Privacy Advisor

Web Watch

May 1, 2007

Web Site Security: Locking the Back Door to Your Back-end Systems

Michael Weider, CTO of Watchfire, explains the top 10 Web application attacks financial services organizations need to be aware of.

For years, banks have been encouraging their customers to make transactions online to increase profits and offer their customers a more convenient alternative to visiting their local branch. Since the online migration began, customer adoption of this channel has increased steadily. However, this also has meant that the pool of potential online scams and breaches also are escalating at an alarming rate. As more and more consumers are inevitably victimized, there is a serious risk that confidence in the integrity of online transactions could plummet, resulting in a devastating effect on e-commerce.

The corporate Web site is one of the most important interactions between a customer and their bank. Hackers also understand this opportunity. Industry analysts have estimated that 75 percent of attacks are now targeting applications. In 2006, Mitre identified the two most common security issues as Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) and SQL Injection vulnerabilities. As more financial services organizations encourage their customers to use the Web as a first point of contact, it is essential that Web sites are secure, trustworthy and uphold the financial services industry's stringent standards and regulations.

Newer breach notification requirements also have made it mandatory to notify consumers of privacy and security breaches. Financial services organizations are facing even more pressure to proactively assess and correct security and privacy issues, with customers, regulators, partners and investors becoming increasingly vocal about violations and breaches.

As Web applications become increasingly complex, tremendous amounts of sensitive data - including personal and financial information - are exchanged and stored. The consumer not only expects, but demands, proper security to protect this information.

A hacker will typically spend time getting to know the Web application by identifying the shortcuts he would have created had he built the application. Then using nothing more than the Web browser, the hacker will attempt to interact with the application and its surrounding infrastructure in malicious ways.

The results can be disastrous.

An organization called OWASP (Open Web Application Security Project) created a "Top Ten" list to help organizations focus on the most serious Web application security vulnerabilities. Adopting a process and implementing technology to monitor for, identify and remediate these threats is an effective first step toward helping ensure the security of Web applications.

Why do these vulnerabilities exist? New methods for attacking Web applications are growing daily in volume and frequency. Security teams are under intense pressure and many cannot keep up with the volume of applications they need to test. They are often either catching issues late in the development cycle or not at all. The continuous cycle of developing, updating and auditing customer-facing applications, combined with trying to keep up with the latest patches, is a constant battle against hackers.

With the explosion of Web-enabled applications, a new reality has emerged. Financial services organizations should not neglect the important step of securing the site and the applications and the data they collect. It only takes a single breach to ruin reputation.


Michael Weider is the Founder and CTO of Watchfire (www.watchfire.com), a leading provider of software and service to help ensure the security and compliance of Web sites.