Application Security Can No Longer Be Ignored

eWEEK Product Update: Crackers want what's in your applications. So it's unsafe to leave them unprotected.

Applications and the data they process are among the most valuable targets of crackers. Applications are also among the least protected and most vulnerable targets because they often are designed with only a cursory nod to user authentication and data encryption.

For many applications, its understandable why this is the case. Developers have been paid to build applications that do something quickly, efficiently and with as few errors in execution as possible. Preventing user abuse and misuse has been predicated on the assumption that the people accessing the application have good intentions and need to be paternalistically guided by a simple GUI in the things they can and cant do with the product. Any security stronger than a user name and password has usually been left to devices in the network such as firewalls and switch-access control lists.

At the RSA Convention last week in San Jose, Calif., it became crystal clear that corporate decision makers need to take application security to heart as much as they now recognize the need to build strong defenses at the perimeter of the network. Tools such as RSA Security Inc.s BSAFE, which enable strong application-level data encryption and facilitate user authentication, were prominently featured in well-attended workshops.

Application developers will need to make the case to corporate heads that identity management must move up the priority list. Specifically, digital signatures and the authorities that back those signatures need to be considered a central part of any Web-facing application. This raises a series of sticky questions.

Requirements for trusted signatures and authorities to manage them usually lead to a PKI (public-key infrastructure). PKI, the "sounds great/tastes terrible" bugaboo of the last few years, is, at the very least, a well understood way to set up certificate authorities—the power behind a believable signature.

It is also clear that applications will need to be written with various user authentication methods built in. Smart cards, biometrics and other reliable forms of user identification are going to be the norm, not the exception, as trusted financial tools and safeguards for sensitive data such as health-care records and credit-card data become necessities. Likewise, emerging legislation addresses how this information must be protected. Applications must be ready to accept these requirements as surely as they must now process the data that businesses and consumers need.

E-mail eWEEK Labs Senior Analyst Cameron Sturdevant