Top 11 Most Common Web Application Cyber Attacks

Eilon Elhadad
Nov 22 · 9 min read

In a sea of SaaS applications, customers and cybercriminals alike are spoilt for choice. So, when certain web applications are compromised, their developers are often found asking, “Why did my application get hacked?” “How did it get hacked?” There are probably a hundred reasons why. In this post, we look at the top 11 reasons why web applications get attacked, and how you can prevent this from happening to your web application.

What is web application security?

Web applications, like all software, contain defects. Web application security is all about defending against such defects. Web application security (aka Web AppSec) is the practice of protecting websites, cloud applications, and online services against malicious security attacks that exploit vulnerabilities. It involves engineering a collection of security controls into a web application to protect its assets from cyberattacks. 

Why you need to secure web applications 

With the current virtual working environment, everything from work to social interactions is taking place on the web. Hence, web applications are subjected to all kinds of security threats. Let’s look at two main reasons why securing web applications is important now more than ever.

1. To prevent loss of sensitive data

When websites get infected with malware, all their valuable data like customer information, intellectual property, and financial data is exposed and can be used by cybercriminals for malicious purposes. Once attackers have access to this data, they can either sell it on the dark web or use it to infect the website’s visitors and customers.

2. To maintain business reputation

In a world where reputation matters, it is important to not become the next news headline. Every company wants to avoid being the next business that was hacked and lost its customer data. If your business is insecure, your business reputation goes down and so does your customers’ trust. If your company has a bad reputation existing customers will leave, and future customers would hesitate to choose your product or service.

Here are the top 11 reasons web applications get attacked. By being aware of them, you can prevent them from affecting your organization and your web applications.

11 most common web application cyber attacks

1. Cross-site scripting (XSS)

Cross-site scripting is an injection attack in which an attacker introduces an arbitrary malicious script into the code of a legitimate website or application. When someone visits the web page that executes this malicious code, it enters their browser and gains access to all their data. Although XSS attacks are possible in a few different payloads, JavaScript is the most common since it’s fundamental to most browsing experiences. 

Cross-site scripting also enables attackers to inject scripts that can drastically affect the content of websites thus maligning their branding and communication. Additionally, it can redirect users to other websites with malicious code that become a potential vehicle to deliver malicious scripts into their browser.

Attackers use malicious JavaScript to gain access to users’ geolocation, webcam or specific files from their system. Although XSS vulnerabilities aren’t considered dire, they can prove to be a golden opportunity to escalate cyber attacks. A web application should use proper data sanitization to sanitize its user input in order to minimize XSS vulnerabilities. 

2. SQL Injection (SQLI) 

SQLI is a type of injection attack that enables attackers to introduce malicious SQL code that controls database servers behind web applications. This enables attackers to bypass authentication and gives them access to sensitive information that was not meant to be displayed. It also helps them read, modify, delete database data or execute OS commands.

SQL is a standardized language that was designed to manage data stored in databases to build customizable data views for individual users. Many web applications store their data in SQL databases thus an SQLI can cause significant damage. SQL Injection attacks can lead to huge financial losses, data theft and eventual full system compromise.

3. Path Traversal 

Path traversal is a type of attack that enables attackers to access files on a user’s web server that reside outside of the root directory of the webserver. This is done by tricking the web server into reading and revealing the contents of arbitrary files present anywhere on the server

A “web document root” directory is a portion of the file system on any website that users have access to. In a Path Traversal attack, the web application input is manipulated to gain access to sensitive information stored in files outside of the “web document root” directory. The vulnerable elements that facilitate a Path Traversal attack are web server configurations and web application codes. 

Although these attacks are not as dangerous as a few others on the list, a successful Path Traversal attack can help exploit other application security vulnerabilities leading to a bigger overall cyber attack.

4. Local File Inclusion 

Local File Inclusion (LFI) enables attackers to include and run files on a web server. This vulnerability is found in poorly-written web applications that allow users to upload files to the server

An LFI attack happens when an application uses the path to a file as an input without properly sanitizing it. Attackers can use LFI to execute arbitrary commands, to read and execute files on a user’s server, or to gain access to sensitive data. File inclusions enable web applications to read files from the file system, segregate configuration files, etc., and are a part of all advanced server-side scripting languages on the web. This is precisely why they need to be implemented with precision to avoid an LFI attack.

5. DDoS attacks 

A distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack is an attempt by attackers to prevent a service from being delivered by distorting the usual traffic of the targeted server. This is done by sending malicious data from multiple compromised systems and overwhelming the targeted infrastructure. This type of attack drowns a system in a sea of data requests leading to a crash. 

 

DDoS attacks can even look like too many legitimate requests from legitimate users. These attacks rely on collections of malware-infected system networks that are centrally controlled. Early last month, Microsoft’s Azure cloud claimed to have fended off the largest DDoS attack it had detected.

6. Cross-site Request Forgery (CSRF) attacks 

CSRF is a type of attack that enables attackers to perform unauthorized actions on web applications via authenticated end-user’s connections. They do this by forcing users to carry out actions they didn’t intend to. Attackers place malicious HTML on a website that tricks users into visiting another website. 

Additionally, some CSRF code can be contained within a single URL on any vulnerable site thus eliminating the need to employ an external site. CSRF attacks are usually limited to the permissions of a particular end-user. These attacks can be damaging for enterprises and individual users alike as they can cause unauthorized fund transfers, identity and data theft, and damaged client relationships.

7. Authentication Feature and Brute Force Attacks 

The authentication feature of any web application is easily one of the first places for cybercriminals to attack. This is because bypassing the authentication process is the first step to infiltrating the system. 

The most common attack against authentication systems is brute force. A brute force attack is when an attacker checks possible password combinations or encryption keys to infiltrate an operating system and decrypt sensitive information. These tactics are used in the early stages of a cyber attack in order to gain access to their targets. Brute force attacks don’t depend on any technical vulnerabilities as such. Organizations need to put in place measures to be alerted of attempted brute force attacks on their web applications.

8. Management of Access Rights and Privileges Escalation 

Privilege escalation enables an attacker to gain illegitimate access to privileges that are usually unavailable to them. This occurs when a misconfiguration, a system bug, or a design flaw of an operating system is exploited. These privileges then allow the attacker to introduce malware into the system, exploit credentials, run administrative commands, and cause significant damage to the operating system. Privilege escalation is almost always a part of a multi-stage attack and is difficult to detect since distinguishing between routine and malicious activity is hard.

9. Breaches in Interconnected Systems  

With an increase in the number of digital assets, most organizations stand a high chance of cyber risk. And in a world where APIs interconnect all systems and services within organizations, this risk gets significantly multiplied. 

To add to this, continuous integration and continuous deployment (CI/CD) practices have further increased the complexity of operating systems. In such an interconnected environment, a single breach leads to significant damage as attackers only need a single point of entry to infiltrate the entire system and wreak havoc. In these cases, specialized tools that secure the supply chain are required. Argon is one such tool that secures every step of the CI/CD pipeline, ensuring security for web applications.

10. Third-party Component vulnerabilities 

Recently, there has been a rapid growth in third-party dependencies in all software development processes. Open-source repositories also play a huge role in these dependencies. Therefore, the risk of malicious code infiltrating the operating network is significantly high. Third-party dependencies end up creating a backdoor that becomes a gateway for supply chain attacks, security breaches, and other malicious acts.

Any third-party software library or open-source code repository should be consistently monitored to ensure it meets the security requirements of your organization. 

11. The Often Forgotten Logical Flaws

Technical vulnerabilities are innate in web applications but there are logical flaws that are mostly just logical steps that can be overlooked or easily bypassed. One such flaw is in the application login mechanism. During a failed application login, descriptive error messages should not be displayed as they end up assisting the attackers in their brute force attack. In addition to this, applications should strictly enforce the need to have a strong password and eliminate the possibility of having weak, dated, and obvious passwords like “12345”, and “admin.”

What are web application vulnerabilities?

Web application vulnerabilities are essentially systematic flaws in a web application that can be exploited to compromise its security. These vulnerabilities occur largely due to continuous interactions with a multitude of users across global networks. This grants a high level of accessibility that can easily be exploited by malicious actors. The most common web application vulnerabilities are injection attacks, brute force attacks, CSRF attacks, and all the other attacks discussed at length above. 

Summary

Increased use of web applications means an increased risk of cyberattacks. And a breach of your web application can cause financial damage as well as blemish your company’s reputation. Although application frameworks are becoming more secure, cybercriminals find newer ways to identify and exploit their vulnerabilities. We covered the most common and frequently targeted vulnerabilities so you know what steps to follow when developing your next web applications in the most secure way! 

Eilon Elhadad
Nov 22 · 9 min read

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