Security Application Testing: Defend Web Application with Automated Tools

Ihor Sasovets
Lead Security Engineer at TechMagic, experienced SDET engineer. Eager about security and web penetration testing.
Security Application Testing: Defend Web Application with Automated Tools

Web applications are frequently targeted by cybercriminals seeking to exploit vulnerabilities and gain access to sensitive data or system resources. A successful attack on a web application can lead to data breaches, system downtime, and reputational damage for the affected organization.

The need for effective security testing of web applications has never been more important. According to a recent report by Positive Technologies, web applications were the most common target of attacks in 2020, accounting for 26% of all attacks. The report also found that web application attacks were the most successful. Furthermore, the average cost of a data breach caused by a web application vulnerability is estimated to be $4.33 million.

While it is recommended to conduct regular penetration tests that help to ensure that your application does not contain any exploitable security flaws, automated security testing could help you to find and mitigate common security vulnerabilities in the early stages of SDLC.

Many different tools and approaches can be utilized to set up an automated security testing flow, and it is important to choose the right options that would be the best match for your project. In this article, I will share my experience in automating security testing of web applications and give some valuable insights that will help you to understand this topic.

Understanding Web Application Security Testing

how to check web application framework for security testing

Every 44 seconds, someone is trying to breach the security of a system or application. It is 2,200 daily attacks and 800,000 people being hacked each year. With the ever-increasing threat landscape and the sophistication of cyber attackers, organizations can't rely solely on manual security measures. That's where security automation tools come into play.

Security testing for web applications identifies and assesses the vulnerabilities and risks associated with web applications. It involves evaluating the application's security posture and identifying any potential threats or vulnerabilities that may exist. Security testing ensures that web applications are secure from external threats and can protect sensitive information.

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Why Automate Security Testing?

According to GitLab's 2022 DevSecOps survey, about 65% acknowledge that security is shifting towards the left in their organizations. However, the extent of this shift is not as significant as it should be, with over 60% of developers admitting to not running static application security testing (SAST) scans and 73% failing to conduct dynamic application security testing (DAST) scans.

This lack of attention to security in the software development lifecycle must change. While security is often seen as a bottleneck to faster releases, ignoring or minimizing its importance is too risky.

Automated security testing can be integrated into the software development process, providing continuous feedback on the application's security as it is developed and updated. This approach allows developers to address security issues as they arise, rather than waiting until the end of the development cycle when fixing them may be more difficult and costly.

Automated testing can be a good first step for projects that do not have security testing at all, as it helps to speed up manual security testing and cover common security vulnerabilities.

Cyber attackers are not relying solely on manual efforts. They are leveraging automation to carry out attacks at scale, which means that security processes also need automation to keep up. A security automation solution can include real-time monitoring tools that constantly manage security vulnerabilities and take automatic action where needed. It’s additional support for a team that constantly scans for threats, identifies vulnerabilities, and takes prompt action to prevent and resolve security issues.

It's time to leverage the power of automation in your security testing efforts to safeguard your organization's digital assets and reputation.

Benefits of Automated Security Testing

how to security testing in web application - benefits of automated security testing

Automated security testing offers several benefits over manual testing. Let me explain the key advantages:

  • Efficiency: The primary strategic motivation behind pursuing a security testing automation strategy is to enhance overall quality, as 55% of companies indicated. Automated testing tools can scan the application for vulnerabilities quickly and accurately, allowing developers to identify and fix security issues more efficiently.
  • Consistency: Automated testing application security tools can be configured to run regularly, ensuring the application is continuously monitored for security vulnerabilities. This means that all code can be reviewed and assessed the same manner every time, creating a trusted and secure environment and code base.
  • Cost-effectiveness: By automating security processes, organizations can detect vulnerabilities and threats faster, respond to incidents more effectively, and reduce the risk of data breaches and other security incidents.
  • Repeatability: Automated security testing eliminates human error and ensures consistent and repeatable testing results.
  • Compliance: With automation, security measures can be implemented consistently and comprehensively, leaving no gaps or vulnerabilities that may be missed with manual efforts. This ensures that sensitive information is protected from unauthorized access, reducing the risk of data leaks, identity theft, and other security breaches.
  • Time-efficiency: When about 35% of companies stated that manual testing consumes the most time within a testing cycle. Investing in automated security testing can save organizations money.
  • Early security intervention: Threats and vulnerabilities can be detected and addressed faster, even before exposure. By integrating automated security testing into the development process, organizations can proactively identify and resolve security issues during the early stages of application development, reducing the potential impact of security breaches and minimizing the associated risks.
  • Vulnerability triage: This streamlined process ensures that security issues are addressed promptly and efficiently, minimizing the window of opportunity for potential attacks.

Different Types of Security Testing for Web Applications

how to do security testing for web application manually - types of security testing

Automated security testing involves using software tools to detect and report security vulnerabilities in web applications. There are different types of automated security testing, each with strengths and weaknesses.

  • Interactive Application Security Testing combines the strengths of both SAST and DAST by analyzing the application's behavior while running, using instrumentation to detect potential vulnerabilities. This allows for a more comprehensive evaluation of the application's security than either SAST or DAST can provide.
  • Software Composition Analysis examines third-party software components used in the application to detect vulnerabilities. SCA tools can identify known vulnerabilities in open-source libraries and frameworks used in the application and licensing issues that may arise from using these components.
  • Static Application Security Testing (SAST) analyzes the application's source code to identify potential security vulnerabilities. It checks for common coding errors, such as buffer overflows, SQL injection, and cross-site scripting (XSS) attacks. SAST can be integrated into the software development life cycle (SDLC) to identify and fix security issues early in development.
  • Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST) is a type of automated testing that simulates attacks against the application to detect vulnerabilities in its behavior. DAST can detect issues that SAST cannot, such as authentication and authorization problems and configuration errors.

Today, I will focus on dynamic security testing and software composition analysis and reveal major tools in these areas.

Dynamic Application Security Testing

how to do security testing on web application manually - dynamic application security testing

Dynamic application security testing aims to simulate attacks and identify potential vulnerabilities in a system by treating it as a whole. Vulnerability scanners can automate security testing by checking for known risks in applications and networks, providing a list of detected vulnerabilities and recommendations for patching or securing them.

This type of testing is particularly relevant for software composed of multiple services, libraries, and code snippets rather than being top-down written. Ideally, the infrastructure should be tested when it is complete and functional. Examples of DAST techniques include active/passive attacks on API calls within HTTPS and passing SQL injection patterns into user input.

Web Application Security Testing Tools

There are several security testing tools for web applications available for DAST, including OWASP Zap, Burp Suite Pro, Nessus, Acunetix, etc. Let's take a look at OWASP ZAP and Burp Suite Pro scanners.


owasp zap - who do the security testing of a web application

The OWASP Zed Attack Proxy (ZAP) is an open-source security testing tool designed to be used for testing the security of web applications. ZAP is available for download on multiple operating systems, including Windows, Mac OS, and Linux. It has various security testing functionalities, including fuzzing, spidering, vulnerability scanning, and more. OWASP ZAP can be used for both manual and automated security testing.

Features and benefits of OWASP ZAP

OWASP ZAP offers a range of features for security testing. Some of the key features of OWASP ZAP include:

  • Automated scanning: ZAP can automatically scan web applications for security vulnerabilities, making it ideal for businesses looking to automate their security testing processes.
  • Active and passive scanning: ZAP offers both active and passive scanning capabilities, allowing businesses to identify security vulnerabilities in real-time and vulnerabilities that are present but not currently being exploited.
  • Brute force testing: Through brute force testing, ZAP can test the strength of user credentials and passwords.
  • Scripting: ZAP supports scripting languages like Java, JavaScript, and Python, allowing businesses to create customized security tests.
  • API support: ZAP can be integrated with other tools and platforms via its API, making it a flexible and scalable business option.

How to use OWASP ZAP for automated security testing

Using OWASP ZAP for automated security testing is a straightforward process. Here are the basic steps:

  1. Install and launch OWASP ZAP on your local machine.
  2. Configure the target web application that you want to test.
  3. Select the scanning mode (e.g., safe, protected, standard and attack mode). I recommend starting with protected mode with limited actions with potential risks to URLs within the specified Scope.
  4. Start the scanning process.
  5. Review the results and prioritize any vulnerabilities that were discovered.

Burp Suite Professional

burp suite professional - automating security testing

Burp Suite Professional is a leading web application security testing tool that allows security professionals to comprehensively assess web applications for vulnerabilities, such as SQL injection, cross-site scripting, etc. It offers a comprehensive range of security testing functionalities, including scanning, spidering, and penetration testing.

Burp Suite doesn’t provide a report processor for Pro plan users that enables the automation of report generation and distribution. Still, you can use Extra capabilities for Burp Suite Reporter with the Enterprise plan. This feature allows testers to create custom report templates that can be automatically generated and distributed based on specific criteria, such as the severity of vulnerabilities found or the type of vulnerability.

Features and benefits of Burp Suite Professional

Burp Suite Professional has many features that make it a powerful tool for web application security testing. These features include:

  • Spidering: Burp Suite can crawl and map an application's content and functionality, enabling testers to identify vulnerabilities.
  • Automated scanning: It can automatically identify common vulnerabilities such as SQL injection and cross-site scripting, saving testers time and effort.
  • Vulnerability analysis: It can analyze and assess the severity of vulnerabilities, helping testers prioritize their remediation efforts.
  • Fuzzing: Burp Suite can generate malformed input data to test how the application responds to unexpected input.
  • Intruder: Burp Suite's Intruder feature can test the security of an application's input validation by generating and testing many requests with different input values.
  • Repeater: Burp Suite's Repeater feature can repeat requests with different input values to identify vulnerabilities.
  • Extender: Burp Suite can be extended with plugins and scripts to add additional functionality.

Benefits of using Burp Suite Professional include:

  • Comprehensive testing to enable comprehensive testing of web applications, identifying a wide range of vulnerabilities.
  • Automation to save time and effort for testers.
  • Prioritization of remediation efforts.
  • Flexibility to meet the needs of individual testers and organizations.

How to use Burp Suite Professional for automated security testing

Burp Suite Professional can be used for automated security testing in several ways. First, testers can use the tool to automatically scan an application for vulnerabilities, saving time and effort compared to manual testing. Second, testers can use Burp Suite to automate testing specific functionality or inputs, such as user authentication or input validation.

To use Burp Suite for automated testing, testers can set up automated scans using the tool's scanning configuration options, specifying which vulnerabilities to test for, how to handle authentication, and how to handle errors. Testers can also use Burp Suite's extensibility to add custom functionality, such as scripts that automate specific tasks or tests.

Note that these tools are not an alternative for a thorough inspection; they can provide a standardized verification for security controls. DAST balances time consumption and severity of found vulnerabilities, as it can identify low-hanging risks while security engineers can focus on more complex and multi-step issues.

Automated Security Testing Process

The automated security testing process involves several steps to ensure that the web application is secure and free from vulnerabilities. Here's a breakdown of the process:

  1. The first step in the automated security testing process is integration testing. This involves testing the individual components of the application to ensure that they work together seamlessly. This can be done using testing frameworks like Mocha and JUnit. Integration tests will be used to generate scope for security scanners and assess endpoints that require authorization.
  2. Once integration tests are finished, and we have generated scope for scanners, the next step is to use a tool like OWASP ZAP to scan the application for vulnerabilities.
  3. After OWASP ZAP has scanned the application, the next step is to use a tool like Burp Suite Professional to perform further testing.
  4. With the application fully tested using OWASP ZAP and Burp Suite Professional, the next step is to deploy it to a production environment.
  5. Finally, it is important to generate reports on the results of the security testing process. Reports can be generated using the reporting functionality built into each testing tool. Reports should be stored in a secure location, such as a protected Amazon S3 bucket, and should be accessible to all members of the development team.

When to Implement Automated Security Testing on the Project?

Based on my experience, I gather real-world use cases of automated security testing and the associated benefits and challenges.

  • If the project has strict deadlines, automated security testing can help accelerate the testing process and ensure that security vulnerabilities are identified and addressed quickly without delaying the project timeline, especially for projects involving complex and large-scale applications.
  • If projects that follow a CI/CD approach require frequent testing to ensure security measures are in place throughout development, automated security testing can be integrated into the CI/CD pipeline to enable regular scanning of code changes and identify vulnerabilities early in the development cycle.
  • If projects need to adhere to regulatory or compliance standards, such as GDPR, HIPAA, or PCI-DSS, they require thorough and regular security testing.
  • If projects involving high-security risks, such as e-commerce platforms, financial systems, or healthcare applications, require thorough security testing, automated security testing can provide comprehensive coverage and help identify vulnerabilities that malicious actors could exploit.
Remember that automated security testing should not be seen as a replacement for manual security testing but rather as an addition. A combination of automated and manual testing can provide the most effective approach to ensuring the security of a project.

Pro Tips on Automated Web App Security Testing

Automated security testing can significantly improve the security posture of web applications by identifying vulnerabilities and ensuring they are remediated before attackers can exploit them. However, implementing automated security testing requires careful consideration of best practices to ensure the tests are effective, efficient, and integrated with the development process. Below are some key insights application security testing checklist gained from successfully implemented security testing services to remember when implementing automated security testing for web applications:

  • Start early in the development lifecycle: Incorporating security testing as early as possible in the development lifecycle can help identify vulnerabilities before they become more difficult and costly to remediate. This approach allows developers to catch issues as they arise instead of discovering them after the application has been deployed.
  • Test from different perspectives: It's important to approach security testing from multiple perspectives to view potential vulnerabilities comprehensively. Automated security testing tools like OWASP ZAP and Burp Suite Professional offer different types of testing that can be leveraged to provide a holistic view of the application's security.
  • Integrate with the development process: Integrating automated security testing with the development process can help ensure vulnerabilities are remediated promptly. This can be done by incorporating security testing into the CI/CD pipeline by leveraging automation tools like GitHub Actions and Jenkins.

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  • Stay up-to-date on security threats: Automated security testing should complement ongoing education and awareness of emerging security threats. This includes staying up-to-date on the latest attack vectors and techniques threat actors use and regularly updating automated security testing tools and processes.
  • Address false positives and negatives: Automated security testing tools can generate false positives and negatives, which can impact the efficiency and effectiveness of the testing process. Developing a process for addressing these issues is important to ensure vulnerabilities are identified and remediated on time.
  • Prioritize vulnerabilities based on risk: Not all vulnerabilities are created equal. It is important to prioritize them based on their severity and potential impact on the business. This helps organizations focus their efforts on the most critical issues first.
  • Test frequently: Security threats and vulnerabilities are constantly evolving. Regularly testing web application security helps to identify new vulnerabilities that may have been introduced since the last test.

Wrapping Up

With the constant news of data breaches and security breaches, the realization that "everything will be broken" is all too real. Unfortunately, many in the industry still practice carelessness regarding security testing in software, leading to widespread vulnerabilities.

Automated security testing provides a more efficient and reliable way to detect vulnerabilities and threats in web applications, saving time and resources in the long run. By integrating security testing tools with custom report processing scripts or vulnerability management systems like DefectDojo from OWASP, organizations can streamline their security testing process and minimize security risks.

It allows faster and more consistent identification of vulnerabilities and weaknesses, reduces costs, and helps businesses comply with regulatory requirements. OWASP ZAP and Burp Suite are powerful tools that can help businesses ensure the security of their web applications.

When it comes to software development and testing at TechMagic, security is always at the forefront of our minds.

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  1. What is security testing in web application with an example?

    Security testing in web applications is the process of identifying and evaluating potential vulnerabilities and threats to the security of a web application. Examples of security testing in web applications include penetration testing, vulnerability scanning, and secure code reviews.

  2. How to do security testing on web application?

    There are various ways to perform security testing on a web application, such as penetration testing, vulnerability scanning, and secure code reviews. It is also possible to use automated security testing tools to perform security testing on a web application.

  3. Why is web application security testing important?

    Web application security testing helps identify and mitigate potential vulnerabilities and threats to your web application's security. By testing your web application's security, you can protect it against attacks, data breaches, and other security threats.

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Ross Kurhanskyi
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