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What Are Application Security Controls?

An application security control is a measure that restricts or blocks applications from operating in a way that puts your data at risk. Security controls depend on the business objectives of a particular application, but their primary purpose is to ensure the security and confidentiality of data transferred between and used by applications.

Application controls cover integrity checks, validation, identification, authorization, authentication, input management, and forensics.

An application control strategy ensures the proper coverage, integrity, confidentiality, and availability of applications and related data. The right application controls allow organizations to reduce the various risks associated with using applications significantly. They help protect against threats by rendering applications inoperable if they expose networks and sensitive data.

Advantages of Using Application Security Controls

Application security controls are an important part of a corporate security program. They help prevent malicious actors from exploiting application vulnerabilities and reduce the risk of a breach. Security controls also help minimize the costs involved in containing attacks by improving the observability of applications, network traffic, and data.

Organizations often categorize applications according to business objectives and risk levels. It helps them evaluate and prioritize vulnerabilities. Controls are customizable, so businesses can tweak them to suit different applications and implement evolving security standards with minimal disruption to their established workflows.

Allow and deny lists automatically control application execution, increasing efficiency for large organizations with centralized mainframes. You can also improve overall network reliability by identifying resource-intensive applications and using application controls to configure related traffic.

Application security controls support new approaches to threat detection and monitoring. For instance, they allow you to compare traffic to a baseline of normal network behavior to identify anomalies.

Types of Application Security Controls

Security teams use various techniques to secure applications based on functional or tactical considerations. There are several ways to classify security controls, although typically, organizations classify them by function:

  • Security testing controls—prevent vulnerabilities during development.
  • Access controls—block unauthorized users from accessing applications or authorized users from performing unauthorized actions.
  • Authentication—verifies the identity of entities (users, programs) requesting access to application resources.
  • Authorization—ensures that authenticated entities are authorized to access the requested resources.
  • Encryption—encrypts and decrypts sensitive data. Encryption controls often work at multiple network layers, within or outside the application.
  • Log controls—track and record all application activity to ensure accountability and provide investigation information.

Another approach to categorizing security controls focuses on how they protect an application from attack:

  • Preventative controls—block security threats by focusing on vulnerabilities. For instance, encryption and access controls are measures that prevent attackers from accessing data, while security testing helps identify threats and vulnerabilities.
  • Corrective controls—mitigate the impact of an attack and implement fixes. For instance, patching tools help eradicate vulnerabilities.
  • Detective controls—help security teams identify when attacks occur. They are essential for securing applications. Examples include monitoring tools, AV scanners, and intrusion detection systems (IDS). 

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Application Security Control Frameworks

A security control framework (or standard) encompasses the processes and information that define each control’s implementation and continuous management.

A framework allows organizations to consistently manage their security controls for different assets based on commonly accepted and well-tested methods. Many organizations use established frameworks to inform their internal security control frameworks and policies.

A sound framework enables organizations to implement controls that enforce security policies and ensure compliance with industry standards and regulations. It helps improve security operations, allows security teams to assess and address risks, and informs security training for staff and other users.

Security solutions are as vulnerable as their weakest link. Therefore, organizations should consider implementing multiple security control layers to achieve in-depth defense. Application security controls should operate throughout the IT ecosystem, including IAM, networking, physical infrastructure, and data security.

Here are two of the most well-known security control frameworks:

The NIST Cybersecurity Framework

This framework, created by NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) in 2014, provides guidelines to help organizations prevent, identify, and respond to cybersecurity threats. It includes assessment techniques and procedures that organizations can use to determine whether their security controls function properly, are correctly implemented, and generate expected results. This voluntary security framework benefits from constant updates to meet organizations’ changing security requirements and incorporate the latest advances in cybersecurity.

CIS Controls

The CIS (Center for Internet Security) has created a list of defenses for organizations to prioritize. It provides a good starting point for preventing and identifying attacks. The CIS controls respond to the most widespread cyberattacks referenced in security threat reports. A broad government- and industry-supported community has scrutinized these controls to ensure their effectiveness.

How to Implement Application Controls

There are various ways to implement application security controls, although generally, the process involves these steps:

  • Determining which applications can access a resource or perform a function.
  • Creating rules to govern application functions and prevent unauthorized applications from running.
  • Using a system to manage changes to application security rules.
  • Regularly evaluating and updating the rules and controls (at least annually).

Several techniques are useful for determining the application control implementation strategy. For instance, organizations can create rules based on cryptographic hashes, publisher certificates (tying products to publishers), and path configurations (blocking unauthorized editing of file and folder contents and permissions). On the other hand, using package or file names (or other easily modified application properties) is not an effective way to implement application controls.

Organizations must run regular tests to identify misconfigured file system permissions, techniques to bypass application controls, and other vulnerabilities to verify that application controls are in effect.

Application controls go beyond blocking unauthorized applications from executing actions. They can help identify attempts by attackers to execute malicious commands by generating event logs for approved and denied executions. Ideally, these event logs should contain information such as the file name, date or time stamp, and the username of the user trying to run the file.

A final important consideration is to ensure that application controls work alongside existing security tools and antivirus software. Security controls are not a replacement for traditional security solutions. Combining these solutions provides a defense-in-depth security strategy to prevent system breaches.

Application Security Controls with Pathlock

Pathlock is the leader in Application Security and Controls Automation for business-critical applications. Customers rely on Pathlock to streamline critical processes like fine-grained provisioning, separation of duties, and detailed user access reviews. Pathlock offers coverage for the leading business applications, with support for key applications like SAP, Oracle, Workday, Dynamics365, Salesforce, and more.

With Pathlock, you can:

  • Configure policy-based access controls and enable automated policy enforcement
  • Automate user access management processes (e.g., role design, provisioning, de-provisioning, access recertification, emergency access management, and privileged access management)
  • Perform vulnerability assessment with over 4,000 pre-configured risk and threat scans to proactively avoid threats
  • Perform compliant provisioning at a transaction code or function level into both cloud and on-premise applications
  • Define Separation of Duties (SOD) rules, both within an application and across them, and enforce them to prevent access risks and stay compliant
  • Enrich User Access Reviews (UARs) with fine-grained entitlement details and usage about transactions performed with specific access combinations

Interested to learn more about Pathlock’s application security capabilities? Request a demo today to see the solution in action!

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