A proactive approach to data security.

A 5 minute read, written by Tina Van Schelt on 17th August 2020.

If you take a look at the current online dialogue surrounding software development, you’ll rightfully find there's a huge emphasis on application performance and accessibility, but not so much on their less trendy cousin, security.

According to a 2019 Global Developer Report in which GitLab surveyed 4,071 individuals:

69% of developers indicate they’re expected to write secure code and 68% of security professionals feel that fewer than half of developers are able to spot security vulnerabilities later in the software lifecycle.

Those are pretty alarming statistics. Security might not be the sexiest topic in the development sphere, but that doesn’t make it unimportant. If your application isn't secure, you have bigger problems to worry about than speed and accessibility. This is especially true if you're dealing with sensitive data.

Much like testing, performance and accessibility, security should be baked into the development process on an ongoing basis. Securing your application isn’t a one-off task you get to tick off a to-do list during the initial development of a project.

In 2017, Uber revealed that the personal information of 57 million users and 600,000 drivers were exposed in an online attack. We later learned that the data breach occurred after some confidential login credentials were accidentally made public, allowing the hackers access to Uber's databases.

To make matters worse, Uber kept the breach under wraps for a year and only revealed it after paying the hackers $100,000 to destroy the breached data without any guarantee that it would actually be destroyed. When Uber’s poor handling of the breach surfaced they were fined by multiple governments and billions of dollars were wiped from their valuation.

The days of slapping https on a website and calling it secure are long gone. Not prioritising proper security can be costly, with reputational damage often proving significantly more expensive than initial fines. This post explores five strategies for improving your development cycle and minimising your risk of being exploited.

At Leaf, we primarily build web applications using the Ruby on Rails and React development frameworks. Both are well established open-source projects, and have experienced development teams of their own working hard to limit possible security vulnerabilities.

React, for example, requires developers to make an extra effort in order to perform dangerous operations that could be exploited by an attacker for cross-site scripting or SQL injection attacks. Specifically, developers are forced to use a dangerouslySetInnerHTML prop to programmatically set HTML.

Using modern frameworks is only one part of the equation. Keeping them up to date is the other. Outdated technologies generally come with increased operational costs and a dwindling talent pool but they almost certainly come with a higher volume of vulnerabilities. Staying up to date with the latest security patches is a must.

Towards the end of 2018, a stale but popular npm package with roughly 2 million downloads a week was hacked. The hacker disguised himself as a well-intentioned code maintainer, and subsequently injected malware into the code to steal money from people using the package in their products. The incident was a sobering reminder of just how fragile security in the software ecosystem can be.

A 2017 study found that 52% of all npm packages could have been hacked via weak credentials. Services like npm are actively working to improve these statistics, but we still have a long way to go and the onus is on the developer to do a regular dependency audit.

As the web is evolving, front-end developers are sharing an increasing amount of responsibility when it comes to the security of their applications. A quick scan of the OWASP Top 10 Security Vulnerabilities and Risks for 2020 highlights this. Exploits that make use of cross-site scripting and injection attacks can be prevented by properly validating and sanitising the data inputs in your web pages.

When it comes to security, knowing what not to do is important too. localStorage and sessionStorage should only be used for non-sensitive data, and sensitive user data should never be stored client-side. Browser developer tools are incredibly useful, but it’s important to remember that they don't distinguish between hackers and developers, so don't store sensitive data in the browser.

Taking a considered view towards data captured is paramount in the information age. In addition to only collecting essential data, it’s a good idea to evaluate and group data according to its level of sensitivity when starting a new project or building out a new feature. The Harvard Data-tag Model offers a good starting point for categorising your data.

People are often the weakest point in a software system. This includes your staff, your developers, and your users. It’s important that your application design keeps this in mind and takes a proactive approach towards security.

Weak passwords are a common attack vector for digital products. Popular applications like Slack and Notion have attempted to move beyond relying on passwords by allowing users to login with temporary passcodes sent to their email inbox. However, progress towards a world without passwords is proving to be slow-moving.

Weak passwords and users that reuse the same password over and over have consistently been one of the biggest risks when it comes to data breaches. You can minimise your risk by guiding your users to use strong and unique passwords. At the very least you should be ensuring that passwords have a minimum length requirement.

As a developer you might already be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information you have to process. You don’t have to be a security expert, but it is your responsibility to ensure that you have a basic understanding and familiarity with current security trends. The Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) is a good starting point.

As a business in the digital age, ensuring that your user data is secure should be a top priority. At Leaf, we specialise in making it easy for your users to provide you with high quality information, and we help businesses do that securely every day. Get in touch to see how we could help you.