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Five key steps for a website security audit

Image: Adobe Stock / Song_about_summer

Daniel Pearson, CEO at Knownhost, outlines five key steps to keeping websites resilient against evolving cyber threats.

In an era dominated by digital interactions, safeguarding a business’s online presence is paramount. A website security audit is the first line of defence against cyber threats, ensuring the protection of sensitive data and maintaining user trust.

Vulnerability assessment

According to a recent report, 95% of cybersecurity breaches are caused by human error, making regular website vulnerability assessments key for any business.

The core aim is to pinpoint weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and opportunities for enhancement within the IT system, ensuring the organisation’s digital infrastructure remains secure, compliant with industry benchmarks, and optimised for top-notch performance.

Conducting IT infrastructure audits serves the dual purpose of offering practical suggestions to bolster data management, mitigate risks, and actively contribute to the attainment of the company’s strategic objectives.

Most businesses typically evaluate their websites by employing automated tools that scour their networks, systems, and applications for known vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities often encompass misconfigurations, outdated software, or unaddressed flaws that can potentially compromise security.

Various types of vulnerability scanning tools are available, each catering to specific areas of scrutiny:

  • Network scanners: These tools inspect for open ports, weak protocols, or misconfigured firewalls that might leave the system exposed.
  • Web scanners: Designed to identify threats like SQL injection, cross-site scripting, or issues related to broken authentication, offering protection for web-based assets.
  • Host scanners: They delve into the system to uncover missing patches, potential malware, or any unauthorised access that might compromise system integrity.
  • Database scanners: Focused on evaluating insecure permissions, default passwords, or potential instances of data leakage, ensuring database security.

Penetration testing

Penetration testing stands as a crucial element in the development of cybersecurity strategies, serving to assess the robustness of an organisation’s infrastructure. Its primary objective is to identify vulnerabilities in software or networks before malicious actors can exploit them, emphasising the importance of early detection.

The escalating prevalence of penetration testing stems from its proactive nature, aiming to anticipate and thwart potential attacks rather than passively waiting for them to occur. Typically, these tests are conducted by ethical hackers employing tactics akin to those used by real attackers when trying to breach corporate systems.

Ethical hackers employ a range of strategies to uncover website vulnerabilities. Among these, social engineering stands out — a method leveraging psychological manipulation to coax individuals into specific actions or disclosing sensitive information. Techniques within social engineering include phishing emails, luring, pretexting, and quid pro quo.

Another approach involves password cracking, employing various methods like brute force attacks, dictionary attacks, or rainbow table attacks to guess or crack passwords. SQL injection targets web applications that inadequately validate user input, allowing attackers unauthorised access to sensitive data by inserting malicious code into a SQL database.

Cross-site scripting (XSS) is yet another technique used by attackers, injecting malicious code into a web page that executes within the victim’s web browser. This method enables the theft of sensitive information, such as usernames and passwords.

Code reviews and security policies 

Companies should scrutinise the underlying codebase of their website to identify and rectify security flaws.

Regular code reviews contribute to a proactive security stance, ensuring that new features and updates don’t introduce unforeseen risks. They’ll also need to evaluate their website’s adherence to established security policies and industry compliance standards. 

Introducing a robust information security policy for a company’s website means it should clearly state several things:

Purpose: Clearly defining the rationale behind its existence.

Objectives: Explicitly outlining the goals the policy aims to achieve.

Scope: Defining the boundaries within which the policy operates and delineating areas it does not cover.

Requirements: Precisely detailing the expectations and stipulations to assets falling within the policy.

Controls: Establishing the necessary measures and protocols to fulfill these requirements effectively.

Responsibilities: Allocating and defining roles and accountabilities regarding the policy’s implementation and adherence.

To check the effectiveness and accuracy of these controls, engaging an auditor or employing auditing techniques can be useful. An external perspective often proves invaluable in identifying potential flaws within processes and controls and enhances overall security measures.

Keeping up with compliance

Ensuring compliance with state, federal, and international laws while avoiding legal issues necessitates a commitment to transparency with users. Clarity and visibility in your privacy and cookie policies is one way to demonstrate a respectful approach toward handling users’ sensitive data. Additionally, adhering to industry standards and global website regulations is paramount.

Legal requirements for websites vary based on industry involvement and data collection nature, demanding tailored compliance approaches. Automated tools play a crucial role by assessing a website’s code and content, flagging accessibility concerns, and offering guidance for rectification. They streamline processes for developers and content creators, catching nuanced errors that might otherwise go unnoticed.

For a comprehensive accessibility assessment, employing a combination of automated tools and non-technical tests is vital. While automated checkers efficiently review content and underlying code, they might not detect every accessibility issue. Therefore, complementing them with manual assessments — such as content review, keyboard testing, and screen reader usage — ensures a more inclusive and accessible website for all users.

Incident response plan

Only 21% of UK businesses have a formal incident response plan in place. Irrespective of the strength of your cybersecurity defences, acknowledging the possibility of vulnerabilities is crucial as they might provide entry points for cybercriminals to breach your network.

To proactively address potential attacks, pinpointing the company’s most critical assets is key. This empowers the incident response team to swiftly prioritise efforts in case of an attack. Identifying vulnerabilities and critical assets enables quicker containment and mitigation of consequences, as the team knows precisely where to focus their efforts.

Consider securing adequate data backup resources to accommodate essential documents and information. Implementing automatic backups and assigning responsibility to an individual or team streamlines this process.

In the event of an attack, immediate identification of compromised third-party data necessitates prompt notification. Uncertainty regarding affected parties should prompt broader notifications to ensure anyone potentially impacted is informed.

Public disclosure becomes essential if the attack significantly impacts other stakeholders within the company. Timely and transparent communication with the public enables proactive management of ensuing circumstances.

Post-incident, conducting a comprehensive analysis is crucial to understand the incident’s causes and implement necessary measures for enhanced future protection.

Though testing an incident response plan without an incident is challenging, creating a test environment facilitates plan execution. This practice helps unveil any discrepancies or deficiencies, allowing for timely revisions and improvements to the plan.

Regular revisiting and updating of the incident response plan, preferably once or twice annually, ensure its ongoing relevance and readiness for implementation when needed.

Daniel Pearson
Daniel Pearson
CEO at Knownhost

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