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Layers of Security: In Defense of the Web Application Layer

Security Operation Centers (SOCs) are built on the concept of managing and monitoring a bulwark of layered defenses. This works well as long as security personnel are mindful of defending all layers of the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) stack, not just the first few. (Note: The OSI model is a conceptual model for how applications can communicate over a network, comprised of seven layers: physical, data link, network, transport, session, presentation and application.) When solid processes are in place, SOCs are generally proficient at monitoring, analyzing and responding to events at layers 2, 3 and 4 of the OSI stack – the data link, network and transport layers. When it comes to layer 7, however, they tend to rely too heavily on generic intrusion detection system (IDS), intrusion prevention system (IPS) signatures and “out-of-the-box” configurations. There are several reasons for this:

For the application layer, SOC managers tend to be overly dependent on data loss prevention (DLP) technologies and generic IDS signatures, which are not tuned to the specific application – or they assume the application is resilient enough to discard any “malformed” requests. Again, there are multiple reasons for these assumptions:

So what should SOC operators do? I have one immediate suggestion: SOCs should encourage the use of and assist with the tuning and monitoring of web application firewalls (WAFs) or next generation firewalls (NGFW) to proactively defend the network space. This way, if the application is compromised, a properly configured WAF will notify the SOC, protect the resource and possibly impede data exfiltration.

Additional layers of protection can be added by leveraging source code reviews and web application security assessments through an organization’s governance or assessments section. Routine, scheduled layer 7 security scans via commercial software tools as well as source code reviews and scans via source code analysis tools also will aid in minimizing layer 7 vulnerabilities in the environment.

With the majority of attacks to enterprises occurring at the application layer, not deploying a WAF or NGFW is a missed opportunity to decrease the virtual attack surface and provide an additional monitoring data point. In my view, focusing attention on layer 7 is not just a nice-to-do; it’s a must-do.

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