What are cyber threats or attacks?
A cyber attack is a deliberate exploitation of your computer system and/or network. Cyber attacks use malicious code to compromise your computer, logic or data to steal, leak or hold your data hostage.
Cyber attacks can do irreparable damage to your business and your consumers. Not only can sensitive information get stolen or lost, but financial losses can handicap or even bankrupt your business. Customer trust and relations can be destroyed as confidence in your organisation decreases. Competitors can take advantage of your mishaps with security by deploying strong cyber attack defenses to prevent any downfalls.
What does this mean for the African continent?
With the rapidly changing development and digitisation of businesses and the economy as a whole, so too do the dangers of industrialisation. For all the positives that these technologies have enabled, mainly fostering faster growth, they also open a world of new cyber threats in Africa. Bad actors with ill intent look to expose and exploit weaknesses within those technologies for their malicious gains.
Just to better understand how frequent and severe cyber attacks are on the African continent, African countries experienced an average of 1,848 cyber attacks on a weekly basis in 2022. This number was higher than the rest of the world’s numbers combined. More specifically, according to an Interpol report, from January 2020 to February 2021, South Africa had 230 million cyber threat detections in total, while Kenya had 72 million and Morocco had 71 million. With roughly a third of the continent’s population online nowadays, that leaves a lot of people exposed to bad actors.
The proliferation of digital services has led to an explosion in digital ecosystems, broadening the attack surface and increasing the associated risks. With these developments, managing security and privacy in a dynamic and vulnerable environment remains a major challenge for African enterprises. 90% of African businesses are operating without the necessary cybersecurity protocols in place. With the numbers expected to only increase as more and more people get online, cyber attack prevention has become African leaders’ main priority going forward. As well as a crucial must-have for every business and organisation if they are to stand a chance against these threats.
Ways in which to protect your code
At the focal point of these newly digitised businesses and organisations are the frameworks and systems that allow the very nature of their growth. In this case, that is the code that they run on. No matter what type of business it is and what industry they’re in, software is the requirement that allows them to stay competitive. In order to ensure competitiveness, cyber security should be a top priority for these organisations and businesses that deploy custom software.
Employee training for software developers
For starters, training your employees on cyber attack prevention and informing them of current cyber threats are usually the first line of defence. It’s also one of the most efficient and simpler ways to protect against cyber attacks and all types of data breaches and infiltrations. One of the more common tactics cybercriminals acquire access to your systems and data is through employees unknowingly clicking on malicious links and emails. Hence this type of cyberattack is the primary target for cybercriminals, using techniques such as manipulation and impersonation to lure unsuspecting targets. Preventing this simple action can save your software from being compromised and corrupted. This is especially true for software companies that rely on and base their operations on the code they run.
Use secure coding practices
In line with training and educating your employees on how to protect the organisation’s software, using secure coding practices is top of that list. What that means is even if a human error occurs, most vulnerabilities can still be avoided if the code has been programmed correctly. One of the main points of this is validating input data, regardless of where it is coming from. Whether it’s a trusted or untrusted source, everything must be validated to prevent future complications if any were to arise. Including input validation in your code will enable developers to check that the input entered by the user or attacker is how it should be. If not, the data will be rejected. Checks generally are based on the following:
- The data length (e.g, telephone numbers)
- Characters (e.g, email address)
- Format (e.g, dates)
- Restrictions (no code or scripts allowed)
Another simple yet effective way to ensure safe coding practices is by managing authentication and passwords. This means that your data and applications are only accessed by those who are given permission and properly authenticated to do so. Implementing proper authentication and password management processes will make your application less vulnerable to attacks. As such, the following tactics can also help you to mitigate the risks of data breaches:
- Use transport layer security (TLS) client authentication. This process involves the server sending its TLS certificate to the client during the TLS handshake process to validate the server’s authentic digital identity.
- Implement proper (i.e., generic) authentication error messages. If your error message clearly states that a specific username doesn’t exist, the user will know it, but so will the bad actor. And this will give him or her an unwanted advantage. The point is, never give out too much information. This will ensure that if the authentication does fail, the user or bad actor will get a generic error message that doesn’t provide them with the info they can use to try to access the application. An example of this is as follows; “Oops! Something went wrong! Help us improve your experience by sending us an error report.”
- Store, control, and manage your passwords safely. Storing password hashes and implementing a good password recovery mechanism for users will help keep your sensitive information stored away safely.
- Never store credentials within the app’s script. Even if embedding credentials as plain text into codes can be handy during development, it’s usually not a good idea. Simply because people often forget to remove their credentials before publishing their code on different websites. This offers up your credentials and exposes them to bad actors, and that can have serious consequences for you and your customers.
There are other tactics that developers can implement to ensure they follow best practices when it comes to password and authentication management. These include transmitting password data securely and safely via strong encryption mechanisms. As for input validation, data sanitation is important for removing any unsafe characters. Basically, it’s a two-step process that ensures that if a breach happens, it would be contained and the attackers wouldn’t be able to exploit different forms of injection attacks e.g. SQL injection attacks. Other forms could include but are not limited to adopting the principle of least privilege. Think of this as a very exclusive club that only the very elite has exclusive access to. Highly secure facilities such as banks and government institutions have strictly regulated access for obvious reasons. Access to such institutions is limited to the minimum to reduce risks and to help avoid breaches. The same approach should be applied to software applications.
Keep your dependencies up to date
An important step in protecting and securing your software and the subsequent applications it runs on is to update your dependencies. That is, maintaining software health with updates that use the latest versions of the software and its dependencies. The reason is, recent updates are less likely to be exposed and attacked as opposed to the older versions because bad actors have naturally had more time to figure out the weaknesses with the latter. Although, updating your dependencies do come with its own risks.
Two risks, in particular, are associated with updating your dependencies. The first is the risk of breaking something within your code. An issue can arise if you unknowingly update the code and it’s not compatible with the older version it’s trying to replace. This can inadvertently disable your software when you try to install the new dependency. The simple fix is to uninstall the update and revert to the older dependency or change your code to match the new dependency’s changes.
The second and more serious risk is that the new dependency has some kind of malicious code within it. In other words, it has been specifically created to exploit and manipulate the software and its applications in order to gain access to the business systems.
To combat and decrease the likelihood of these risks, you ought to ensure you have excellent test coverage so that you can test every new version and assess that each of them isn’t breaking or disrupting anything.
On the other end of the spectrum, the benefits associated with updating the dependencies outweigh the potential risks.
- Firstly, vulnerability prevention. In 2021, it was found that over 90 percent of the newly disclosed vulnerabilities could be avoided by updating your dependencies with the latest version. This in turn saves the developers and the security team a lot of time and work.
- New features. Updating your dependencies means you get access to the software’s latest features and the latest APIs, as well as fresh bug fixes, to protect your software. In essence, you’re simultaneously getting revised and updated capabilities while you’re keeping your software as secure as possible against the newest vulnerabilities and threats.
- Protection against zero-day vulnerabilities. Maintaining dependency updates means that you’re better prepared to respond to urgent and unexpected security alerts. Frequently updating your dependencies means you can simply apply security patches and you can do it quickly. On the other hand, if you don’t update your dependencies, or don’t do so frequently, then when there’s a sudden breach, it becomes that much harder to locate and patch the breach effectively. Overall, regularly updating your dependencies allows you to react quickly, decisively, and unproblematically.
Encryption is a powerful tool for protecting your software from cyber attacks. In today’s world where cyber attacks are becoming more prevalent, encryption is a critical tool in dealing with these threats to keep your software and information safe. Encryption is the process that involves the use of algorithms to translate plain text i.e., unencrypted text into a cipher text i.e., an encrypted message that cannot be accessed by anyone without the corresponding decryption key. In simpler terms, encryption takes your message and scrambles it into an undecipherable format until it reaches its recipient who can then unscramble it with the access key. What this means is that any data that is transmitted or stored using encryption is secure and cannot be intercepted by hackers or bad actors.
There are two types of encryption keys. The first is a public key that can be freely known by other parties and not jeopardise the data’s security. It is used by the sender to initially encrypt the message before transmitting it to the receiver’s address. It is considered asymmetric because there are two keys for each purpose. The second is the private key which must be kept highly confidential to avoid unwanted exploitations. The private key is used in both the encryption and decryption of the message. Therefore, it is symmetric because only one key is used between both the sender and receiver.
The first reason why encryption is important in protecting your software is that it secures data in transit. When data is being transferred from one point to another, it is vulnerable to interception by hackers. Encryption ensures that the data is converted into a coded message that cannot be understood by anyone without the decryption key. Hence, even if the data is intercepted, it cannot be understood and/or used by bad actors.
Just as encryption protects data in transit, so too with data at rest. Specifically, when data is stored on a server and is in a silent state, it becomes vulnerable to cyberattacks. Encryption ensures that the same solution as mentioned above is applied here yet again, protecting your software from potential threats.
Lastly is data that is in use which is data that is actively being processed or analysed. Most businesses outsource their data processing to external third parties. Hence the security measures of such providers are of vital importance.
As cyber-attacks such as ransomware become more evolved and sophisticated, so too does the damage that they can potentially cause. Encrypting your software ensures that even if it is attacked, the data itself is kept secure. This is especially important for those businesses and organisations that house sensitive data like financial or personal information.
When it comes to implementation, several encryption processes are widely used and proven to be effective. Encryption implementation is done at various levels within software development. Those levels are the application level, the database level, and the network level. Which level of encryption is needed for your business is dependent on the specific software needs.
Encryption is a powerful yet simple tool that should be used to ensure the security and safety of your software in a world where cyber threats are becoming more prevalent.
Implement secure authentication and authorisation
As discussed in a previous point, businesses use authentication and authorisation solutions to positively identify users and control who has access to applications and software development. Authentication refers to the process of validating a user’s identity. Usernames and passwords are the most common examples of authentication processes.
Authorisation speaks to the process of granting a user permission to access specific resources or dossiers after their identity has been verified and confirmed. For example, a software developer might be granted all access privileges to an app development, while an ordinary business user might be granted limited or no access at all to the same resource.
Authorisation and authentication fall under a form of cybersecurity called Identity and Access Management (IAM). Although processes and technologies may differ between companies, the overarching aim is to ensure that the right people have access to the right tools at the right times for the right reasons. Most identity and access management solutions provide both authentication and authorisation functionality and can be used to regulate access to on-premises, remote, cloud-based applications, app and web development, and data sources.
As previously discussed, authentication methods that consist of only a username and password are extremely vulnerable. Bad actors can carry out non-complex attacks such as phishing attacks to exploit those credentials by posing as legitimate users to steal or hack the data. Most IAM solutions support Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) functionality to protect against credential theft and user impersonation attacks. What makes MFA more effective is that it requires a user to present multiple forms of evidence to gain access to an application. An example of MFA could include a password and a one-time pin that is sent to your phone via SMS.
Authentication factors include:
- Knowledge factors – what the user knows, such as a password or an answer to a security question (e.g. what was the name of your grade 2 teacher?)
- Possession factors – what the user has, such as a mobile device or proximity badge
- Inherence factors – something biologically unique to the user, be it a fingerprint or facial biometrics
- Location factors – the user’s geographic position
Protect sensitive data
Cybercriminals and bad actors are continually creating new methods through which to poach and exploit sensitive data. Making the job of protecting your data and applications that much more difficult and critical. At the same time, with the digitisation of businesses and organisations, software development and maintenance is at the core of it. Additionally, the development process can be vulnerable to cyber attacks, which can cause severe financial and reputational damage. An effective method of protection against such attacks is to conduct frequent code reviews.
Code reviews are the process whereby the code is assessed line by line to identify any vulnerabilities or mistakes that could potentially be exploited by bad actors. This process can be done manually by the developers or it can be conducted with the use of automation tools. Code reviews aim to verify that the software is secure and functions as intended. Conducting regular reviews of the code is essential in helping to identify irregularities early on in the development process. Not only will they assist in preventing significant damage to the software and subsequent business but they also ensure that the software is reliable, efficient, and scalable.
There are several code review benefits associated with conducting them frequently. Firstly, it helps to confirm that the software code is of the required high quality. This is because code reviews can pinpoint errors, bugs, and other issues that can affect the performance of the software. Which in turn helps to improve the overall quality of the software programme and prevent potential problems from arising.
Secondly, regular code reviews can help to ensure that the software is secure. This is because code reviews can identify patches that could be susceptible to exploitation by hackers. By identifying these vulnerabilities early on, developers can take the necessary steps to address them and prevent attacks from occurring.
Thirdly, regular code reviews can help to improve the efficiency of the development process. By identifying areas where the code can be optimized or streamlined, developers can enhance the performance of the software and reduce the amount of time it takes to develop and deploy new features. Instead of going over existing code, the reviews ensure that all developers follow certain coding practices. This eliminates different programming styles from being incorporated into one project. Overall collaboration is sewn through which prevents the project from falling behind.
When we look at best practices to follow when conducting code reviews, firstly developers should fundamentally understand the code they are writing. In other words, they should be familiar with the programming language, the software architecture, and the overall design of the software.
Secondly, developers should make use of automation tools to help with the code review process. These tools can help to identify vulnerabilities and errors that may have been missed during manual inspections. They can also assist with improving the efficiency of the review process by automating certain tasks, making the entire process faster.
Thirdly, developers should ensure that they follow a consistent review process. This means that they should use the same criteria and processes for each review. This in turn helps to ensure that all areas of the code are reviewed fairly and that no issues are missed. The maintainability of the code means should any senior developer on the code be unavailable, other developers can still work on the code.
Fourthly, developers should ensure that they provide feedback constructively and respectfully. Code reviews can fundamentally help young developers learn from their mistakes and improve on them throughout the process. Senior developers can then focus on identifying issues and providing suggestions for optimisations rather than criticizing or blaming others.
Frequent code reviews are crucial in protecting software from cyber attacks as they help to ensure that the software is safe from vulnerabilities and optimised to remain efficient. Enhanced collaboration, improved learning, verification of the developed code, and streamlined development are key benefits achieved through regular code reviews.
Regularly back up your code
In line with the previous point, as well as conducting regular code reviews on your software, the same applies to backing up your code. Since malicious actors are always looking for ways in which they can exploit your data or systems, the same should apply to safeguard your software from such attacks. Software backups means copying your data from your server, laptop, desktop, or any other device and storing it somewhere secure, in the event of an unwanted scenario. The following are ways in which you can fortify your defenses to ensure your systems don’t get breached.
Ransomware attacks have become increasingly prevalent, posing significant threats to software systems. The purpose of these attacks is to encrypt and hijack critical data and demand huge ransoms in exchange for decryption keys. By regularly backing up your code, you create an added layer of defense against such attacks. Additionally, with up-to-date backups, you are able to restore your software to a clean slate, minimising downtime and removing the need to pay ransom demands. By having a secure off-site backup system, you reduce the probability of losing valuable code or sensitive data.
Data loss can occur due to multiple factors ranging from hardware failures, human errors to malicious attacks from bad actors. Losing your code can be detrimental as it can lead to significant setbacks in software development. Frequently backing up your code enables quick recovery in the event of a data loss. With recent backups at hand, you can recover and restore your software to its previous state, ensuring minimal disruption, and preventing potential financial losses and downtime. Additionally, backups of your data provide peace of mind, knowing that your hard work and intellectual property are safe and recoverable.
Another risk this circumvents is one whereby employees with access to sensitive information compromise your software whether intentionally or unintentionally. This insider threat can lead to software security risks and even cause irreparable damage. Code backups serve as a reference point to detect any unauthorised changes made to the codebase. In the event of a security breach or suspicious activity, you can restore the code to its previous state, ensuring the integrity of your software and mitigating the potential harm caused by insider actions.
The software development environment is an attractive hotbed for cybercriminals looking to infiltrate software systems. If they’re able to gain unauthorised access to your software development, they can introduce backdoors, inject malicious code, or tamper with your codebase. Frequently backing up your code gives you a safety net in such scenarios. By maintaining backups separate from your primary environment, you can recover from compromised systems swiftly. They also allow you to verify the integrity of your code by comparing it against the known good state, ensuring that no unauthorized iterations have been made.
An unlikely but altogether costly and damaging risk that backing up your code can prevent is wear and tear or physical damage. Eventually, your hardware such as computers, desktops, and external hard drives wear down over time which could put your data and sensitive information at risk. Taking your device to the retailer you bought it from or a repair shop might be a possible solution but there’s no guarantee that they’ll be able to recover your data. The same applies to the device breaking via an accident. Rendering your hard work is lost and unretrievable. Further emphasising that regularly backing up your code on a separate device from the one you use is pivotal.
It’s important to know that there are many different types of data backup and backup strategies that are each designed to tackle different issues. Whether that’s vulnerabilities or storage needs. Embracing this proactive approach through continuous and consistent backup ensures that your software and business stay secure in the face of evolving cyber threats.
Implement proper error handling
To understand why proper error handling’s important, we must first break down what improper error handling is and the security issues it can have on your software. The most common problem is when detailed internal error messages such as stack traces and error codes are displayed to the user (hacker). These messages reveal sensitive implementation details that should never be revealed. Such details can provide hackers with important clues on potential flaws in the system to exploit. Such messages are also disturbing to normal users to come across.
Now proper error handling involves your software being able to counter or seize errors that have been brought on by human mistakes or genuine obstacles.
One common security problem caused by improper error handling is the fail-open security check. All security mechanisms should deny access until specifically granted, not grant access until denied, which is a common reason why fail open errors occur. Other errors can cause the system to crash or consume significant resources, effectively denying or reducing service to legitimate users.
Good error-handling mechanisms should be able to handle any feasible set of inputs while enforcing proper security. Simple error messages should be produced and logged so that their cause, whether an error in the site or a hacking attempt, can be reviewed and dealt with. Error handling should not focus solely on input provided by the user, but should also include any errors that can be generated by internal components such as system calls, database queries, or any other internal functions.
It is worth noting that all web servers, application servers, and web application environments are prone to error-handling problems. When it comes to best practices for implementation, there are a number of them to consider.
Error logging and monitoring means logging all error messages, exceptions, and relevant information. Regularly review these logs to identify potential security vulnerabilities or suspicious activities. Proper monitoring allows you to detect and respond to attacks or irregular behavior swiftly.
Secure error messages ensure that error messages sent back to users or displayed within logs do not reveal sensitive information. Avoid providing detailed error messages that may disclose system internals or expose potential attack vectors. Instead, provide generic and user-friendly error messages while logging more detailed information for internal use.
Implementing robust input validation and sanitisation techniques throughout your codebase is something we’ve already touched on previously and is similar in this context. Validating and sanitising all user inputs prevents all different types of injection attacks. By validating and filtering user input, you can prevent attackers from exploiting vulnerabilities in your code.
The use of structured exception-handling techniques is useful in identifying potential points of failure and wrapping them in appropriate try-catch blocks. It is better to catch specific exceptions and handle them accordingly, as opposed to relying on generic catch-all blocks. This approach allows for more precise error handling and targeted mitigation strategies.
Another action that you can take is to perform thorough testing and validation of your code to identify and address potential error frailties. Techniques such as unit testing, integration testing, and security testing to identify vulnerabilities, boundary conditions, and edge cases are critical. By uncovering and fixing errors during the development stage, you reduce the chances of vulnerabilities being exploited in a production environment.
Employ a strong firewall and intrusion detection system (IDS)
To understand why implementing this practice is imperative and effective, we first need to understand what a firewall is. A firewall is a network security system that monitors and controls incoming and outgoing network traffic based on predetermined security rules. A well-configured firewall can prevent unauthorised users from gaining access to your systems and protect your software against malware and other threats. That being said, a firewall alone is not enough to protect your code from advanced threats such as targeted attacks. This is where an IDS comes in.
An intrusion detection system or IDS is a network security system that monitors network traffic for any signs of suspicious activity or known threats. It analyses traffic patterns and alerts administrators when it detects unusual behavior. An IDS can detect and prevent attacks that bypass the firewall, such as those using encrypted traffic or exploiting vulnerabilities in applications. Choose an IDS that suits your specific needs, such as network-based or host-based IDS, and tune it to minimise false positives and maximise threat detection accuracy.
There are numerous steps to configure the right firewall and IDS system for your business needs. The first is the type of firewall and IDS system as there are many to choose from, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. When considering which one to choose, factors such as the size of your network, the types of applications you are running, and your budget when choosing a solution are important to take into account.
Alternatively, you could invest in a next-generation firewall (NGFW) system that offers advanced features that go beyond traditional systems. NGFWs provide application-aware filtering, deep packet inspection, and intrusion prevention capabilities. By configuring the firewall to allow only necessary inbound and outbound network traffic, you’re also blocking unauthorised access attempts and malicious activities.
The second and most overlooked step because it sounds so obvious is setting up your firewall and IDS properly. A poorly configured firewall and intrusion detection system is as good as no system at all. Double-check that you set up your systems following best practices, such as blocking all unnecessary ports, enabling logging, and setting up alerts for suspicious activity.
The third step is regularly updating your firewall and IDS systems. Cyber threats are constantly evolving, which is why it is important to keep your firewall and IDS up to date with the latest security patches and threat intelligence. That way, your systems don’t lag behind the latest threats that could exploit older versions of your systems.
The fourth step is implementing a virtual private network or VPN to establish secure encrypted connections for remote access or communication between different network systems. VPNs provide secure channels that encrypt data traffic, protecting it from interception or eavesdropping. Set up your VPN access with strong authentication mechanisms and enforce strict access controls to prevent unauthorised connections.
The fifth step which goes in tandem with the previous point talks about monitoring your network traffic. Doing so regularly can help you identify irregularities and potential security threats. Tools such as network analysers and traffic monitors can help you gain insight into your network activity.
Lastly, a network address translation (NAT) is a nifty tool that allows you to mask internal internet protocol (IP) addresses. This makes it more difficult for hackers to identify and target specific systems. This tool maps internal IP addresses to a single public IP address when communicating with external networks, adding an extra layer of deception and protection.
Implement a bug bounty program
A bug bounty program is a security test run that allows white hackers, also known as ethical hackers, to try and exploit patches in a software’s code. These hackers are experts who are paid with the main aim of finding security flaws in a website or a mobile app’s software. In this way, hacker attacks can be prevented beforehand.
Benefits associated with bug bounty programs include good value for money. How these programs usually work is when a vulnerability has been found, only then do the ethical hackers get paid. If your organisation has a secure network, they don’t get remunerated. They also allow for highly skilled individuals to spend amounts of time rigorously testing your network. It also means that an organisation is not limited to its internal methodologies which might miss a few vulnerabilities.
As for challenges, if your security protocols aren’t up to standard, the program can become expensive very quickly the more weaknesses are found. They’re also hard to manage and can be time-consuming, given that there are now more people all working on one system for a period of time.
Bug bounty programs are a surefire way to test the programme’s security protocols and assess how they hold out against hackers trying to attack them. If the white hackers are unsuccessful, not only does this give you reinforcement in knowing that your systems are secure, but it also reassures your customers. Always ensure to deploy these programs periodically to keep your systems and sites safely intact.
Time and again as technology has evolved and scaled, many people have seen opportunities for growth and positive change. So too do other people see opportunities for their malicious intentions and selfish gain. More and more of our daily lives are conducted online and that’ll only continue to grow. Personal information, intellectual property, and matters of high confidentiality are just a few examples of why concealing and protecting your systems is paramount.
Investing in cyber security is a non-negotiable for any business or organisation that uses software and code. It is the foundation to which everything else operates as it should because if it isn’t there, the potential downfalls are disastrous. And those chances should not be taken, especially if you look to remain competitive in the online sector. It is one of the few investments where the returns will far outweigh its cost and will continue to compound as you go along.
There is a reason that cyber security jobs have grown exponentially in the last few years. The demand for that sector, especially for businesses that rely on software development and maintenance for their offerings, is crucial in keeping organisations competitive. Not only is cyber security influential in preventing losses, such as financial but it also increases brand reputation. The reason is, consumers take confidence in knowing that the organisation they interact with takes their security very seriously. This helps in maintaining and keeping customer retention and satisfaction. Remember, cybersecurity is a continuous process, and it requires ongoing effort and attention to stay ahead of the threats.