Hackers attack at least 50,000 websites every day. These are worrying numbers given that almost every business has an online presence. The attacks target all businesses, including both small and medium-sized enterprises — approximately 43% of the attacks target small-sized businesses. Websites contain a lot of sensitive information, including personal details like email addresses, names, date of births, credit card numbers, etc. Today, protecting information privacy is enforced in most information compliance regulations. Adopting best website security practices is a step towards complying with these regulations. As such, companies need to understand the top techniques for enhancing the security of their websites. Before that, it is important to first understand the threats and risks to website availability, integrity, and confidentiality.
Common website security risks
DDoS attacks are among the most prevalent threats to website security. In the attacks, hackers overload the traffic of a targeted website with spoofed IP addresses. The attacks prevent legitimate users from accessing the website’s resources, denying them essential services. For example, The Bank of Spain got hit by a DDoS attack in 2018. As a result of the incidence, the bank’s website was pulled offline, preventing users from accessing online services.
Malware and viruses
Malware is a malicious computer program and malware applications are the biggest threat to the security of a website. Cyber adversaries create and release at least 230,000 samples of malware every day. The malware can be delivered using different means such as through malware-laden ads and drive-by downloads. Malware can be used to remotely monitor all website activities and acquire user data such as passwords. Malware poses a risk to both the website owner and the user. The malware can spread to the web servers or the user’s individual computers.
Fraudsters place spam messages on a website to lure users. Whereas the spams don’t necessarily harm the site, they can be annoying and cause security problems for the user. For example, hackers target users with spam messages disguised as a promotion or offers. Curious users who click on the messages will get directed to external links. The spams can also contain malicious programs such that a user immediately downloads upon clicking. Also, bots can be used to continuously update the spam messages present at a busy part of the website. This not only annoys customers attempting to access the website’s resources or services, but it can also chase them away.
Registering for a WHOIS domain
All website owners must register their websites with a particular domain. Domains require the owners to provide some personal information for identification purposes. The information is registered in the WHOIS databases. In addition to the personal information, website owners need to provide other types of information like the URL nameservers associated with the website. Hackers or insiders can use the provided information to track the location of the server used to store the website’s information. Once located, the server can be used as a gateway for accessing and compromising the webserver.
Search engine site blacklists
Some search engines like Google, Bing, among others, blacklist websites that lack proper security measures. As such, being blacklisted does not translate as a security threat. Instead, the site performs lower in search engine optimizations and might not even come up in a search result. This severely impacts the services provided through the website. For example, a business relying on its website to sell products and services through eCommerce might experience lower sales and reduced traffic if it is blacklisted. A recent survey indicated the SEO rankings of at least 74% of attacked websites are negatively affected. As such, businesses need to implement the best website security practices to protect the SEO rankings of their sites.
Top Practices for Increasing Website Security
Website security threats can affect any business. With cyber-attacks growing in sophistication, speed, and intensity, companies need to focus more on when an attack can compromise their websites, not if. An unsecured website is vulnerable to multiple attacks, threatening the integrity of the organization and the privacy and security of the users. The following are the most effective practices to observe today.
Using HTTPS protocols
HTTPS protocol should be a priority for all website owners. Not only is it vital for ensuring secure communication between a web server and a client, but it also improves the basic security standard for all websites. Firstly, it reassures users that all communications done through the website are secure. HTTPS protocol essentially tells the website visitors that the information they request or view from the webserver cannot be intercepted nor altered by third parties. Secondly, web browsers like Google Chrome identify and mark all websites that lack HTTPS security protocols. Any time a visitor accesses the website, they receive a notification that it is not secure. Some visitors would be reluctant to continue accessing the services of a website marked as not secure. This can discourage new visitors from visiting the site resulting in decreased online interactions with customers.
Also, HTTPS security prevents hackers from accessing any of the codes used to develop the website. Attackers sometimes change the code of a website without HTTP security to monitor and access all the information visitors provide while interacting with the website. The information can include personal details like credit card information, passwords and usernames, and date of births. More importantly, an HTTPS protocol allows a website to enhance its SEO rankings. A search engine like Google uses HTTPs security measures to reward websites by ranking them higher in search results.
An organization can complement the HTTPS security measures by deploying a Secure Socket Layer (SSL) certificate. SSL security encrypts all communication between a server and a website user. As such, it does not prevent hackers from distributing malware or from executing attacks. Instead, it encrypts information to ensure it is inaccessible in the event of a successful attack. By implementing SSL security, user data remains protected against attacks like man in the middle (MITM) attacks. SSL certifications are especially required for websites handling a lot of personal data like eCommerce platforms. However, all companies should secure their websites using HTTPS and SSL certifications irrespective of the services they provide through the sites.
Frequent software updates
Websites require the use of various software tools to run effectively. They include content management systems (CMSs), website plugins, WordPress software, among others. Updating software tools is vital to ensuring website security. Other than fixing glitches and bugs that inhibit a website’s performance, software updates also install the latest security measures and patches. Cyber adversaries can target outdated software tools to exploit their vulnerabilities, thus gaining an entry point for executing attacks on a website.
Besides, hackers also leverage technologies like artificial intelligence to automate cyber-attacks. This is by creating intelligent bots that continuously scan for vulnerable websites and execute attacks to exploit them. Failing to implement the latest updates only provides hackers with more vulnerabilities to execute. This exposes a website to more security risks, jeopardizing the security and privacy of all services and information. website owners should consider using automated solutions that check for and install software updates as soon as they are released. By doing so, businesses can ensure that all their website software tools are updated and do not contain exploitable vulnerabilities.
Sufficient password management
The need to adopt effective passwords management solutions cannot be stressed enough. Despite passwords being the easiest way of maintaining website security, they also provide the highest security risks if not managed properly. A study that showed that 25% of created passwords could be cracked in under three seconds is an eye-opener as to why website owners should take their password management practices seriously. Any individual with basic skills can use hacking tools like John the Ripper to hack a password. Keeping this in mind, what are the recommended password security practices that can enable a business to enhance the security of its website?
Firstly, frequently changing passwords is a top password security practice. Website administrators, for example, should periodically change their passwords to lower the risks of an adversary cracking the password. Also, the passwords should be complex enough such that they cannot be cracked, yet simple enough to memorize. However, creating complicated passwords with a mixture of numerous letterings like alpha-numerals and special characters can be challenging to remember. That’s why a password manager tool like 1Password comes into play. The tools can allow the creation of long, complex passwords and securely store them for secure usage.
More importantly, a business should only use the services of a web hosting company that uses two-factor or multi-factor authentication. Such authentication schemes provide an additional security layer. Anyone can provide a valid username and password, but only the legitimate user can provide the required authenticators. For example, before gaining access, a user can be required to provide a unique code which is only accessible to the legitimate user. This prevents insiders with access to the passwords of their colleagues from using them for unauthorized activities that can compromise the website’s security.
Secure personal devices
Many organizations concentrate on deploying recommended website security practices, forgetting that their personal devices can threaten their sites’ security. Hackers often target personal computers to gain a foothold into a secured website. For instance, by stealing the FTP logins, cyber actors can use malware to inject malicious data and files into a website. Moreover, hackers deem it easier to execute website attacks by using personal computers as a gateway. Therefore, securing a personal computer should be a priority website security practice.
There are several ways through which businesses can secure any personal computers. They include the use of antivirus and antimalware products. Although some might question the viability of such products in countering current threats, they are essential. They protect a user in an online community by preventing the download or installation of malicious files. Also, they can promptly identify malware present in an inserted USB stick or hard drive, thus blocking them from accessing the computer. Also, using firewalls with strong firewall rules can block incoming malicious connections that hackers use to deliver malware. The security of a website is highly dependent on protected personal devices, and as such, website owners and administrators must ensure to achieve maximum protection.
Adequate access control measures
Access control is integral to the success of any security program. The same applies for website protection. Businesses operating a website should define the access permissions for different users who can access the website. The need for strong access controls arises from the fact that human activities are the highest causes of cyber-attacks. A recent research study identified that 95% of cyber-attacks are due to human causes echoes this statement. Employees with access permissions to specific website areas can make errors that result in disastrous attacks. To address the risks, website owners need to deploy robust access control mechanisms.
Access controls enhance website security by limiting the number of individuals whose activities can result in errors. By identifying that not all employees should access a website, a business can create role-based access control policies. This would ensure that website access is limited to users with specific roles. For example, there would be no need to allow a content creator to access the coded part of the website. Only a developer or a website administrator should access it. The same applies to all roles, including external developers, guest bloggers, consultants, or designers.
A least access privilege, commonly referred to as the principle of minimal privilege or least authority, is an essential control. It permits employees or outsourced labor only to access the part they need to get the job done. For an individual requiring specific access, applying the principle ensures that the person only accesses the part for the specified time and purpose. This eliminates the chance of an erroneous mistake that can lead to unwanted website security incidences.
Changing the default configuration settings
Changing the default security settings is a security practice that many companies tend to overlook. As previously mentioned, cyber attackers have taken to a tendency of creating bot designed to perform automated scans on vulnerable websites. The bots are also used to scan for websites that use software tools that contain default configuration security settings. The thing with default settings is that they may not provide the security and protection needed to meet the unique needs of a given environment. As a result, programs using the default settings are highly vulnerable to attacks. Attackers can use bots to identify websites that contain the same default settings such that they can be exploited using the same virus or malware. After deploying a website, businesses should ensure to change the default settings of say, a content management site. Some of the settings to consider changing include but not limited to:
- User controls
- File permissions
- Comments settings
- Information visibility
Frequent website backups
The basic premise for all security procedures is to stay prepared for the worst. Companies should always be ready to be the victim of an attack. A website attack can lead to its compromise and subsequent unavailability, and obviously, no company would desire to be in such a situation. Regularly backing up a website is an essential measure for preserving the privacy and security of any associated information. A website backup consists of a snapshot of all the essential site components. It allows a website owner to retain and restore critical data when an attack takes down a website. Essential components to include in a website backup includes themes, plugins, databases, and essential files.
Furthermore, backups are vital to website security as they permit the restoration of a website’s clean version if a hack leads to loss and destruction, or if a software update results in a crashed website. Backups should be a top website security practice since they are both easy and essential to maintaining integrity, availability, and confidentiality. Most website hosts provide organizations with simple ways through which they can create and manage their backups. They can use the panels provided for customer control to maintain the backups or use backup plugins located in tools such as WordPress.
Website owners are unable to identify malware and viruses since they are capable of hiding and are elusive. This contributes to the reason why malware programs are considered to be among the most prevalent threats to website security. However, with continuous and consistent monitoring, businesses can identify activities that indicate the presence of malware or other illicit programs. The following are some of the crucial signs that indicate website security issues requiring to be addressed:
- The login information of user accounts is done without their consent
- The website files are modified or deleted without the owner’s knowledge or consent
- If the website repeatedly freezes and crashes
- When search engine results indicate noticeable changes like warnings on harmful content or blacklisting
- If there is a rapid increase or drop in the website’s traffic
The presence of the above signs can signify that a website is infected. A business can opt for a manual monitoring process, where security personnel handles the responsibility of visually monitoring the website’s activities. But this can be ineffective. It can be impossible for human operators to monitor a website 24/7, resulting in some security incidences going unnoticed. As such, it is highly recommended to use automated monitoring processes. Automated scanners are more effective since they can continuously monitor a website and still allow the website to operate normally. It also eliminates the high costs and inefficiencies involved in manual monitoring. In any case, some monitoring tools are designed to not only identify anomalous behavior but to also deploy corrective actions.
Using firewalls is one of the most widely applied website security measures. A firewall protects a website by blocking malicious connections that can compromise its security. Companies create and maintain security rules that are created to meet the security needs in the context of the companies’ services and environment. For example, the firewall rules created for an eCommerce platform are different from those defined for a registration portal. There are two types of firewalls used to enhance website security. These are network and web application firewalls.
Network firewalls are usually used by organizations that manage their servers and by web hosting providers. The firewalls ensure website security by identifying and blocking malicious scripts between web servers running within a network. On the other hand, web application firewalls are used to secure a specific website. A web application firewall prevents malicious scripts from accessing a web server, thus securing a website from being compromised. Blocking malicious traffic secures a website and also saves the bandwidth and a load time of the web hosting account.
Creating a web security blueprint
To sum up the top website security practices, it is essential to develop and maintain a plan for implementing them. More often than not, organizations follow a disorganized approach for managing website security processes, resulting in minimal accomplishment. Therefore, before even deploying any security measure, it is vital to develop an actionable and detailed website security plan. The plan should outline the objectives the organization wants to achieve by implementing security measures.
For instance, the main objective would be enhancing the website’s overall compliance or to enhance the security of the website. A website security blueprint should further identify the applications whose security requires to be prioritized and the processes that will be applied in testing their security. Although the website security blueprints of different organizations can differ, the following six-step checklist can be applied.
- Gathering information on main security issues
- Planning a countering process
- Executing the plan to discover vulnerabilities if any
- Document the results
- Address the identified vulnerabilities by remediating appropriately
- Verify the website’s security
I am a cyber security professional with a passion for delivering proactive strategies for day to day operational challenges. I am excited to be working with leading cyber security teams and professionals on projects that involve machine learning & AI solutions to solve the cyberspace menace and cut through inefficiency that plague today’s business environments.