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Website Security – A Comprehensive Guide

Updated on: April 1, 2021

Website Security – A Comprehensive Guide

Anyone on the internet relatively active or with a barely functioning website will still have an idea about antivirus, firewalls, and the basic knowledge about refunding spammy external links that lead to infectious websites or sales of fake brands.

This is where website security steps in – a combination of both simple and complex steps that will help you prevent unwanted access and hacking attempts from occurrence. As always, it is a healthy mix of prevention, cure, and constant monitoring and resolution for your business in order to stay up and running for your customers. 

What is website security? 

Website security is the sum total of all active & passive measures taken to protect your website. It encompasses every security measure from basic security to premium security that you take (or should take) to protect your website from cyberattacks. Measures such as choosing a secure host, installing SSL, traffic monitoring, restricting backend access, and so on make up for website security.

In other words, website security is an umbrella concept that covers the various security measures undertaken by organizations to protect their online assets from cyber-attacks, malware, and hacking. 

The alternative of maintaining weak website security is equal to leaving a site open to data breaches and compromise of sensitive information of the customers/users (like login credentials or credit card information), point of attacks for other systems (install ransomware or phishing attacks), and defacement of the website (like pop-up ads, etc).

Why secure your website?

Website security is mission-critical for the protection of website data security and services. Regular scanning via web-security software prevents your website from landing on Google’s blacklist. Hacks like redirect hacks, search engine blacklists, phishing and misleading content, malware, and backdoors can be detected through such scans and prompts quick action and recovery for your website as well as business.

Moreover, unpatched vulnerabilities & bugs invite attacks. A targeted attack on your vulnerabilities can give away access to all your customer records, their financial information, and other sensitive information to the hacker. Hence it is in your best interest to identify and patch your vulnerabilities as part of your website security strategy, well in advance.

An in-depth website security audit helps a great deal in identifying your vulnerabilities.

You can follow this detailed checklist to conduct a website security audit on your own website 👇

Make your web app the safest place on the Internet

with our detailed and specially curated web app security checklist.

Other reasons to indulge in website security include your website’s economics!

The economics of your website development can go into jeopardy if you are not vigilant about your website’s security.

According to Carbonite, the average downtime cost for a website is $427 per minute.

What’s more?

80% of small businesses have experienced downtime at some point, with costs ranging from $82,200 to $256,000 for a single event. Which could be gruelling, especially for small businesses.

On top of this, any severe data breach could lead to hefty penalties, litigations, and loss of reputation. A report by Verizon shows that almost 43% of all attacks are targeted at small businesses. So, this is for sure that investing in website security is worth more than spending money on data recovery and other legal hassles.

With all the reasons mentioned above, ‘why website security?’ is a self-explanatory question, but we still provide a few pointwise reasons as to why this is important for all stakeholders of a company down below:

1. The other option is a more expensive cyberattack

Cyberattacks do not differentiate among large, medium, and small, but it probably does disproportionately cost a larger portion of the small business’ revenue, which makes it even more important that security measures are put in place and made as effective and long-lasting as possible.

2. Hosting servers only protect the server and not the site

This is a situation that places the onus on your shoulders – since it is your content and your hard work – to confirm your site’s security along with the server’s health.

3. No one can predict cyberattacks

Malware and malicious content are infamous for being discreet and staying hidden until it unleashes the rampage of infections and other issues. 

Most malware attacks include the provision of backdoors so that a temporary solution of cleaning or deleting the infected files will still leave an outlet for hackers to enter again – all of this without the website owner knowing the occurrence of the attack, the time period, or intensity. 

Cryptojacking is another problem that mines websites for cryptocurrencies without giving any warnings. 

According to research, over 40% of infected sites have the presence of at least one backdoor file, as is the issue of cryptojacking. Once given access, hackers have no limit to misuse and manipulation of data, using them for illegitimate means.

4. Protect your reputation and your visitors

65% of customers are hesitant in trusting sites that compromised their sensitive data once, thus destroying the value of your brand and original conversion rates. This is a number that cannot be lost or ignored, be it small, medium or large businesses.

What are websites fighting against?

Websites are usually subjected to two kinds of attacks – Passive and Active attacks.

1. Passive Attacks

Sniffing Attacks

Bugging a telephone line to tap a call is the most common thing. You might have seen this in movies and TV series. The sniffing attack is more or less the same. On the web, data are transmitted through the network in the form of packets. Attackers tend to bug the network through a network host or a hardware device to create a snapshot of these packets and sniff the traffic on any website.

By such sniffing attacks, hackers tend to collect usernames and passwords, bank-related/transaction-related information, emails and chat messages, identity theft, etc. through these data packets.

More and more organizations are hiring software developers that can prevent sniffing attacks.

How Sniffing Attacks are Executed?

The most common hardware device used for a passive sniffing attack is a hub, which receives traffic and retransmits all the traffic on other ports. A sniffer can sit at the hub and sniff the network, totally undetected. Nowadays hubs are not used much and that is where their replacements ‘Switches’ come in the picture.

Switches are devices used in place of the hub. It receives a CAM table, providing the mac address, where the network packet needs to be distributed. A sniffer will flood the switch with a large number of CAM requests, making the switch to be a hub that will transmit these packets to all the ports as it is legitimate traffic. This is known as an active sniffer attack.

2. Active Attacks

Malware:

As you already know, it is short for “malicious software.” Malware is a very common weapon used by hackers to steal sensitive data, distribute spam, allow access to your site, and more.

According to Statista, 13% of malware attacks were downloader attacks. Blockchain technology-driven coin miners had a contribution of 3% to the malware attacks. We are now experiencing new malware types such as network-based ransomware worms and deadlier types like wiper worms.

Mydoom is the most malicious virus ever witnessed by our world so far with economical damage of $38.5 billion. It is spread through spam emails. Once the user opens the email, it opens a backdoor into the user’s computer, allowing remote control of the computer, while also conducting a DDoS attack (Direct Denial Of Service) against the SCO group’s website (taken down by Mydoom in 2004).

DDoS (Distributed Denial of Services) Attacks:

DDoS is known as the nightmare of websites. It causes websites to crash and become inaccessible to users. DDoS is a DOS attack where multiple systems, infected with a Trojan, are used to target a single system.

Basically, it disrupts a target network by inducing huge traffic, big enough to make networks incapable to handle it.

A network connection on the Internet is structured with many different layers. The DDoS attack targets the layer where web pages are generated on the server and delivered as a response to several HTTP requests. A single HTTP request can be expensive for the target server to respond to. This is because the creation of a web page takes the loading of multiple files and the running of database queries. Such DDoS attacks are difficult to stop as it is hard to flag the traffic as malicious.

Blacklisting:

Removed from the search engine results and flagged with bold letter warnings indicating infectious site ahead? Your site has been blacklisted by the search engine. This issue must often be resolved quickly as it brings your website traffic (and revenues) to a brutal stop otherwise, discouraging your regular visitors from accessing the site. If your site is blacklisted by Google or any security provider, it is important to remove the malware infection completely from your site and re-submit your URL to Google for reviewing for getting your site unlisted from the blacklist.

Vulnerability attacks and defacement:

This occurs when hackers exploit weak points on the site like previous versions of plugins that have not been updated or received the security updates resolving any potential issues.

How do these vulnerabilities come up in the first place? 

Vulnerabilities are basically the errors in the website code or security loopholes in the core code of the CMS or in third-party plugins/extensions integration that allows attackers to creep in and exploit these vulnerabilities to ultimately illegally access the sensitive information that is present in the site or implant a variety of malware that can allow these attackers to completely take over a site and invite for a possible data breach.

On the other hand, Defacement usually implies replacing the original content or style of the site with the hacker’s malicious content, external links, and spammy keywords. Doing a comprehensive security audit and adding an extra layer of protection with web application firewalls can save your website from vulnerability attacks and defacement.

Popular methods of website security

Now that we’ve talked about the what, why, how and the accompanying details, let’s focus more on what methods are usually followed to ensure website security.

1. SSL Certification

This is a standard method of protection that involves encryption of the data collected and processed to and from a site to a server – such as login credentials and card information.

Currently, most reputed search engines and browsers are flagging sites without SSL as ‘insecure’ and this often repels visitors from the site who view it as suspicious.

It’s always a good option to customize the SSL certification to your needs, but depending on the kind of site, you may even get it for free. Here’s a guide you can follow for a safe switch from HTTP to HTTPS.

Now, it also important to know that there are limits to the protection offered by SSL. Since SSL protection is only limited to the data in transit, so concrete steps still need to be taken to further protect the site.

While the SSL/TLS certificate protects you from the man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks by securing the communication between the browser and the server, it’ll NOT protect your site against vulnerability exploits in the code or the configuration.

2. Web Application Firewall (WAF)

WAF is useful for stopping automated attacks that are majorly targeted towards smaller or lesser-known websites. Usually carried out by malicious bots, they search for vulnerabilities or loopholes that can be exploited and used for DDoS attacks that can slow down or crash your website.

OpenCart Security and malware protection Astra Security
How the Astra firewall protects your website

Firewalls also check data that is sent by users for patterns and blocks them before reaching your websites. They also check incoming requests simultaneously with the content on a WAF blacklist and make sure it doesn’t reach the server. This makes it a useful barrier against attacks while you fix vulnerabilities on the site. The Astra Firewall provides real-time protection from attacks such as SQLi, XSS, CSRSF, LFI, RFI, RCE, OWASP TOP 10, and 100+ other attacks.

3. Website Security Scanners

A lot depends on a good and efficient security scanner, the most important of its skills being the early detection of threats or impending attacks. A malware scanner looks for vulnerabilities, malware, and other security issues for proper analysis later. 

Astra Security offers the option for feeling rest assured in the face of any attacks, new or old, on a daily or hourly basis, with periodic checks to keep your mind at ease, focusing on maximum protection and minimum damage.

4. Software Updates

It may not always seem so, and even frustrating to keep track, but updates are crucial to remaining on top of the latest security threats and their patches.

Content Management Systems (CMS) are also at risk of being compromised by hackers due to security issues and loopholes often found in third-party plugins. 

The easiest solution for this is updating the core software as and when available since the security patches and automatic patching solutions fix these issues. 

5. Take Backups Frequently

Your organization’s IT policy should account for frequent backups as the easiest solution in case any hacking attempts or defacement attempts occur. Plan out a schedule (daily or weekly) so that you have a faster restoration policy, and keep it automated to avoid human errors.

6. Organizing Password Bootcamps

The organization’s employees should strictly adhere to a detailed and tested password policy, avoiding common ones and following best practices for formation (avoiding personal details). 

Complexity and length are your friends here, along with multi-factor authentication to prevent unauthorized access from the backend and strengthen your login security more. 

7. Validate User Input Data

The data that is being accepted by a website through any sort of form must be validated to ensure that there are no commands being run to carry out XSS or SQL injection attacks. Use well-implemented stored procedures rather than open queries to carry out transactions over the database. This is structural, hence must be practiced during development and updating of website back end.

Also, there must be a strict check of the type of file being uploaded onto your website. There are chances that your website can be compromised if a hacker uploads a PHP shell through any of your upload section and then access the directory of the website. They may tamper and deface the website which could cause disruption in your website performance.

8. File and Data Management

The website files must be backed up either over an online resource such as a cloud server or an offline medium such as hard disk drives or offline servers. The website administrator must also get rid of the files that are no longer in use and are junk. This way, the server on which the website is running becomes light and a cybercriminal cannot DDoS the website by sending PHP requests.

9. Permissions must be carefully distributed

In case a website is being used by different users who are supposed to have different user privileges, then the website administrator must divide the roles carefully so that the right user gets the right amount of privileges. Internal security can be attained through this measure. Check our blog on WordPress file permissions to learn how.

10. Use the Address Verification System (AVS) and Credit Card Verification Value (CVV)

Websites that deal with financial transactions must implement the best practices of Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards (PCI-DSS) strictly. Any carelessness may cause an irrevocable data breach and reputation damage.

11. Use DDoS Mitigation Service

The website administrator must use load balancing software and APIs such as Cloud Flare and F5 Load Balancer to secure the website from any DDoS attack. The unusual surges in traffic over the website must be also be scrutinized and the traffic must be monitored in regular intervals. The website admin must monitor fake traffic surges and prevent damage caused by bots. Also, there must be periodic validation of network and application’s security.

12. Obscure the Header Information

The header information that is being transmitted over the connection must be obscured and must not present any identifiable information to visitors. If header information is available over the internet or in specific to the hacker, then it would lead to compromisation of the website security. Since this is not the default configuration, hence most web production servers would possess the headers available, probably unknowingly.

13. Secure the Web Server Processes

The processes that are running on the web server should not run as root or Local System. The default user settings must be changed based on the OS that the server is running. In the case of Linux, processes must have dedicated privileges. In Microsoft systems, the permissions for local or administrator user must be carefully distinguished upon. This way, the eventuality of a compromised web server with compromised resources will reduce.

With so much abundance of data on the internet, it becomes the responsibility of an organization to store and process them in a secure fashion. The only medium through which these organizations can reach out to the global audience is through a website. Hence, whenever a website is being designed, security aspects must be carefully discussed. Because it has been rightly said that prevention is better than cure and thus if a website is secured by following the above measures, then it reduces the burden over a website administrator and makes customers and users relieved about the security of their data.

Related article – Shared Hosting Security Risks And Ways To Mitigate Them

14. Usage of secure cookies

By using a combination of HttpOnly cookies and SSL encryption, the information your website stores remains private and secure. The HttpOnly cookie would disable any imposter from client-side to carry out XSS attacks on a user. If your website fails to use safe cookies, then a third party could easily intercept a cookie sent to a client and masquerade that client to the web server. If SSL is deployed over the entire website, then no cookie would be delivered over unencrypted connections.

Related article – Cookies – All You Need To Know

15. Double-check the web host

Hosting the website with a reputed and trusted provider is also an important factor for your website security. From your part, refer to its security infrastructure, quick support, and maintenance of their network architecture, hardware or software systems. Make sure that there are required certifications available as well.

Turning the Key

Global website security has seen new dimensions added to its domain. We have seen a soaring rise in burst attacks, insider threats and many such attacks. There is a new breed of phishing activity by the creation of new domains attached to the spam campaigns, which are almost undetected. The risks of various Operating Systems in the market through a multi-vendor environment is also increasing.

There are regulations like PCI, PSS, HIPAA, SOX and the latest GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) that can be integrated with the websites to make it more secure. Then there are COBIT framework guidelines that should be implemented to render secure websites.

So, now that you know what is website security? and why you need it? just plan website security, with your IT department or look for a website security plan in the market.

Have any thoughts about the article? let us know in the comment box 🙂

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Ananda Krishna

Ananda Krishna is the co-founder & CTO of Astra Security, a SaaS suite that secures businesses from cyber threats. He has been acknowledged by the Indian Navy, Microsoft, United Airlines, etc. for finding critical security vulnerabilities in their systems. Winner of the Best Security Product at Global Conference on Cyberspace 2017 (awarded by Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India) & French Tech Ticket, Paris (awarded by François Hollande, former President of France). At Astra he's building an intelligent security ecosystem - web application firewall (WAF), malware detection & analysis, large scale SaaS applications, APIs & more. He's actively involved in the cybersecurity community and shared his knowledge at various forums & invited talks.
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