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How to start a solid Application Security Program: A Comprehensive Guide

In today's digital-first business landscape, application security is essential for all companies. If you touch or build software you should have AppSec on your mind. It's not just about safeguarding assets; it's about earning and building trust from customers and partners. Explore our guide to effectively launch a comprehensive app security strategy for your company or team.

Build an inventory of all assets

Begin by creating a comprehensive inventory of all applications running within your environment. This includes not only major software suites but also any minor tools, plugins, or even scripts that may be operational. Use tools like network scanners or software asset management systems to aid in this identification process.

Once you have a list, categorize each application based on its criticality to your business operations. Questions to ask yourself:

  1. Is this application mission-critical, meaning its failure would severely impact business operations?
  2. Does the application have a redundancy or backups in place?
  3. How frequently is maintenance performed on this application?
  4. What is the current security posture of this application?

Having an inventory of all your software applications allows you to start managing things in a more meaningful way. It will also make a great foundation for monitoring and improving your companies attack surface. With a clear understanding of the landscape, prioritize applications. Those that are mission-critical, widely used, and handle sensitive data will naturally require more immediate and focused attention.

Integrate Security into the Development Lifecycle

Establish the mindset of "security is part of the software development process" and get away from thinking of security as an afterthought. This approach, commonly referred to as 'Shift Left', emphasizes bringing security measures closer to the design and implementation phase, thus ensuring a proactive approach to potential threats.

Integrate automated security testing in your CI/CD pipeline to proactively detect and eliminate vulnerabilities earlier in your pre-production environments, ensuring a robust and secure application delivery. Implementing automated security testing within your CI/CD pipeline involves several key steps to ensure that it is effective and efficient. Use a structured approach to get started:

  • Tool Selection: Choose appropriate security testing tools that integrate well with your existing CI/CD pipeline. These could include Static Application Security Testing (SAST), Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST), software composition analysis tools, and container scanning tools.
  • Pipeline Integration: Integrate the selected tools into the pipeline so that they run automatically with each build. Configure the tools to run at the appropriate stages—for example, SAST can run during code commits, while DAST can run after deployment to a staging environment.
  • Baseline Configuration: Establish a baseline for security by configuring the tools to recognize the current state of your application's security posture. This will help to identify existing vulnerabilities that need to be addressed and prevent new ones from being introduced.
  • Thresholds and Policies: Define thresholds for failure and success. Decide on the criteria for a build to fail based on the severity of vulnerabilities detected. Set up policies for vulnerability management and remediation timelines.
  • Continuous Monitoring and Tuning: Monitor the effectiveness of your automated tests and continuously fine-tune the configurations to reduce false positives and ensure relevant results.

Continuous Training and Awareness

Equip your engineering and IT teams with the knowledge they need. Regular training sessions, workshops, and updates on the latest threats and mitigation strategies are crucial. Awareness will lead to better coding practices, early detection of vulnerabilities, and faster response times.

  1. Develop a Security Training Program:
    • Craft a comprehensive security training curriculum that includes modules on secure coding practices, common security threats, how to recognize vulnerabilities, and the steps for mitigating these risks.
    • The curriculum should be tailored to different roles and experience levels within your development and IT teams.
  2. Regular Training Sessions:
    • Schedule regular training sessions, such as quarterly workshops, to ensure ongoing education and awareness.
    • Use these sessions to cover new threats, industry best practices, and refresh knowledge on existing security protocols.
  3. Security Certifications:
    • Provide access to education platforms that specialize in IT and cybersecurity training.
    • Encourage developers to achieve certifications in security-related fields to foster a culture of continuous learning.
  4. Security Champions Program:
    • Establish a security champions program where you identify and train key engineers to become the go-to security experts within their teams.
    • These champions can act as first responders for security queries and help disseminate security best practices among their peers.

Regular Penetration Testing

Even with the best tools and practices, vulnerabilities can still slip through. Regular penetration testing by experts simulates real-world attack scenarios and uncovers vulnerabilities that automated tools might miss.

Conduct comprehensive penetration testing at least once a year. This ensures that any lingering vulnerabilities from previous development cycles are identified and addressed.

Major releases or comprehensive system updates often come with significant changes that could introduce new vulnerabilities. It is a good idea to consider running additional pentests after such major changes.

There are a few different types of external penetration tests:

  • Black box pentest: Security experts are provided very little or no information beyond the scope of the pentest. In this scenario the penetration testers are confined to the role of external threat actors, operating without insider knowledge. They utilize a suite of external assessment tools, including vulnerability scanning to detect technical flaws in the organization's network and systems.
  • White box pentest: Ethical hackers are provided information on the system in scope, such as employee emails, operating systems, security policies or even source code. This inside information enables the pentest team to conduct a thorough and nuanced security assessment, identifying vulnerabilities that a surface-level examination might overlook, and simulating sophisticated insider threats with a level of detail that ensures a comprehensive evaluation of the organization's cybersecurity posture.
  • Gray box pentest: In a hybrid approach that blends white box and black box testing methodologies, penetration testers receive partial knowledge about the target system—a strategic middle ground granting them more insight than a blind attacker but less than a fully informed insider. With this balanced set of data, testers can simulate the perspective of an attacker who has breached the outer defenses and gained a foothold within the internal network. This type of security assessment is particularly effective in pinpointing weaknesses that could be exploited once initial access is secured, thereby helping to reinforce the layers of defense that protect the organization's critical systems from sophisticated cyber threats.

Demonstrating a commitment to security through regular penetration testing can build confidence among customers and partners. Penetration testing helps you improve the quality of your security controls and it can also help reduce the cost of downtime, improve mean-time-to-repair (MTTR), protect brand reputation, maintain customer trust and avoid litigation while also ensuring regulatory compliance.

Incident Response Plan

No matter how robust your security measures, there's always a risk of a breach. An incident response plan outlines the steps your organization will take if a security incident occurs. This ensures a swift and effective response, minimizing potential damage.

A solid Incident Response Plan (IRP) is an essential framework that guides an organization through the steps to mitigate and recover from security incidents. The core of a good IRP hinges on a well-defined communication plan, clear roles and responsibilities, and effective escalation procedures. The communication plan ensures that all stakeholders, from the IT team to the executive board, are informed at each stage of the incident, facilitating swift decision-making and coordination. Roles and responsibilities must be explicitly assigned to avoid confusion during a crisis, with team members trained and ready to execute their designated tasks, which range from technical analysis to public relations. Escalation procedures must be established to enable quick action when an incident grows in severity, ensuring that higher levels of management are engaged when necessary.

Testing an Incident Response Plan (IRP) is critical to ensure its effectiveness during an actual security incident. This testing can be performed through various exercises:

  • Tabletop Exercises
    These are structured discussions, often based around a specific scenario, where the incident response team walks through the steps they would take in response to a hypothetical incident. The goal is to assess the team's understanding of their roles and the plan's procedures without the pressure of an actual event. This exercise promotes discussion on how to handle various aspects of the incident, identifies gaps in the plan, and helps to refine communication strategies.
  • Simulated Attacks
    Simulated cyber attacks, such as penetration testing or red team exercises, offer a dynamic way to test the IRP. These exercises are designed to mimic the tactics, techniques, and procedures of actual attackers. They provide a realistic scenario for the incident response team to detect and respond to, challenging both technical and procedural components of the plan.
  • Live Drills
    Live drills involve a real-time enactment of a response to an incident. They are more action-oriented than tabletop exercises and can include activities like cutting off network segments, running through malware containment protocols, or invoking disaster recovery plans. Live drills test the readiness of the incident response team and the effectiveness of technical controls.
  • Post-Mortem Analysis
    After every exercise or actual incident, a thorough debriefing should take place. This post-mortem analysis breaks down what occurred, what steps were taken, what worked well, and where the shortcomings were. The feedback from this session is invaluable for refining the IRP and improving response strategies.

Each of these testing methods should be conducted regularly and involve all relevant stakeholders. The tests should be varied and cover a wide range of potential scenarios to ensure the plan is robust and flexible. Over time, these exercises will help build an incident response team that is well-prepared, confident, and capable of handling real-world security events efficiently.

Regularly Review and Update Your Program

The threat landscape is continuously evolving. Your application security program should be dynamic, regularly reviewed, and updated to counteract emerging threats and leverage new security tools and practices.

Engage with the Security Community

Don't be shy and start getting involved witht the security community. Join security forums, attend webinars, and collaborate with peers in the industry. The collective intelligence of the community can offer insights, best practices, and recommendations that can immensely benefit your program.

Reddit Communities

  • r/netsec - Information security news and discussions.
  • r/AskNetsec - A place to ask questions about network security.
  • r/cybersecurity - Cybersecurity news and discussions.

Infosec Forums & Sites

Professional Networks


Starting a comprehensive application security program may seem daunting. But having a comprehensive application security program in place is invaluable as it serves as a very proactive form of defense against the ever-evolving threat landscape. By embedding security into the lifecycle of software development, organizations can identify and mitigate vulnerabilities early, reducing the risk of costly breaches and maintaining the integrity of their data and systems.

A robust security program not only fortifies applications against external threats but also fosters a culture of security awareness within the organization. This preemptive approach ensures that security is not an afterthought but a fundamental aspect of the development process, ultimately safeguarding your organization's reputation, maintaining customer trust, and ensuring compliance with regulatory standards.

In essence, an application security program is not just a protective measure—it is a strategic asset that underpins the stability and resilience of a companies's technological infrastructure.

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