“People often represent the weakest link in the security chain and are chronically responsible for the failure of security systems.”
These words from Bruce Schneier’s book 'Secrets and Lies: Digital Security in a Networked World' have become something of a mantra in the modern enterprise landscape where cyber threats are lurking around every corner, and cybersecurity has become a critical business priority for company leaders.
According to the Verizon DBIR 2022 report, 82% of breaches in 2021 involved a human element, such as the misuse of organizational resources or privileges, phishing, or the use of stolen credentials. Many breaches and other security events are also the result of security misconfiguration errors, many of which have a human source.
What is a security misconfiguration?
A security misconfiguration could mean that:
a) essential security settings are not implemented or
b) they are implemented with errors or
c) they are deployed with default (and potentially insecure) settings.
Flaws like this can introduce vulnerabilities that leave the underlying system like web applications at risk of a cyberattack or data breach. Misconfigurations can happen at any level of an application stack, including network services, development platforms, databases, web servers, or application servers. They are also common in development frameworks, custom code, pre-installed virtual machines, and cloud containers.
Security misconfigurations are considered among the biggest security risks for web applications. For example, in the OWASP Top 10 2021 – a ranked list and remediation guide for the most critical web app security risks – security misconfigurations are ranked #5.
The causes of security misconfigurations
Human error is often the culprit when it comes to security misconfiguration mistakes, which can open a system up to serious vulnerabilities. There are many ways in which these errors can occur. For example, a vulnerability may crop up because a system admin failed to change an application’s default configuration or password, which could allow attackers to gain unauthorized access to the application. Or the admin may have implemented overly permissive access rules that adversaries take advantage of to launch malware attacks and compromise business-critical data.
Other causes of security configuration errors stem from organizations’ failure to implement robust password policies, patch software flaws, configure and maintain security features, and disable unused app features. Additionally, leaving files and directories unprotected and not implementing security-conscious coding practices can lead to security misconfigurations and introduce application vulnerabilities.
The Impact of security misconfigurations
Attackers are all too ready to exploit security misconfigurations to gain unauthorized access to an app’s functionalities, default accounts, unused pages, or unprotected files and directories. Having confidential information exposed is a common outcome of security misconfigurations. When databases and other protective controls are not properly configured, application data and code can be made accessible to those who should have no access to them - critically weakening the system's safeguards.
The risk of directory traversal attacks (also known as directory listing), attacks on mobile applications, and remote attacks also increases with configuration errors.
To avoid unwanted outcomes, a reliable and repeatable automated security configuration and hardening process is essential. This approach reduces the manual effort that would otherwise be required to create a secure environment.
The hardening process should also be regularly audited to verify the effectiveness of the configurations in all environments. Such audits are best done with the help of OWASP-certified pen testers, who can conduct detailed system checks and thus help protect enterprise web applications from attack.
Penetration testing to find and fix security misconfigurations
A web application penetration test is a reliable way to find security misconfiguration issues and mitigate risk before an attack can happen. A skilled OWASP-certified pen tester can identify the vulnerabilities in web applications, such as default credentials, unused features, unnecessary pages, improperly configured security features, outdated software, insecure code, etc. They will also put on their “hacker hat” to exploit the discovered vulnerabilities by changing the application’s parameters, rules, or logic, breaching frontend/backend servers, hacking into APIs, etc.
Experienced testers will also provide a report about the application’s security health and performance so the organization can identify security gaps, understand the business implications of each vulnerability, categorize them by severity, and appropriately focus their remediation efforts and resources.
Automated vulnerability scanners lack the precision that human pen testers can provide. Furthermore, only human testers have the ability to conduct an in-depth inspection of apps and identify configuration issues that automated tools often miss.
The bottom line
Security misconfigurations can expose an application and its data to attackers, making it critical for organizations to address these issues promptly. You need to assess your current security configurations and processes and invest in reliable security hardening solutions and pen testing services that can help identify weaknesses before adversaries can exploit them to avoid costly cyber attacks or data breaches.
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