues detected by your security scanner and to weed out any false positives.
When employing a scanning tool, you want to make sure that it covers all platforms and devices that your web application lives on. This includes your local network, desktop systems, mobile devices, and cloud infrastructure. And depending on the industry you’re in, you want to make sure that your scanning tool is configured to be compliant with regulations such as PCI-DSS, HIPAA, etc.
2. Website Crawling
While security scanners take the entire infrastructure of your web application into account, website crawling tools are specialized in spotting potential security vulnerabilities on the front end. Website crawlers were developed to ensure that the “front door” to any web application (an actual website) isn’t left open to potential hackers or cybercriminals.
Different website crawlers have varying effectiveness when it comes to how any given website is constructed, with what coding language, and on which content management platform. Any website crawling tool that you’ll consider should cover most (if not all) of the following website languages, technologies, and platforms:
- HTML 5
- Angular JS
- Ruby on Rails
Web crawlers basically replicate the actions a hacker would take when trying to gain access to your web application via your website. This could be anything from trying to access a private portal by hacking through the Login screen or submitting malicious URLs through the Contact Us form that link to malware or are the initiation of a phishing attack.
Website crawling tools are important to any comprehensive pen testing approach simply because hackers are experienced (and often successful) at finding system vulnerabilities simply by visiting a website and exploiting them quite easily. Find cybersecurity solutions that will help to implement a web crawling tool to ensure you’re not leaving any obvious entry points on the front end of your web application.
3. Project Management
When conducting a pen test, more than likely you’ll be dealing with numerous programs, personnel, and tasks throughout the process. So while you’re employing multiple tools to spot vulnerabilities, you may also want to employ a project management tool or platform designed specifically to automate and streamline pen testing activities. Pen testing project management tools are basically designed to divide the penetration testing workflow into smaller, more manageable tasks.
These tools usually come in the form of a web-based interface, so that multiple people from within your cybersecurity team (or a partner) can see what stage the pen test is in, next steps in the workflow, and if they’re responsible for any current or future action items. You may even be able to perform various actions such as security assessments or vulnerability validation via the project management tool.
In terms of workflow, you’ll be able to automate things like the vulnerability discovery process and assign tasks that potentially require manual testing to validate a potential false positive. These tools are created with a multi-user, collaborative approach in mind so that tasks and information can be shared across all parties in the pen testing team. You can divide the test into customized, multiple parts, assign members a specific segment of the web application to test, and let members easily share any specialized knowledge they have with other team members.
Team members will also be able to share host data, view evidence collected from the pen test, and create host notes to share knowledge about the vulnerabilities of a specific aspect of your web application. Ultimately, pen testing is a “team sport” that requires specialized knowledge, input, and collaboration between both your internal team and cybersecurity partner. By implementing a project management tool for pen testing, you’ll make the process more efficient and get the most out the people involved.
4. Application Intrusion
Web application intruding tools are what are commonly considered to be the “meat and potatoes” of pen testing. With your cybersecurity partner, you’ll work to configure an application intrusion tool to basically conduct a customized, automated cyber attack against your target web application. Application intruders can range from simple to complex and powerful and can be used to perform a huge range of tasks. This can be the simple brute-force guessing of web directories or exploitation of blind SQL vulnerabilities.
Most intruders work by taking an HTTP request (also known as a Base Request), modifying the request in various ways, issuing a modified version of each request, and analyzing the application’s responses. In layman’s terms, the intruder will attempt to “pick the lock” to your web application, and when one attempt doesn’t work it automatically (and systematically) tries a different combination. Each subsequent approach will be determined by an analysis of your web application’s response to the previous one, precisely as an actual hacker would.
Most application intrusion tools will let you customize and configure each attack based on various factors:
- Target – Which parts of your web application do you want this specific attack to focus on? The front end of your application? Back-end infrastructure?
- Location – Where do you want the simulated attack to take place from? Will it be a domestic attack, international, etc.?
- Payload – The payload is defined as the actual malicious code or script that will execute the attack. You may want to test different types of malware on different occasions.
Once you’ve configured the attack in the intrusion tool, you should then be able to “launch” the intrusion and monitor the results in real-time. Most intrusion tools have a seemingly infinite number of options as it relates to attacking configurations, which is why it’s important to have a knowledgeable cybersecurity partner to help prioritize which types of attacks are most likely in real-life and focus your intrusion testing on those scenarios.
5. Reporting & Analysis
Once the pen test of your web application is complete comes the critical step of reporting and analysis. In order to understand what remediation and prevention steps to take, you’ll need a tool the provides accurate, easy-to-understand, in-depth reports of each pen test and an analysis of what steps should be taken moving forward. A good pen testing reporting tool will generate well-formatted, actionable findings that take minimal time for your staff to decipher.
Four elements any good pen test report should have are:
- Executive Summary – Why has the pen test been conducted? What specific areas were tested, and why are guarding against those threats so critical?
- Risk Analysis – Based on the pen test, what is the level of risk based on the current setup of the application? Were vulnerabilities exploited, and to what level of effectiveness?
- Potential Impact – If the pen test were a real-life attacker, what would be the actual adverse impacts? Which systems and business processes would be affected?
- Remediation Steps – Based on the analysis of the pen test, what are the concrete remediation and prevention steps that should be taken to patch up any vulnerabilities that were exploited?
Without quality reporting and analysis tools, your team and your cybersecurity partner will need to spend time and resources wading through data, formatting reports, and designating what are the appropriate action steps based on the findings. When selecting a reporting and analysis tool, one of the most important factors to consider is the user experience and interface. Web application pen testing generates large amounts of data, so you’ll want to be able to easily read through, sort, and interpret data to get to what vulnerabilities were exploited, and the remediation steps that need to take place.
In today’s treacherous cybersecurity, web app penetration testing tools are a critical part of detecting application vulnerabilities before malicious hackers do. You’ll want to implement an automated security scanner that works round-the-clock to test vulnerabilities in your web application, as well as a web crawler that tests for entry points on your website. Also, work with your cybersecurity partner to employ a vulnerability management approach that will help streamline the security testing process. Finally, make sure you have robust tools that will actually carry out the attack, and provide easy-to-understand, accurate reporting upon completion.