Top 6 Secure Web Application Authentication Best Practices

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Your company is ready to begin development for a new web application. That’s great! But before you begin the process, do you have a plan in place for ensuring your application is as secure as it can be?

Protecting your users’ information should be a top priority, especially with the increase in data breaches of large companies. You don’t want to put your users at risk because it could cause them to lose trust in your organization or worse: seek out your competitors.

We want your application to succeed. That’s why we’ve compiled a list of the top web application authentication best practices to boost your application’s security and maintain your users’ trust:

  1. Create a web application authentication checklist.
  2. Update and secure all your passwords. 
  3. Store sensitive data separate from regular data.
  4. Find and analyze your web application’s vulnerabilities. 
  5. Test your web application authentication based on the lowest permissions.
  6. Use a web application firewall. 

While these tips are focused on securing your internal accounts so that hackers can’t access admin accounts with high-level permissions, many of these best practices can also be used to secure your users’ accounts.

What’s more? Your application doesn’t have to be in the developing stages to implement these tips. In fact, companies should conduct regular web application security checks, and our best practices can help!

Before we start: brush up on the basics of website authentication with Swoop’s complete guide. Now, let’s get started!


1. Create a Web Application Authentication Checklist

Securing your web application can seem like a neverending task, and we understand a lot goes into keeping you and your users’ information protected. However time-consuming the process may seem, it still needs to be done, especially when around 90% of user-generated passwords are vulnerable to hacking.

If you’re not sure where to get started, the best place to begin is by creating a checklist that details the steps you’ll take to reach a secure web application. 

Your checklist should include four key steps:

Gathering Information

The first step in this web application authentication best practice is to gain a better sense of what applications your organization uses, what information is stored in those applications, and how information is transferred between your application and the others apps your company uses. Even if your application is secure, the other applications your company uses could put you at risk if they aren’t secured as well.

Start off by pointing out areas in each platform that you think could be at risk and determine which areas of the application can be tested manually or using a security tool.

Move to the next step once: You’ve outlined what applications you need to test in addition to your own and pinpointed potential vulnerabilities.

Planning a Course of Action

At this stage, you’ll document your testing strategy as well as define the types of risks each application presents. For instance, if an application has an authentication component, you should check for password complexity guidelines and brute-force attacks, among other factors.

Make sure everyone on your IT team knows what tasks they are responsible for and create a timeline for when the testing will be completed.

Move to the next step once: Your plan is all ironed out and tasks are delegated to the right team members.

Executing Your Security Checks

The next step is to actually execute your security checks. It’s likely that each application you test will require a combination of automated and manual checks to ensure everything is in order.

Your manual tests should cover common vulnerabilities. In most cases, the tester will act as if they’re trying hack into the website to identify areas that are defenseless.

Move to the next step once: All security risks have been identified and a thorough report has been created to identify the most pressing security concerns.

Remedying the Major Problems

Now that you’ve discovered your application’s major risks — whether they be external or internal — you need to classify each problem. It’s vital to determining where the risk originated. For example, any app-related risks might require updates to your application while user-generated risks, could mean you need more staff training.

Sometimes these risks may be the result of other applications your team is using, in which case, you’ll need to seek out a more secure alternative.

Move to the next step once: You’ve categorized each risk, determined how you’re going to solve it, and implemented the changes.

Bottom line: Creating a checklist will help keep your web application security checks efficient and organized.


2. Update and Secure All Your Passwords

We’ve talked a lot about passwords, especially concerning why our security experts believe passwords aren’t the best defense against unauthorized activity.

Passwords are more than just an inconvenience for users to manage:

  • They’re easy to guess manually or using automated tools.
  • User-generated passwords often follow a pattern, which makes them easier to compromise.
  • The same credentials are used to protect multiple accounts.
  • Passwords aren’t always stored in the correct way.

With so many vulnerabilities it can be difficult to account for all of them when securing your web application. That’s why we recommend using passwordless options as the second web application authentication best practice. Users and staff will have one less password to manage by authenticating your device using:

Plus, passwordless authentication is very secure. Swoop’s login tool, for example, runs email addresses through three layers of security checks to ensure that the email came from the intended user. And, if we spot any unusual behavior, we send users a text to confirm or decline the request. 

While you may be able to implement passwordless login into your own application, it might not be a possibility with the other applications your company uses. That’s why it’s still important to create strong passwords using this essential list of do’s and don’ts:

Secure your account passwords using this list of do's and dont's as your web application authentication best practice.

Any account linked to your application (like your constituent database) could potentially put you and your users at risk if that account isn’t properly protected. Using these best practices can help ensure that your passwords are strong enough to prevent a hack.

Bottom line: Despite their vulnerabilities, passwords are often the only defense against hackers trying to access your sensitive information. If you can’t use a passwordless option, make sure your credentials are strong enough to deter hackers.


3. Store Sensitive Data Separate From Regular Data

A common mistake that applications make is that all the data is stored together in one large, often encrypted, file. When all your user and internal information is together, it’s difficult to give accounts the right permissions to access the data.

For example, your marketing and outreach department might need access to your users’ names and contact information, but they shouldn’t have access to anyone’s username or password. When the information is all in one place, however, your company won’t be able to easily restrict what each staff member can access. 

Many security experts suggest classifying information into three categories:

  • Any sensitive information that could put the company and its user at a high risk, should be considered restricted data. This information should only be made available on a need-to-know basis.
  • Confidential data is information that is sensitive but still needs to be accessed by an entire department. For instance, users’ home addresses should still maintain a level of privacy but may be useful to your marketing team, who often send out direct mail.
  • Last, public data is non-sensitive information that presents minimal risk to the business. This information is generally accessible to anyone in the business as well as sometimes publicly displayed, like a person’s first name on their social media account.

Keep your data secure by following this essential web application authentication best practice.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to protect your passwords and other sensitive data, check out Swoop’s list of strategies to prevent a data breach.

With a better sense of how to categorize information, your company can not only determine how you will protect information but also who will have access to the data.

Bottom line: Dividing your information based on the level of confidentiality is a web application authentication best practice that will help ensure your sensitive information is only accessed by those who need it.


4. Find and Analyze Your Web Application’s Vulnerabilities

One of the most important parts of our web application authentication checklist is identifying your application’s potential risks. But how does your company go about finding gaps in your application’s defenses?

The first step is to identify where possible risks can occur. Most applications have a login component that requires users to authenticate their identities, and this is where most of an application’s security risks will occur. 

Ask yourself the following questions to better understand your application’s vulnerabilities:

  • Does our website use passwordless login? If not, are we implementing a form of two-factor authentication to protect accounts that have been compromised?
  • Have we limited the number of login attempts to prevent hacks from attempting a brute-force attack?
  • If our application allows users to authorize other applications to access information is the OAuth process secure?

Once you’ve identified potential risks, it’s time to test them out! Use a combination of automated and manual checks to have a well rounded picture of your application’s vulnerabilities.

A machine can quickly scan through your application to pinpoint risks, but they often lack the ability to spot logical flaws.

Your IT team will have a better understanding of what gaps in the system hackers are looking for and the processes they use to gain access to your data.

During your search, you may find more vulnerabilities than you expected, and that’s okay. While it isn’t possible to eliminate all the risks, your team will need to identify which ones require immediate fixes and begin implementing solutions.

Bottom line: Identify areas in your application where a hacker could gain access and test your processes to determine if there is a threat. Remember, focusing on the major issues makes the process less time-consuming and easier to manage.


5. Test Your Web Application Authentication Based on the Lowest Permissions

Once you’ve implemented changes to protect your account, your team should test all potential threats using accounts with lowest privileges.

Every application has specific permissions for certain accounts or computers. These permissions dictate what a user is able to do and see when they’re on your application.

For instance, a customer’s permissions will be drastically different than an employee’s; an employee might be able to modify elements of the application whereas a customer would only be able to update their profile.

It’s common for hackers to use low-level accounts as an entry point into your application’s infrastructure since these accounts:

  • Are often less secure and use weak passwords.
  • May contain higher-level permissions that were never removed or updated.
  • Aren’t monitored or maintained as closely as high-level accounts.

Learn more about why account permissions are so important in Swoop’s post about email password breaches.

Check to make sure that all the new security protocols you implemented protect users on the lowest levels and that every account only has the permissions it needs. That way, hackers can’t make significant changes if they do access a lower account.

Once you’ve made sure that your lower-level accounts are protected, your team can move on to higher-level accounts to make sure your security measures stand strong no matter how many permissions an account has.

Bottom line: Implementing new security protocols is only half the battle; you need to make sure these solutions work for accounts with low- and high-level permissions.  


6. Use a Web Application Firewall

The last web application authentication best practice we can recommend to companies is to use an application firewall during the entire process.

Running your application through tests and implementing changes could take weeks — even months — to get through all the major threats. During that time, your company will be even more vulnerable to attacks.

It’s vital that your team is vigilant in monitoring your application for any threats, but your staff can’t do it all on their own.

That’s why we recommend you use a web application firewall (WAF) to protect your company from any threats. 

Essentially, any traffic routed through a WAF is blocked if it’s malicious, and you can create custom rules to further protect your application.

By using a WAF, you can protect your web application authentication process.

Whether you’re sharing information between applications or have staff and customers using your application during your security check, this tool is essential.

What’s more, a WAF can be used after your security check as an ongoing monitoring system for your company’s application. In addition to the standard monitoring your IT conducts, this will help prevent data breaches and potential attacks. Even simple security plugins for WordPress sites can make a huge difference for your website’s defenses.

Bottom line: Your application is at its weakest when your team is testing and implementing changes. Create an additional layer of protection by using a web application firewall.

With our six web application authentication best practices, you can start conducting regular checks on your application’s security. Hopefully, you’ve learned how to organize the process as well as a few tips and tricks to make the experience go faster.

For more information about web authentication and how to protect your application, check out our additional resources:

Do you want to eliminate passwords from your website or application? Integrate Today