Understanding website security

With data breaches and cyberattacks becoming more powerful and more frequent, organizations have to prioritize the security of their websites as a survival factor. Protecting sensitive information prevents financial losses and builds trust with users, who are increasingly concerned about their data privacy. 

A secure website is a foundation for a reliable digital presence, essential for retaining customer loyalty and attracting new users in a competitive online environment.

Rapid eCommerce growth has impacted security

E-commerce and digital platform expansion offer immense opportunities for businesses, driving growth, and facilitating global reach. However, this growth also introduces new vulnerabilities, as online transactions and data storage become more prevalent. 

The 38% increase in cyberattacks in 2022 compared to 2021 highlights the escalating challenges in digital security, particularly for eCommerce websites. 

These attacks target financial transactions and aim to compromise personal data, disrupting businesses and eroding consumer trust. As eCommerce continues to grow, implementing robust digital security measures is non-negotiable for businesses aiming to protect their assets and ensure a safe online experience for customers.

Common website security threats and countermeasures

1. Malware

Malware, which is a broad term that encompasses viruses, ransomware, and spyware, poses major threats to website security. These malicious programs aim to infiltrate, disrupt, or damage systems, steal sensitive data, or gain unauthorized access to website operations. Here are 6 tried and tested methods to fight against malware:

  • Update software and plugins: Regular updates and patching of software and plugins close security loopholes that malware exploits. Hackers target vulnerabilities in outdated software to infiltrate systems. Maintaining current versions of all software components is key for defense against these threats.
  • Using trusted plugins and apps: Opting for plugins and applications from reputable developers minimizes the risk of introducing malware into a website’s ecosystem. Trusted sources ensure that their products adhere to stringent security standards, reducing the likelihood of vulnerabilities.
  • Installing antivirus solutions: Antivirus or anti-malware solutions provide a robust defense layer by continuously scanning and monitoring for suspicious activities or known malware signatures. Early detection allows these tools to neutralize threats before they cause damage or breach data.
  • Deploying Web Application Firewalls (WAFs): WAFs are a protective barrier for websites, scrutinizing incoming traffic to detect and block malicious requests. Identifying and thwarting attack vectors like SQL injections and cross-site scripting, WAFs prevent attackers from exploiting website vulnerabilities.
  • Performing regular security scans and audits: Routine security assessments help identify and rectify potential vulnerabilities within a website’s infrastructure. These proactive measures make sure that security protocols remain effective and are able to adapt to the evolving nature of cyberthreats – particularly with AI’s rapid global adoption.
  • Educating staff on cybersecurity: Awareness and training to better educate team members about the risks associated with malware and the importance of safe online practices can reduce the incidence of security breaches caused by human error. According to research by Varonis, up to 74% of cybersecurity breaches are caused by human error.

2. Data breaches

Data breaches pose a severe threat to organizations, potentially resulting in huge financial and reputational losses. A breach occurs when unauthorized individuals access sensitive, protected, or confidential data, often leading to the exposure of personal information, intellectual property, or trade secrets. Organizations can adopt several preventive measures to mitigate the risk of data breaches. 

Strong access controls are fundamental, ensuring that only authorized personnel can access sensitive information. Implementing robust authentication processes, like multi-factor authentication (MFA), adds an extra layer of security, making unauthorized access more challenging.

Data encryption is a key preventive measure. Encrypting data at rest and in transit ensures that even if unauthorized parties access the data, they cannot read or misuse it without the encryption keys. Encryption acts as a last line of defense, rendering the data unintelligible and useless to intruders.

Compliance with data protection laws is both a legal obligation and a strategic security measure. Laws and regulations like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) provide frameworks for data security, imposing standards for data handling and storage.

3. DoS and DDoS attacks

Denial-of-Service (DoS) and Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attacks are cyber threats whereby attackers flood a website with more traffic than it can handle, making it unavailable to legitimate users. These attacks can severely impact business operations, damage customer trust, and lead to financial losses.

To protect websites from these disruptions, here are 4 way to mitigate the DoS and DDoS attacks:

  • Content Delivery Networks (CDNs): CDNs distribute website content across a network of servers, reducing the load on any single server and improving website availability and performance. In the event of a DDoS attack, CDNs can absorb and distribute the excessive traffic across its network, lessening the impact on the primary server.
  • Traffic filtering: This involves analyzing incoming traffic to a website and blocking those requests that appear malicious. Advanced filtering solutions can distinguish between legitimate users and attack traffic, ensuring that only valid requests reach the website.
  • Rate limiting: Rate limiting controls the number of requests a user can make to a website within a specific timeframe. By setting limits, websites can prevent individual users or bots from sending too many requests in a short period, a common tactic in DoS attacks.
  • Load balancing: Load balancers distribute incoming network traffic across multiple servers. This optimizes resource usage and maximizes throughput while making sure that no single server bears too much load, which is critical during an attack. If one server becomes overwhelmed, the load balancer redirects traffic to other servers, maintaining website availability.

4. Ransomware

Ransomware is one of the most aggressive forms of cyberattacks, whereby attackers encrypt the victim’s data, rendering it inaccessible, and demand payment for its release. The objective is to steal information and paralyze the victim’s operations, leaving them with little choice but to comply with the ransom demand to regain access to their data.

Defending against ransomware

Regular backups are the first line of defense, ensuring that organizations can restore their data without needing to pay the ransom. 

Backups should be made frequent, comprehensive, and stored in a manner that isolates them from network connections, preventing the ransomware from reaching them.

Strong passwords must be used – and should be complex, unique, and regularly updated to fend off brute force attacks, whereby attackers attempt to guess passwords through systematic trial and error. Incorporating a variety of characters, including uppercase, lowercase, numerals, and symbols, makes passwords far harder to crack.

Multifactor authentication (MFA) adds an additional security layer, requiring users to provide two or more verification factors to gain access to their accounts. Even if attackers decipher a user’s password, MFA can prevent unauthorized access, significantly reducing the risk of a successful ransomware attack.

Endpoint security solutions specifically target and neutralize ransomware threats at the user device level. These solutions monitor for suspicious activities, identify threats, and prevent the execution of ransomware. By maintaining up-to-date endpoint security, organizations can detect and mitigate ransomware before it infiltrates the network or encrypts data.

5. Phishing schemes

Phishing schemes are extremely common and occur where attackers masquerade as reputable entities to deceive individuals or organizations into divulging confidential information. These schemes often exploit the trust users place in known brands or institutions, manipulating them into providing sensitive data, such as login credentials, financial information, or personal details.

Handling phishing schemes and threats

Email filters scrutinize incoming messages, employing algorithms to detect signs of phishing, such as suspicious sender addresses or content that typically characterizes phishing attempts. By blocking or flagging these emails, filters reduce the likelihood of malicious messages reaching end-users.

Domain validation for authenticating the legitimacy of email senders. Techniques like Sender Policy Framework (SPF), DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM), and Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance (DMARC) help verify that emails originate from the domains they claim to represent. These authentication methods hinder attackers’ ability to spoof email addresses, curtailing successful phishing attempts.

Phishing awareness training is a must-have for all staff. Educating team members about the characteristics of phishing emails and how to respond to potential threats empowers them to act as an additional line of defense. Training should cover the importance of scrutinizing email senders, the risks associated with clicking on links or downloading attachments from unknown or suspicious sources, and the protocols for reporting potential phishing attempts.

6. SQL injections

SQL injections are a type of cyberattack where attackers manipulate database queries through input fields on a website. They can use this technique to access, steal, or modify sensitive data, disrupt operations, or take over a website. Given the potential severity of these attacks, securing a website against SQL injections should be a top priority.

Preventing SQL injections

Here are 3 of the main effective ways to prevent SQL injections:

  1. Input validation: Input validation involves the scrutiny of user input to make sure it meets specific criteria before processing. For example, a website might only accept numeric input for a field that requires a user’s age and reject any other data type, blocking malicious code snippets from entering the database.
  2. Parameterized queries: Using parameterized queries or prepared statements is another critical strategy. These techniques allow developers to create SQL queries with placeholders for user input, which are later substituted with actual input values. This separation between code and data helps ensure that user input is treated as data, not executable code, thwarting attackers’ attempts to inject malicious SQL code.
  3. Limiting database user privileges: Limiting database user privileges plays a major role in minimizing the impact of potential SQL injection attacks. Assigning only the necessary permissions to each database user helps an organization restrict the level of access an attacker gains through a successful injection. For instance, a user account used by a website’s front end to retrieve product information does not need the permission to delete tables or modify user information. Restricting these privileges ensures that even if an injection attack occurs, the damage remains limited.

Tim Boesen

March 20, 2024

8 Min