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5 Essential Practices for Developing Secure Web Applications

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Nowadays, with the increasing prevalence of cyber threats, ensuring comprehensive cyber security has become a paramount concern. 

Businesses all over the world rely heavily on web apps for numerous purposes, and they need to be confident that their sensitive data is stored and handled safely.

This article outlines five essential practices that developers should incorporate into their development process to enhance the security of web applications.

#1. Address Common Security Vulnerabilities

Knowing about and addressing common security vulnerabilities is the best way for developers to fortify their applications against many potential threats. Some of the most prevalent security vulnerabilities include:

  • SQL injection. This kind of attack occurs when an attacker manipulates user-supplied data to execute unauthorized SQL commands. 
  • Cross-Site Scripting. XSS occurs when attackers inject malicious scripts into web pages viewed by other users. 
  • Cross-Site Request Forgery. CSRF happens when an attacker tricks a user’s browser into making unintended requests to a vulnerable website on their behalf.
  • Insecure Direct Object References. IDOR occurs when an attacker directly accesses or manipulates internal object references to gain unauthorized access to sensitive data or resources.

#2. Embrace Secure Coding Methods

Following recognized coding standards can significantly reduce the risk of vulnerabilities and protect applications from potential threats. Let’s delve deeper into some key practices under the umbrella of secure coding:

  • Parameterized queries. To mitigate the risk of SQL injection attacks, developers should employ parameterized queries or prepared statements instead of dynamically constructing SQL queries. Parameterized queries separate the SQL logic from user-supplied input, making it harder for attackers to inject malicious code into the database. 
  • Secure error handling. When errors occur, developers should ensure that sensitive information or system details are not exposed to potential attackers. Error messages should be designed to be informative to developers while remaining vague and non-revealing to end-users.
  • Secure configuration management. Sensitive information, such as database credentials or API keys, should never be hard-coded within the source code. Instead, such information should be stored securely, ideally in encrypted formats, and accessed only when required. Developers who follow API security best practices can prevent accidental exposure of sensitive information and reduce the risk of unauthorized access.

#3. Implement Proper Authentication and Session Management


Here’s an oldie but a goldie: enforcing strong password policies is still one of the foremost ways that user accounts can be properly protected. Passwords should have minimum complexity requirements, such as a combination of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters. Users should also be encouraged to choose unique passwords and periodically update them. 

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) adds an extra layer of security by requiring users to provide multiple forms of identification to access their accounts. In addition to a password, MFA typically involves one or more factors, such as SMS-based verification codes or biometric authentication (e.g., fingerprint or face recognition). 

That being said, web applications rely on sessions to maintain user context and state across multiple requests. Handling sessions securely is also an important part of preventing attacks like session hijacking or session fixation. Developers should implement measures like unique session identifiers, session timeouts after a specified period of inactivity, and secure session storage to mitigate these risks.

Most importantly, developing reliable web applications relies on selecting the right web development technologies. This initial step in the software project lifecycle plays a significant role in ensuring the security of the apps you build. Opting for an appropriate technology stack from the start can prevent numerous issues and saves you the hassle of having to fix or update later on.

#4. Employ Robust Input Validation and Output Encoding

Input Validation

For the uninitiated, input validation is the process of verifying that user-supplied data meets the expected criteria and is safe to use within the application. It involves validating the data type, length restrictions, format, and range of inputs.

  • Implementing a whitelist-based validation approach is a common recommendation. This is where inputs are explicitly defined and only data matching the expected patterns or values is accepted, preventing the acceptance of potentially harmful input.
  • Similarly, regular expression validation can be used to define and enforce specific input patterns. This allows developers to validate inputs against predefined rules, such as email addresses, URLs, or credit card numbers.

Output Encoding

Output encoding refers to the process of converting potentially malicious characters into their safe equivalents to prevent code execution within the browser. This approach ensures that any user-generated content rendered by the web app is properly encoded to prevent attacks. 

Some common output encoding techniques include:

  • HTML entity encoding. Special characters and HTML entities are displayed as literal characters rather than being interpreted as code. For example, encoding “<” and “>” as literal symbols prevents these tags from being treated as markup.
  • URL encoding. Encoding special characters within URLs (also known as percent-encoding) ensures the correct processing of URLs by allowing special characters to be included by replacing them with their corresponding hexadecimal values.
  • Context-specific encoding. Different output contexts require different encoding techniques. For example, within HTML attributes, attribute-specific encoding should be used to prevent attribute injection attacks. Similarly, JavaScript or CSS encoding should be applied when outputting content within those contexts.

#5. Keep Up with Security Updates and Patches

Last but not least, developers should actively monitor security advisories, vulnerability databases, and mailing lists to stay informed about the latest security updates and patches for the components and frameworks they use. 

A good idea is to maintain an up-to-date inventory of all software components and dependencies used in the application, including web frameworks, libraries, plugins, modules, and any other third-party software. Developers should document the versions of each component and keep track of any security vulnerabilities or patches associated with them.

Whenever updates or patches are released, developers should prioritize the critical ones that address high-risk vulnerabilities. These often have the most potential to be exploited by attackers. 

Before applying updates or patches to a production environment, test them in a controlled staging or development environment. Selecting the right web testing and automation framework ensures that your security measures are effective. 

Among the many testing tools available, Cypress and Selenium are two that you should consider. If you’re on the fence about which to choose, this comprehensive Cypress vs. Selenium comparison will steer you in the right direction for your project.

Final Thoughts

Developing secure web applications is of great importance in the face of ever-evolving cyber threats. We hope that this article has helped you better understand that prioritizing security during the development process will ultimately safeguard your sensitive data and ensure the long-term success of your web applications.