What is Application Scanning and Why Is it Important?

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Security isn’t simply something to consider during audits. In today’s evolving threat landscape, new attacks are emerging every day, and security experts are racing to stay ahead of them. The best approach to mitigating security is to maintain proactive cybersecurity practices, including testing, self-assessments and application scanning. 

Because many organizations are using or deploying web applications, application scanning is an increasingly necessary utility. Learn more about application scanning and why it’s essential for your business. 


What Is Vulnerability Scanning?

Vulnerability scanning uses technology and professional expertise to scan or assess some asset or system and identity and inventory vulnerabilities. 

The scanner does this by traversing the different elements of a given system, creating a catalog of devices, services, and connections to that system. It will also attempt to log in to specific parts of that system to see if default credentials work (if they haven’t been changed from installation). 

Following that, the scanner will compare its findings against known bugs and vulnerabilities databases and create a report containing warnings around those vulnerabilities. 

There are several types of vulnerability scans, including the following:

  • Authenticated and Unauthenticated Scans: These categories, also sometimes known as internal and external scans, cover different approaches to scans based on the type of access a scanner is given. Simply put, the difference between the two is that one has no, or limited, access to authentication credentials while the other is given credentials and access to sensitive systems.  Since these are overarching categories, they exist alongside any of the following scan types.
  • Network Scans: These vulnerability scans look at network configurations and devices to discover potential vectors for network attacks. This process can include discovering unauthorized devices or remote connections, security configurations or Wi-Fi settings. 
  • Database Scans: Database scans assess potential vulnerabilities in databases to protect against breaches and data theft. This can include assessing authentication and access management controls, stale IDs, admin account security and code injection flaws. 
  • Host-Based Scans: These scans target local machines running web services, such as servers and connected workstations. This included identity and access management, permissions, system configurations, OS patches and updates and network service vulnerabilities. 
  • Wireless Scans: Similar to network scans, wireless scans can determine security flaws around mobile and Wi-Fi connections, including network configurations, security and access control, encryption, and remote device connections. 
  • Application Scans: Also known as web scans or web application scanning, these services assess components of online applications and services. 

    While there is some overlap between certain scans, each touches on critical software and hardware where potential security issues could arise. 


    How Is Application Scanning Different?

    application scanning

    Unlike traditional software, web applications are built on the premise of users interacting with web pages. While the mechanisms and elements on these pages resemble standard software more and more, the reality is that the user is interacting with forms on a page that, in turn, makes calls through the browser to a database. 

    What does this mean for scanners? It means that there are several places where the scanner of this type must look for vulnerabilities:

    • Identity and Access Management (IAM): Most applications have some sort of authentication service, whether a dedicated login or as part of a Single Sign-On (SSO) or federated identity system. These systems can be exploited through password attacks, privileged access attacks, or social engineering (phishing). 
    • Web Page Crawling: Each page served by an application can be a potential vulnerability. Pages that accept user input, in particular, can provide hackers with a way to inject code into a database if not correctly configured. Scanners can, therefore, “map” a site to understand how users might travel through that app and the potential vulnerabilities they may open up. 
    • Protocols and Cross-Site Scripting (XSS): Web pages in an application don’t exist in a vacuum. They are a part of a larger system where data can move between them and open up potential vulnerabilities. Scanners can understand the different communication protocols that might be in use in an application and places where hackers can inject code that can be sent to others from your domain (an XSS). 

    Scanners will uncover several types of vulnerabilities across IAM, pages and different communication protocols. Some of these vulnerabilities include:

    • SQL Injection: When users enter input into web forms while using an application, there is always potential for that input to affect the underlying system. If a system doesn’t clean and vet the input, hackers can insert malformed SQL commands that force the underlying database to (for example) dump its contents into a publicly-accessible file, display its entire structure for review or delete all rows. 
    • Cross-Site Scripting: Hackers can insert code into an application web page that will execute JavaScript in a user’s browser, potentially infecting their computer or driving them to corrupted pages in the application that collects their data. 
    • Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF): Much like a cross-site script attack, CSRF allows a hacker to inject code into a site so that any authenticated users are forced to execute unwanted actions, like emailing out admin credentials or changing their login and password. 


    Why Is Application Scanning Important for Organizations?

    Vulnerability scans are often critical parts of security and compliance requirements. Organizations must have some sort of inventory and understanding of their vulnerabilities for several of their assets and resources, like:

    • Risk Assessment: Vulnerability scans help organizations understand risk potential in a system, particularly for ongoing updates they may need to trace. 
    • Compliance Audits: Many compliance audit programs require reporting on all network and IT systems handling sensitive data. Vulnerability scans can help with reporting by providing your organization with a regular understanding of those systems. Some frameworks may even explicitly require regular vulnerability scanning. 
    • Rapid Security Assessment: Vulnerability scans can often operate rapidly and regularly. These scans can provide critical security information on a rolling basis–perfect for companies with wide-ranging IT infrastructure or those undergoing upgrades or system changes. 

    Note that vulnerability scans aren’t a replacement for other tests, particularly penetration testing. While many pen testers may offer vulnerability scanning (and vice versa), they aren’t the same. Penetration tests are almost always conducted by human security experts with specific goals and approaches and will dig deep into security issues. On the other hand, vulnerability scans are usually automated and touch on the surface. 

    This fact is useful for web application vulnerability scans. Many of the security issues that apps face are at the surface, where users interact with the app. Regular scans can therefore help catch potential issues as they arise. 


    Automated Compliance with Continuum GRC

    Application scans aren’t the end of your security and compliance journey. Businesses must complete regular assessments, tests and audits to show that they adhere to regulations. With a partner like Continuum GRC, you can automate audits and streamline them only to take days while improving accuracy and reporting. 


    Ready to Start Automating Security Audits?

    Call Continuum GRC at 1-888-896-6207 or complete the form below.

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