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Automate Web Application Security - Why, How & The Necessary Tools

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automate-web-security-how-why-security-tools-1In this article, we’re going to talk about automating your web security in the safest and most effective way. We’ll also touch on a few Web Application Security automation tools worth considering using. Furthermore, we'll speak about why its important to select the right Web Application Scanning tool and how it can help meet your web development time frame, saving the company a lot of money and time.

Automation has been a popular buzzword in the digital space for a few years now. With the ability to reduce labour hours, eliminate repetitive tasks and improve the bottom line, it seems that everyone is looking for a way to automate their daily workflow to every extent possible. With web application security testing being both time-consuming and expensive, it’s a prime candidate for automation.

In the never-ending game of cat and mouse between developers, penetration testers and hackers The speed of execution plays a significant role in the identification and management of vulnerabilities. What makes the process even more challenging is the fact that both security professional and hackers are using the same or similar tools.

If you’re not taking advantage of the ability to automate some of your security scanning, it’s only a matter of time until someone beats you to the punch. In almost all situations, it’s not a risk worth taking.

Despite all the positive aspects that arrive as a result of using an automated web security scanner, there are still some important points to consider during the implementation process in order to maximize your effectiveness.

Automation Starts With Planning

As with any undertaking, in order to achieve optimal results, it’s imperative that you follow a well thought out planning process. This means before you commence automated web vulnerability scanning, you should develop a plan that is specific, measurable, attainable and time-sensitive.

Reducing risk and searching for web application vulnerabilities requires nothing short of a detailed plan. You need to understand what a potential hacker might be looking for and where the most serious risks might lie, area that will vary with every business. You also need a clear understanding of what tools you’ll be using as well as how they will be used.

Automating web security means having a plan that is measurable. This is best achieved through accurate reporting and open communication amongst your team. If a web application is in development, you should be testing at specific predetermined intervals throughout the development lifecycle. Writing vulnerable code on top of vulnerable code merely exacerbates the problem.

A plan that’s attainable will help to keep you on track. Consistent and methodical testing is always better than inconsistent and haphazard.

Finally, having a time-sensitive completion date is always vital to the overall success. If your project never leaves the development and testing phase, is still a liability from a business perspective, which is why many developers turn to automatic scanning tools from both the open-source and commercial sector

Automated Versus Manual Scanning

automate-web-security-how-why-security-tools-2You might be asking, “how can an automated web vulnerability scanner possibly replace a human?” You’d be correct in your assumption that an automated scanner is no replacement for human intuition or experience. However, you’d probably also agree that manually scanning for hundreds or thousands of cross-site scripting (XSS) vulnerabilities across multiple web applications can quickly become an unrealistic proposition.

One of the keys to automating your web security is finding the appropriate timing and balance between using an automated scanner and a security professional. Intuition and experience are razor sharp at 7 AM, but their effectiveness and reliability have decreased significantly by 4 PM.

Use a human element where necessary and automate everywhere else. We discussed this recently when comparing technical and logical vulnerabilities, and it’s clear that while many of the vulnerabilities listed in the OWASP top 10 require human logic, there are many that do not – efficient allocation of human resources has financial benefits and can also improve the effectiveness of logical analysis.

Choose Your Tools

Once you’ve outlined a plan, it’s time to select your tools. There are a variety of tools available for your consideration and evaluating web application security scanners is not an easy job. Use any tool you are comfortable with. It’s also important to note that experienced penetration testers have learned that it’s best not to rely on one single tool.

Deciding on an automated security scanner often raises the debate between free and open source versus paid commercial platforms. There is no right or wrong answer.

An example of an open source platform for someone who is developing their own application would be a tool such as the OWASP Zed Attack Proxy. It’s relatively easy to use and provides both active and passive scanning, a spider, full reporting and a brute force component that can help to find files with no internal links.

On the other hand, you might also want to consider a commercial web application security scanner. More often than not, they offer a superior user-interface, more consistent updates, as well as better support. On balance, a commercial scanner is often more user-friendly and functional with frequent updates as the developer has a vested interest in offering a high-quality product.

Although open source tools like OWASP ZAP offer a multitude of functionality, best practices dictate that you also use tools dedicated to a specific task. For example, DirBuster and Wfuzz are two tools designed specifically for bruteforcing web applications.

By using a variety of tools, some of which overlap in functionality, you’re more likely to identify and expose a greater number of vulnerabilities.

Implement & Iterate

There is no magic recipe of secret sauce when it comes to automating your web application security scanning. It’s a process that relies heavily on a combination of smart planning, the right tools and necessary experience.

It’s also important to remember that automation is about more than saving time and money. It’s about strategically implementing a process designed to efficiently reduce the vulnerability of your web applications –  letting both software and humans do what they do best.

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