Dynamic Application Security Testing: The Ultimate Guide

Ihor Sasovets
Lead Security Engineer at TechMagic, experienced SDET engineer. Eager about security and web penetration testing.
Dynamic Application Security Testing: The Ultimate Guide

When it comes to identifying security vulnerabilities, various methods come into play. Vulnerability scanners scrutinize both the software running on a system and the hardware settings. These tools rely on a central repository of known vulnerabilities to detect any instances of these weaknesses.

In software testing, the focus often centers on version numbers, which signal the installation of updates. One of the primary recommendations from cybersecurity experts is to maintain up-to-date operating systems and software packages, thereby enhancing security.

Any lapses in web application security can create opportunities for malicious actors to compromise application integrity, disrupt functionality, and jeopardize user credentials. A systematic approach involving security testing is essential to fortify these digital gateways. Such testing serves as a critical defense mechanism, enabling the detection of security weaknesses and vulnerabilities in live applications while reducing the likelihood of cyber threats.

Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST) aims to spot security vulnerabilities in real time while the application is active. It is a security measure within contemporary software delivery pipelines. Within this article, we will take you on a comprehensive journey through the dynamic application security testing process, step by step.

Without further ado, let's start!

What Is Dynamic Application Security Testing?

Dynamic Application Security Testing is a specialized security testing method employed to assess the security of web applications while they are actively running. DAST operates by actively probing and evaluating web applications in their live production environment, simulating real-world attacks to identify potential vulnerabilities and security weaknesses.

DAST is not confined to a specific software but focuses on the application layer, where vulnerabilities are most prevalent. Its capabilities extend to identifying potential issues before any input is provided.

DAST falls under the category of black-box testing, a methodology where testers assess the operating system while it is in use. However, they do so without access to the application's source code or internal architecture. In this "black box" approach, DAST analyzes the application externally, observing its operational state and reactions to simulated attacks conducted by testing tools. These simulations provide valuable insights into whether the application is susceptible to real-world attacks.

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While DAST has a broader application scope, encompassing various runtime targets, it predominantly finds use in web scanning. This is driven by the prevalence of web applications and services, often intertwined with APIs, over the past few decades. DAST also extends its reach to mobile backend services, frequently implemented as web services.

DAST typically enters the security testing picture during the software development lifecycle (SDLC) testing phase. It requires a running target, meaning DAST comes into play once the application's code has been constructed and deployed to a test, staging, or integration environment.

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DAST possesses the capability to unveil a broad spectrum of vulnerabilities, including some of the most prevalent ones:

  • Structured Query Language (SQL) injection: DAST tools discern potential SQL injection vulnerabilities by introducing crafted input into the application and monitoring its response.
  • Cross-Site Scripting (XSS): DAST is proficient at detecting XSS vulnerabilities by injecting malicious scripts into the application and observing if it executes them.
  • Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF): DAST tools can identify CSRF vulnerabilities by testing if users can manipulate the application into executing unintended actions on their behalf.
  • Broken authentication: DAST identifies issues related to authentication mechanisms, such as weak password policies or improper session management.
  • Insecure Direct Object References (IDOR): DAST can pinpoint IDOR vulnerabilities by manipulating object references, such as URLs or hidden form fields, to access unauthorized resources.

Benefits of Implementing DAST in Your Security Strategy

Benefits of Implementing DAST

Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST) offers many advantages when integrated into your organization's security strategy. Here are some key benefits:

  • Real-Time Vulnerability Detection: More than 75% of applications exhibit some form of vulnerability. Security misconfigurations, vulnerable software libraries, and other seemingly minor errors can lead to major security breaches. DAST actively assesses web applications while running, enabling the real-time detection of security vulnerabilities and weaknesses.
  • Risk Reduction: Identifying and addressing vulnerabilities early in the development lifecycle minimizes the risk of data breaches, cyberattacks, and associated financial and reputational damages.
  • Integration with CI/CD Pipelines: DAST can seamlessly integrate with continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD) pipelines.
  • Cost Savings: Detecting and addressing security vulnerabilities early in the development cycle is more cost-effective than remediating issues discovered in production.
  • Compliance: Implementing DAST aligns with regulatory requirements and industry standards, demonstrating a commitment to data security and compliance.
  • Scalability: DAST can adapt to the evolving needs of your organization, accommodating changes in your application landscape. It can scale to address the security requirements of both small-scale and large-scale applications.
  • Low False Positives: DAST boasts a commendable record of generating a few false positives, which are erroneous reports of non-existent vulnerabilities, compared to alternative testing methods.

How Does Dynamic Application Security Testing Work

How Does Dynamic Application Security Testing Work

Simulate Real-World Attacks

DAST tools mimic the tactics employed by malicious hackers, subjecting the web application to various types of attacks, such as SQL injection, cross-site scripting, and more. These simulated attacks are designed to uncover vulnerabilities that cybercriminals could potentially exploit.

Monitor Application Responses

As the application undergoes these simulated attacks, DAST closely monitors its responses. It assesses how the application reacts under stress and identifies any unexpected behavior, anomalies, or security flaws.

Identify Vulnerabilities

By analyzing the application's behavior under these conditions, DAST identifies security vulnerabilities and weaknesses that might otherwise go unnoticed. These vulnerabilities can range from issues with authentication and authorization mechanisms to common attack vectors like SQL injection and cross-site scripting.

Provide Insights

Once vulnerabilities are detected, DAST tools generate reports that provide actionable insights for developers and security teams. These reports describe the identified vulnerabilities, their potential impact, and recommended remediation steps.

Continue Testing

DAST can be integrated into the software development lifecycle, ensuring that security testing occurs regularly and consistently. Organizations can proactively address vulnerabilities and enhance overall security by testing applications throughout development and deployment.

Types of Dynamic Application Security Testing

Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST) offers two distinct approaches: automated and manual testing. Each method serves specific purposes and addresses different aspects of security assessment.

Automated DAST relies on crawlers and a primary URL to autonomously scan web applications. It diligently monitors and audits the entire application, systematically searching for critical vulnerabilities. Every interaction with the application, including accessed pages, requests, and server responses, is meticulously logged.

Automated DAST can be further configured to detect threats like denial of service and brute force attacks. However, it's important to exercise caution, as aggressive testing may temporarily slow down the main application or website. For these kinds of assessments, seeking the application owner's consent is advisable.

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In manual DAST, testing is conducted within the context of the application. This approach is indispensable for uncovering vulnerabilities that automated DAST scans might overlook, especially those related to business logic.

Security engineers gain an in-depth understanding of the application within the scope of testing. They then craft test cases based on various scenarios a malicious user might exploit. Test requests sent to the server can be either genuine or carefully crafted, and the server's responses are manually captured with proxy tools. This meticulous, application-specific manual testing is instrumental in discovering critical vulnerabilities that may elude automated DAST scans.

How to Implement DAST in Your Security Application

How to Implement DAST in Your Security Application

When integrating Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST) into your cybersecurity strategy, it's paramount to comprehensively assess your DAST implementation's scope and objectives. This entails defining the parameters and goals that will guide your DAST endeavors. Here's how you can approach this critical phase:

Define Scope

Determine the scope of applications to be tested. Are you focusing solely on web applications, or does your scope extend to APIs and microservices? Specify the environments where DAST scans will be conducted. Will testing be limited to pre-production environments or extend to live production systems? Exercise caution when scanning live systems to avoid potential disruptions.

Decide how frequently DAST scans will be performed. Regular scans are essential for identifying evolving vulnerabilities, but the frequency should align with your application's development and release cycles. Consider any regulatory or compliance mandates that dictate the scope of your DAST assessments. Ensure that your DAST strategy aligns with these requirements.

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Set Objectives

Clearly define the types of vulnerabilities you aim to detect with DAST. Common objectives include identifying SQL injection, Cross-Site Scripting (XSS), and other critical security flaws.

Establish a strategy for managing false positives, as DAST scans may occasionally generate erroneous findings. Define how false positives will be verified and mitigated.

Decide how DAST will integrate into your existing development and DevOps processes. Define workflows for addressing vulnerabilities detected during scans. Specify the format and content of DAST reports. Ensure that reports are actionable, providing developers with the information they need to remediate vulnerabilities effectively. Implement a risk-based approach to prioritize vulnerabilities based on their severity and potential impact on your organization.

Configure the DAST Tool

Choose a suitable DAST tool based on your application's technology stack and requirements. Configure the tool with the necessary parameters, including the target URLs or APIs, authentication credentials, and scan depth

Environment Setup

Create a dedicated testing environment where DAST scans can be performed safely. This may include staging or pre-production environments. Configure the DAST tool to connect to the target applications and replicate real-world user interactions.

Automated Scanning

Integrate DAST scans into your CI/CD pipeline. Ideally, initiate scans automatically after code commits or deployments. Establish thresholds for scan results, defining criteria for passing or failing a build based on detected vulnerabilities.

Continuous Monitoring

Once the DAST scan is complete, review the scan report generated by the tool. This report will detail the vulnerabilities detected during the scan. Not all vulnerabilities are equal in severity. Prioritize the identified vulnerabilities based on their potential impact and exploitability. Focus on addressing critical vulnerabilities first. Understand that DAST is not a one-time activity. Implement continuous monitoring and periodic rescans to ensure that vulnerabilities are addressed promptly and new issues do not appear.

Collaboration and Remediation

When vulnerabilities are detected, create efficient workflows for communication and remediation. Implement a streamlined process for developers to access detailed scan reports and guidance on fixing vulnerabilities.

Testing Across Application Layers

Ensure that DAST scans cover the surface-level vulnerabilities and assess the security of APIs, microservices, and backend components. To provide comprehensive coverage, consider integrating DAST with other security testing methods, such as Static Application Security Testing (SAST) and Software Composition Analysis (SCA).

Dynamic Application Security Testing Tools

Dynamic Application Security Testing Tools

Let's delve into some notable DAST tools, each offering unique features to enhance your application security posture:

OWASP Zed Attack Proxy

OWASP ZAP is a free and open-source DAST tool developed by the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP). ZAP offers a user-friendly interface and a wide range of scanning capabilities. It helps security professionals and developers identify vulnerabilities in web applications. ZAP is highly customizable, making it a valuable asset for beginners and experienced users. It provides detailed reports and allows you to intercept and modify requests, making it a versatile tool for web application security testing.

Burp Suite

Burp Suite is a popular DAST tool used by security experts worldwide. It offers both free and commercial versions. Burp Suite provides comprehensive scanning features, including automated scanning and manual testing capabilities. It supports various web technologies and offers detailed reports. Burp Suite is known for its versatility and is often used for in-depth web application security assessments.

Acunetix

Acunetix is a powerful DAST solution that specializes in identifying vulnerabilities in web applications. It offers automated scanning for security issues, including SQL injection and cross-site scripting (XSS). Acunetix provides detailed reports and supports various development platforms. Its user-friendly interface and robust automation capabilities make it a top choice for security professionals.

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AppScan (IBM Security)

IBM Security's AppScan is an enterprise-grade DAST tool designed for identifying security vulnerabilities in web applications. It combines automated scanning with interactive testing and in-depth analysis. AppScan offers insights into both common vulnerabilities and advanced threats. It's suitable for large organizations seeking comprehensive web application security solutions.

Netsparker

Invicti, formerly known as Netsparker, is renowned for its advanced scanning technology and comprehensive coverage. It accurately detects vulnerabilities, including complex issues, and provides detailed reports for efficient remediation. Invicti features a user-friendly interface and robust automation capabilities, making it a preferred choice among security professionals.

Rapid7 AppSpider

Rapid7's AppSpider is a DAST solution designed to uncover security weaknesses in web applications. It provides automated scanning and manual testing features for in-depth assessments. AppSpider offers comprehensive vulnerability reports and helps organizations secure their web applications effectively. It's a valuable tool for both security professionals and developers.

How to Overcome Common Challenges in DAST Implementation

Let's explore some challenges organizations may encounter when using DAST.

  1. One significant challenge in DAST is dealing with session management. Web applications often use short-lived tokens or cookies for authentication. DAST scans, on the other hand, can take hours to complete, depending on the application's complexity. To address this challenge, develop a mechanism to refresh or re-authenticate with the application before the old token expires, allowing the scan to continue using the new token.
  2. DAST scans may produce false negatives, where malicious attempts are incorrectly labeled as safe, or false positives, where legitimate user requests are flagged as malicious. The frequency of these errors tends to increase with the application's size and user base. While false positives can be mitigated through manual testing, false negatives are often undetectable by DAST tools alone, necessitating a combination of diverse testing methods.
  3. Applications often have complex authentication mechanisms, including multi-factor authentication (MFA) or CAPTCHA challenges, which can be challenging for DAST tools to navigate. Provide the authentication credentials or tokens required to access authenticated areas of your application.
  4. Modern applications often consist of microservices, APIs, and frontend-backend separations, making it challenging to test the entire application. Use DAST tools that support testing of APIs and microservices.

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While Dynamic Application Security Testing effectively identifies runtime security issues, it's essential to acknowledge that it cannot uncover all vulnerabilities within your application. For comprehensive coverage, a multi-faceted security approach is necessary.

Scaling DAST can be challenging as it relies on creating effective tests, often requiring scarce security experts who must craft, adjust, or refine tests and solutions. These experts need an in-depth understanding of the application under scrutiny, application servers, databases, traffic flows, and access control lists.

At TechMagic, we specialize in meticulously testing software applications for bugs and vulnerabilities in real-time environments. Our comprehensive approach to security testing services combines both automated and manual DAST, ensuring that we provide the essential steps to reproduce and rectify any identified issues to keep your applications securely protected.

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FAQs

  1. What is DAST testing?

    DAST, or Dynamic Application Security Testing, is a security testing methodology that evaluates web applications by actively scanning them for vulnerabilities during runtime. It simulates real-world attacks on an application to identify potential security weaknesses and provides valuable insights for remediation.

  2. Can DAST be integrated with other security testing methods?

    DAST can be effectively integrated with other security testing methodologies, such as Static Application Security Testing (SAST) and Software Composition Analysis (SCA). This integration enhances the overall security posture by addressing vulnerabilities from different angles and stages of the software development lifecycle.

  3. How often should DAST scans be performed?

    The frequency of DAST scans depends on the specific needs of your organization and the nature of your applications. Generally, it's advisable to incorporate DAST scans into your Continuous Integration/Continuous Delivery (CI/CD) pipeline to ensure that security checks are conducted with every code change.

  4. What challenges may arise with DAST implementation?

    DAST implementation can present challenges such as false positives, false negatives, limited testing scope, and difficulties with session management and authentication flows.

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Ross Kurhanskyi
Head of partner engagement