What is application security (AppSec)?
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Published: 26 March 2024
Contributors: Matthew Finio, Amanda Downie

What is application security (AppSec)?

Application security refers to the process of identifying and repairing vulnerabilities in application software—from development to deployment—to prevent unauthorized access, modification, or misuse.

Application security (AppSec) is an integral part of software engineering and application management. It addresses not only minor bugs but also prevents serious application vulnerabilities from being exploited. An ongoing process rather than a single technology, application security (AppSec) is a crucial component of cybersecurity, encompassing practices that prevent unauthorized access, data breaches and code manipulation of application software. As applications have become more complex, AppSec has become increasingly important and challenging. This evolution necessitates new approaches in secure software development. DevOps and security practices must take place in tandem, supported by professionals with a deep understanding of the software development lifecycle (SDLC).

At its core, application security aims to safeguard sensitive data and application code from theft or manipulation. This involves implementing security measures during application development and design phases and maintaining protection during and post-deployment. 

Ranging from hardware safeguards like routers to software-based defenses such as application firewalls, these measures are supplemented by procedures including regular security testing routines. Additional methods, like thorough code reviews and analysis tools, identify and mitigate vulnerabilities within the codebase. Defensive measures such as strong authentication mechanisms and encryption techniques protect against unauthorized access and cyberattacks. Regular security assessments and penetration testing further ensure proactive vulnerability management.

Organizations use various strategies for managing application security depending on their needs. Factors such as cost, expertise, and the specific challenges posed by different environments (e.g., cloud security, mobile app security, and web application security for apps accessed through a browser interface) influence their methods. Some organizations choose to manage application security internally, which enables direct control over processes and tailored security measures by in-house teams. 

When not managed on-premises, organizations outsource application security—a part of managed security services (MSS)—to a managed security service provider (MSSP). An MSSP can provide a sophisticated security operations center (SOC)security information and event management (SIEM) solutions and access to specialized skills and application security tools. These can benefit organizations that lack internal resources and expertise. Whether managed internally or outsourced, strong security measures are essential to safeguard applications against evolving cyber threats and vulnerabilities

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Why is application security important?

Application security is important for any organization handling customer data, as data breaches pose significant risks. Implementing a strong application security program is crucial to mitigating these application security risks and reducing the attack surface. Developers strive to minimize software vulnerabilities to deter attackers targeting valuable data—whether it's customer information, proprietary secrets or confidential employee data—for nefarious purposes.

In today's cloud-based landscape, data spans various networks and connects to remote servers. Network monitoring and security is vital, but safeguarding individual applications is equally important. Hackers increasingly target applications, making application security testing and proactive measures indispensable for protection. A proactive approach to application security offers an edge by enabling organizations to address vulnerabilities before they impact operations or customers.

Neglecting application security can have serious consequences. Security breaches are prevalent and can lead to temporary or permanent business shutdowns. Customers entrust organizations with their sensitive information, expecting it to be kept safe and private. Failure to secure applications can result in identity theft, financial loss, and other privacy violations. These failures undermine customer trust and damage the organization’s reputation. Investing in the right application security solutions is essential to protect both organizations and their customers from potential harm.

Types of application security

Application security encompasses various features aimed at protecting applications from potential threats and vulnerabilities. These include:

Authentication: Implemented by developers to verify the identity of users accessing the application. Authentication ensures that only authorized individuals gain entry, sometimes requiring multi-factor authentication, a combination of factors like passwords, biometrics or physical tokens.

Authorization: Following authentication, users are granted permission to access specific functionalities based on their validated identity (identity access management). Authorization verifies user privileges against a predefined list of authorized users, ensuring access control. 

Encryption: Applied to safeguard sensitive data during transmission or storage within the application. Particularly crucial in cloud-based environments, encryption obscures data, preventing unauthorized access or interception.

Logging: Vital for tracking application activity and identifying security breaches, application log files chronicle user interactions. Logging provides a timestamped record of accessed features and user identities, which is helpful for post-incident analysis.

Testing: Essential to validate the effectiveness of security measures. Through various testing methods such as static code analysis and dynamic scanning, vulnerabilities are identified and addressed to ensure strong security controls.

Application security benefits

Application security offers numerous benefits to organizations, including:

Decreased disruption: Business operations can be disrupted by security issues. Ensuring application security minimizes the risk of service interruptions that lead to costly downtime.

Early awareness of issues: Strong application security identifies common attack vectors and risks during the app development phase, enabling resolution before the app is launched. After deployment, the application security solution can identify vulnerabilities and alert administrators to potential issues. 

Enhanced customer confidence: Applications with a reputation for security and trustworthiness help increase customer confidence in the brand, which can improve brand loyalty.

Improved compliance: Application security measures help organizations comply with regulatory and compliance requirements related to data security, such as GDPR, HIPAA and PCI DSS. This helps the organization avoid compliance-related penalties, fines and legal issues.

Increased cost savings: Investing in application security in the development process can lead to long-term cost savings. Fixing security issues early in this phase is usually more cost-effective than addressing them after deployment. In addition, strong app security helps avoid the financial costs associated with data breaches, including investigations, legal fees and regulatory fines.

Prevention of cyberattacks: Applications are frequent targets for cyberattacks including malware and ransomware, SQL injections and cross-site scripting attacks. Application security measures help organizations prevent these attacks or minimize their impact.

Protection of sensitive data: Robust security measures help organizations maintain confidentiality and integrity by safeguarding sensitive data such as customer information, financial records and intellectual property from unauthorized access, modification, or theft.

Reduced risks: Eliminating vulnerabilities increases the potential to ward off attacks. Proactive application security measures such as code reviews, security testing, and patch management reduce the likelihood of security incidents and minimize the impact of potential breaches.

Support of brand image: A security breach can erode customer trust in an organization. By prioritizing application security, organizations demonstrate their commitment to maintaining trust and protecting customer data, which helps retain customers and attract new ones.

The application security process

The application security process involves a series of essential steps aimed at identifying, mitigating and preventing security vulnerabilities.

Risk assessment and planning

This initial phase involves identifying potential security risks specific to the application through thorough threat modeling. It includes assessing the application's functionality, data handling processes and potential attack vectors. Based on this assessment, a security plan is developed to outline measures needed to mitigate identified risks.

Secure design and development

During the design and development phase, security considerations are integrated into the application architecture and coding practices. Development teams follow secure coding guidelines and application security best practices to minimize the introduction of vulnerabilities into the codebase. This includes implementing input validation, authentication mechanisms, proper error handling and establishing secure deployment pipelines.

Code review and testing

Comprehensive code reviews and testing are conducted to identify and address security vulnerabilities in the application code. This involves both static code analysis to identify potential flaws in the source code and dynamic testing to simulate real-world attack scenarios and assess the application's resilience to exploitation.

Security testing and evaluation

Security testing is performed to assess the effectiveness of implemented security controls and identify any remaining vulnerabilities. This happens primarily through red teaming, with capabilities like penetration testing , vulnerability scanning, and security risk assessments. This testing identifies weaknesses in the application's defenses and ensures compliance with security standards and regulations.

Deployment and monitoring

Once the application is ready for deployment, ongoing monitoring and maintenance are necessary to ensure continued security. This includes implementing logging and monitoring mechanisms to quickly detect and respond to security incidents. Regular security updates and patches are also applied to address newly discovered vulnerabilities and mitigate emerging threats.

Application security testing (AST) and tools

Developers perform application security testing (AST) as part of the software development process to ensure there are no vulnerabilities in a new or updated version of a software application. Some of the tests and tools related to application security are:

Static application security testing (SAST): This AST uses solutions that analyze application source code without executing the program. SAST can identify potential security vulnerabilities, coding errors and weaknesses in the application's codebase early in the development lifecycle. Developers can then fix these issues before deployment.

Dynamic application security testing (DAST):  Unlike SAST, DAST tools evaluate applications while they are running. They provide insights into the security posture of applications in production environments, simulating real-world attack scenarios to identify vulnerabilities such as input validation errors, authentication flaws and configuration weaknesses that attackers could exploit.

Interactive application security testing (IAST): IAST combines SAST and DAST and improves them by focusing on dynamic and interactive testing, inspecting the application using actual user inputs and actions in a controlled and supervised environment. Vulnerabilities are reported in real time.

OWASP top ten: The OWASP top ten is a list of the top ten most critical security risks facing web applications. Compiled by the Open Web Applications Security Project (OWASP), an international nonprofit organization focused on improving software security, the list provides periodically updated guidance to developers, security professionals and organizations on the most prevalent and impactful vulnerabilities that can lead to security breaches.

Runtime application self-protection (RASP): RASP solutions protect applications at runtime by monitoring and observing behavior for signs of suspicious or malicious activity. They can detect and respond to attacks in real time, and some forms of RASP can block malicious actions when they are detected.

Software composition analysis (SCA): SCA tools identify and manage open-source components and third-party libraries used in an application. They analyze dependencies and assess their security posture, including known vulnerabilities and licensing and compliance issues. 

Secure development lifecycle (SDL) tools: SDL tools integrate security into the development process. They provide developers with guidelines and automated checks to ensure security considerations are addressed throughout the software development lifecycle (SDLC).

Web application firewalls (WAFs): WAFs are designed to protect web applications and their APIs by filtering and monitoring HTTP traffic between a web application and the internet at the application layer. They can detect and block common web-based attacks such as SQL injection, cross-site scripting (XSS) and cross-site request forgery (CSRF). This enables risk mitigation of data breaches and unauthorized access.

These tools and technologies, along with others such as encryption, authentication mechanisms and security testing frameworks, are important for protecting applications from a wide range of security threats and vulnerabilities. Organizations often employ a combination of these tests and tools as part of their application security strategy.

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