What is application security and how does it work?

Application security, sometimes shortened to AppSec, refers to the security measures used to protect software from unauthorized access, use, disclosure, disruption, modification, or destruction. The practice of AppSec implements safeguards and controls to protect software from cyberthreats, and to ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of the application and its data.

Why is application security important?

With the rise of cloud-based apps and services, applications are often targeted by attackers seeking to exploit weaknesses and gain access to sensitive data. App vulnerabilities can range from simple coding errors to more complex issues like unsecure settings or misconfigured environments.

The serious consequences from a security breach—like the loss of sensitive data, financial risk, or damage to a company's reputation—are a well-documented, almost daily occurrence. They also highlight the importance of building secure software in every phase of app design, development, and deployment. These business consequences can extend to developers as well. In many companies, development and security teams are siloed or there may be limited AppSec expertise or resources. This is especially problematic when companies deploy hundreds of apps at a time and it creates an environment where developers—along with the pressure to write code and ship software faster—often bear the burden of security and compliance for their orgs, too.

Learn more about the importance of building secure software in the ebook Empowering developers to build secure software faster.

The importance of proactive application security

A proactive security approach focuses on prevention and builds in security right from the start—in the design of the app. This approach integrates security into the developer workflow using methods like code, secret, and dependency scanning.

A proactive approach to app security is important to:

  1. Protect against malicious hacks by identifying weaknesses to prevent data breaches before they happen.

  2. Keep compliant with data protection laws to avoid penalties of noncompliance.

  3. Proactively safeguard sensitive data by locating errors that might expose confidential information.

  4. Free up devs’ time to create more secure, resilient apps and spend less time on remediation and patching.

Learn why a proactive security strategy is the best way to secure your code in the ebook Proactive vs Reactive Security.

What are some types of application security?

Application security measures fall into several overlapping categories:, including:

  • Network security helps protect the integrity and confidentiality of data transmitted over a network. Examples include firewalls, SSL/TLS encryption, and virtual private networks (VPNs), as well as microsegmentation, real-time detection, and end-to-end encryption.

  • Data security protects data from unauthorized access, modification, or destruction. Examples include data encryption, access control, and data backup and recovery methods.

  • Access control manages user access to resources within an app. Examples include authentication, authorization, and permissions management.

  • Application runtime security are protections that work while the app is running. Examples include input validation, authentication and authorization controls, and secure coding practices.

  • Cryptography uses algorithms to encode and decode data, making it difficult for unauthorized parties to access or modify it. Examples include symmetric key encryption, public key encryption, and digital signatures.

Five common components of application security

Generally speaking, there are five broad components of app security:

  • Vulnerability assessment is the process of identifying, analyzing, and prioritizing fixes in an organization's systems. It uses various tools and techniques to scan networks, systems, and apps for weaknesses and assess the risks.

  • Security measures are all the controls and processes that protect against threats and vulnerabilities. These can include technical measures like firewalls, antivirus software, and encryption, as well as access controls and security policies.

  • Security policies and procedures are the rules and guidelines that an organization puts in place to ensure the security of its systems and data. These can include policies on password management, access controls, data protection, and incident response.

  • Security training and company awareness educates employees in security measures and creates a culture of security with best practices like Zero Trust and secure coding.

  • Incident response and recovery are the plans and procedures for detecting and responding to incidents, as well as the processes for recovering from and mitigating the effects of an incident.

Security at every step

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How does application security work?

Here are some more specific examples of how application security is put into practice:

  • Vulnerability assessments, including code and architecture review. Some common vulnerabilities are cross-site scripting (XSS), SQL injection attacks, unvalidated input, and security misconfigurations.

  • Security testing with a variety of testing methods, like static code analysis, dynamic application security testing (DAST), penetration testing, and fuzz testing.

  • Monitoring, including monitoring network traffic, logs, and other indicators of potential threats.

Eight best practices for application security

While there are numerous platforms and services devoted solely to app security, app developers and companies of all sizes can benefit from adopting these eight security best practices:

  • Implement input validation: Ensure that data entered into the system is valid and meets the required criteria. This can help to prevent attacks like SQL injection.

  • Enable access control: Enhance password security using robust password policies, like password managers, generators, and even passwordless options.

  • Adopt strong authentication: This can include using usernames and passwords, as well as VPN tokens, biometric authentication like thumbprints, and other methods to confirm a user's identity.

  • Always encrypt data: Encrypting data, in transit and at rest, is one of the best ways to prevent unauthorized access to data transmission. Strong encryption can make leaked data useless to bad actors.

  • Implement patch management: Regularly update and patch the system to fix vulnerabilities and prevent exploits.

  • Take a risk assessment: Learn how to use real-time analytics tools and monitoring to control user access, discover shadow IT, and limit app sprawl.

  • Conduct security testing: Regularly test the system using vulnerability assessments, penetration testing, and other types of testing to make sure your apps and data are secure.

  • Enforce protections on source code: Follow best practices for writing secure code, including using secure programming language and frameworks.

By following these best practices, app developers can significantly improve the security of their apps and data—and help protect from threats like hacking, malware, and other cyberattacks.

Next steps to keep your code and secrets secure

GitHub has several tools and features to help you test and secure your apps, including:

  • Code scanning enables developers to find and fix security issues in the code before the app reaches production. It’s also referred to as static application security testing (SAST).

  • Secret scanning prevents unauthorized access and breaches by monitoring repositories for known secret formats, and notifying developers as soon as secrets are found.

  • Dependabot makes it easier for you to fix vulnerable dependencies in your repository. This feature raises alerts for vulnerabilities in the dependency graph of your repository and automatically tries to fix it.

  • Supply chain security catches vulnerable dependencies with software composition analysis (SCA)—and flags them before they are introduced into the code base.

  • Security overview simplifies security management and policies with a centralized view of all the security risks across an organization and in individual repositories.

For an all-up solution to keep your code and secrets safe, check out GitHub Advanced Security—which helps you identify and fix vulnerabilities in your code, including static code analysis, dependency scanning, and secret scanning.

Frequently asked questions

What is application security?

Application security, sometimes shortened to AppSec, is the practice of implementing safeguards and controls to protect from cyberthreats and to maintain the integrity, availability, and confidentiality of apps and data.

What are some examples of application security?

Here are just a few examples of measures that can be taken to secure applications:

  • Strong password policies, or even passwordless options, to ensure good password practices.

  • Multifactor authentication to verify the identity of users before granting access.

  • Security patches and updates to fix vulnerabilities and prevent breaches.

  • Encryption to protect sensitive data transmitted through the application.

  • Security testing to identify and correct errors that create vulnerabilities.

  • Security monitoring to detect suspicious activity and to prevent unauthorized access.

Why do we need application security?

Application security is increasingly important in today's digital age, as more sensitive information is stored and transmitted electronically. This includes financial information, personal identification, medical records, and other sensitive data that must be protected to maintain the privacy and security of individuals and organizations.