[Progress News] [Progress OpenEdge ABL] Website & App Security: What You Need to Know to Protect the Products You Build

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Suzanne Scacca

What can you do to ensure that you’re not setting up your clients for failure or their end users for trouble? In this post, we’ll look at the four parts of a digital product that are the most vulnerable along with what you can do to secure those weak spots.

Website and app security matters a good deal. In a time where users will abandon brands they were once loyal to simply because they don’t offer fast enough shipping or cheaper prices, imagine what a security breach could lead to.

Best case scenario, the website or app temporarily goes offline or is minorly defaced. Sure, the work to restore the product and reassure users that they’re safe will be tough. But in the worst case scenario where your users’ sensitive information is stolen and exploited, the consequences will be far worse.

You could be looking at destroyed brand reputation, search engine blacklisting, getting kicked off app stores and relentless PR campaigns against the brand. Not to mention potential lawsuits if a lapse in your product’s security leads to the loss of money, privacy or security of users.

In the following post, we’re going to look at the different areas of your products that are the most vulnerable and what you can do to better fortify them.

The Most Vulnerable Parts of Digital Products​

A 2020 survey done by Patchstack found that 73% of digital agencies and freelance designers and developers have grown more concerned about website security. Yet, only 45% of those surveyed are taking measures to fully protect the products they build.

In order to provide more robust protection, the first thing to do is learn where your products are the most vulnerable. There are four areas that need to be looked after in different ways:

The Server​

Where you host a digital product can have a huge impact on how well or poorly it does in terms of security (as well as speed and SEO). So finding a hosting provider that takes security seriously is critical.

What exactly does that look like?

Just as you’ll look for vulnerable areas inside and around your digital product, your hosting company should be doing the same thing. So there should be security measures implemented at different levels. For instance:

The data centers where the servers are stored should have physical security and surveillance systems in place. Also, access to the server facilities should be restricted to essential security professionals only.

The server databases should have various types of security in place—like encryption, firewalls and security keys. This not only provides protection for the digital products stored on the servers, but also any databases where company and user data is housed.

It’s also important that you (or your client) choose the right type of hosting. While businesses and products of any size can be attacked by hackers, some have more to lose than others if a breach occurs. So ensuring that you have a hosting plan and security features that protect the type of information you’re receiving and storing is just as important as choosing a provider.

The Digital Product​

Security measures also need to be implemented within the products you build. Pay special attention to the software you’re using to build your products.

Some content management systems are more prone to cyberattacks than others. It’s not necessarily because they’re poorly built or managed. It’s often because they’re popular solutions, which means their vulnerabilities are well-known to the public as well as hackers.

I wouldn’t even say that you should go choosing a CMS because it gets a smaller percentage of all the total annual cyberattacks. What matters most is that you’re aware of the risk level and the common vulnerabilities associated with it. That way, you can fortify your product at those weak spots on top of implementing standard security measures like an SSL certificate, firewall, anti-malware and so on.

In addition to being proactive about protecting your product, it’s also important to keep it updated. In this case, I’m not talking so much about the design or content. I’m referring to the software itself.

Unpatched vulnerabilities and bugs are a common way in which hackers get in through the backdoor of a website or app. However, doing regular check-ins on your products to ensure that their software remains updated will reduce the likelihood of this happening. So too will having an active monitoring and alert system in place.

Access Points​

There are different areas on the backend and frontend of your products that can pose a security threat if they’re not properly fortified.

The admin login form is one of the most vulnerable spots, especially if the access URL is well-known. This is one of the reasons why WordPress websites, for instance, can be so vulnerable when it comes to security breaches. Unless the developer masks the admin access page, hackers will be able to find it without issue.

It’s not just the backend login you have to worry about. Frontend login areas for users can cause issues as well. This is why two-factor authentication is really important, no matter how much of an inconvenience it may seem for users or customers.

Also, pay close attention to areas where users input or modify data on the frontend of your site. For example:

  • Contact forms
  • Blog comment forms
  • Checkout forms
  • Job application portals
  • File uploaders
  • User account areas

Security measures you’ve implemented at the server and product level will help encrypt and keep the user data safe here.

However, you also have to think about keeping the product and the brand that owns it safe. Malicious code can be injected into a product or its database via forms. So setting up forms and fields to only accept certain characters or to reject known malicious strings is important. The same goes for file uploaders and the types of files and data they accept.

Third-Party Extensions​

The other major point of vulnerability for digital products comes from third-party extensions. According to this report from Security Magazine, 51% of companies say that a third party was responsible for a data breach they experienced.

When it comes to building digital products, it’s pretty standard to use third-party extensions, libraries and API integrations to build special features and simplify the transfer of data from one application to another. However, it appears that some organizations aren’t vetting the third parties they’re sharing their data with.

So what can you do about this?

The most important thing is to choose third-party solutions that are trustworthy. Read their reviews to see if users report similar security-related issues. Do searches for the product’s name in conjunction with “security issues,” “security breach” and “data breach.” You can bet that if they’ve put users’ data at risk—even if it was through someone else’s product—there’s news about it online.

Also, for any software you’re directly plugging into your CMS, you need to keep it updated as frequently as you do your main software. While it’s ultimately up to the provider to debug their software, you might need to manually push updates through if you can’t automate them.

One last thing I’d suggest is to minimize how many external solutions you use. The more plugins and APIs you integrate into your site, the greater the risk of a security breach. By using a suite of solutions that are all compatible with one another and that a single provider maintains can be hugely beneficial in terms of security.

22-Point Checklist for Securing Your Digital Products​

There are many different ways a hacker can go after a digital product. And while web designers and developers might get better about protecting their products, hackers will adapt and get more creative with their attacks.

To ensure that your products remain secured, you’ll need to cover all your bases. Here is a list of security measures that will help you protect products from every angle:

  1. Use a hosting solution that has robust security measures.
  2. Choose a hosting plan that provides the best protections at the server level for your product and database.
  3. Implement a firewall.
  4. Implement a web application firewall (WAF).
  5. Add encryption with an SSL certificate.
  6. Add an anti-spam solution (like RECAPTCHA and a honeypot) to all of your forms.
  7. Implement anti-malware.
  8. Choose your third-party integrations and APIs wisely.
  9. Update your CMS regularly.
  10. Keep your plugins or extensions updated regularly.
  11. Implement two-factor authentication for all users when there’s sensitive data involved.
  12. Hide or rename database folders containing critical access information.
  13. Require strong usernames and passwords.
  14. Force password resets for all users every three months.
  15. Limit login attempts.
  16. Use session authentication (via device recognition or tokens).
  17. Restrict backend access and hosting account access to only those people who need it.
  18. Limit what different users and contributors can do on the backend.
  19. Design forms with input validation so that only certain responses are accepted and certain characters or strings are automatically rejected.
  20. Add mobile application shielding to make it difficult to reverse-engineer your code.
  21. Back up your website or app daily.
  22. Set up an active monitoring and alert system.

It’s also a good idea to implement security measures on the local level for you, your team and your clients. That means doing things like logging into the product from a secured internet connection, installing an antivirus on the devices you use to access the backend of your product, and using a password manager so it’s easier to create complex passwords you won’t have to remember.

Make Security a Priority in Digital Design and Development​

In general, if you’re not building secure digital products, you’re going to have a problem. Not only can it hurt how well your clients’ sites and apps rank in search results, but security breaches can lead to serious issues for their end users and, in turn, the company’s profit margins.

To create more secure digital products, it all starts with a solid understanding of what the four big areas of vulnerability are for digital products. Then use the checklist above to ensure that you’ve protected the product from all angles.

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