Why application-layer encryption is essential for securing confidential data

December 15, 2020 | Theodoros Karasavvas

This blog was written by an independent guest blogger.

Your business is growing at a steady rate, and you have big plans for the future. Then, your organization gets hit by a cyberattack, causing a massive data breach. 

Suddenly, your company’s focus is shifted to sending out letters to angry customers informing them of the incident - which is required by law in most states - and devising strategies to deal with the backlash. This is an all too common scenario for many businesses, and the unfortunate truth is that most organizations fail to adopt the correct cybersecurity procedures until after an attack. The good news is that with a proactive approach to protecting your data, these kinds of nightmares can be avoided.

New technology is constantly providing hackers new opportunities to commit cybercrimes. Most organizations have encrypted their data whether it’s stored on the cloud or in a server provided by their web host, but this isn’t enough. Even properly encrypted disc level encryption is vulnerable to security breaches. 

In this article, we will discuss the weaknesses found in disc level encryption and why it’s best to ensure your data is encrypted at the application layer. We’ll also discuss the importance of active involvement from a cybersecurity team in the beginning stages of application development, and why developers need to have a renewed focus on cybersecurity in a “security-as-code” culture. 

The importance of application-layer security

Organizations all too often have a piecemeal, siloed approach to security. Increasingly competitive tech environments have pushed developers into building new products at a pace cybersecurity experts sometimes can’t keep up with. This is why it’s becoming more common for vulnerabilities to be detected only after an application launches or a data breach occurs.

Application layer encryption reduces surface area and encrypts data at the application level. That means if one application is compromised, the entire system does not become at risk. To reduce attack surfaces, individual users and third parties should not have access to encrypted data or keys. This leaves would-be cybercriminals with only the customer-facing end of the application for finding vulnerabilities, and this can be easily protected and audited for security. 

Building AI and application-layer security into code

Application layer security and building security into the coding itself requires that your DevOps and cybersecurity experts work closely together to form a DevSecOps dream team. Developers are increasingly working hand-in-hand with cybersecurity experts from the very beginning stages of software development to ensure a “security-as-code” culture is upheld. 

However, there are some very interesting developments in AI that present opportunities to streamline this process. In fact, 78% of data scientists agree that artificial intelligence will have the greatest impact on data protection for the decade.

Here are four ways AI is transforming application layer security:

1. Misuse detection or application security breach detection

Also referred to as signature-based detection, AI systems alert teams when familiar attack patterns are noticed. The opposite of anomaly detection, this method is based on a strong understanding of abnormal activities on the network so suspicious behavior can be pinpointed. 

2. Data exploration

AI quickly views relevant attributes from data sets and scans for unusual observations or correlations.

3. Risk scoring

Similar to a credit score, AI can provide a “risk score” based on a user’s past or present behavior, or the type of incoming user request, to identify the probability of that user being a malicious actor.

Even though AI is a great way to automate threat detection in real-time, it still relies heavily on cybersecurity teams to address and fix issues once identified.

4. Anomaly detection and predictive analysis 

AI systems can quickly learn what constitutes normal behavior and identify unusual activity, referred to as “outliers,”  and flag these for further investigation. This method is based on a strong understanding of normal activities on the network so suspicious behavior can be pinpointed. 

Disc-layer encryption is vulnerable to attacks

Compared to application-layer security, disc-layer encryption has some glaring vulnerabilities. Imagine if you could really have the proverbial “key to the city” and access any venue you wanted in your entire town. 

This is analogous to the wide level of access hackers gain when they are able to get an encryption key for your disc-layer protected data. A single encryption key stored on the very same hardware that contains sensitive data can open up the floodgates for cybercriminals. It can even cause your organization to be locked out of their own database.

A malicious actor can easily achieve this goal, and it’s not even necessary for them to be an expert hacker. Simply stealing another user’s credentials, confidential data can be accessed or worse, downloaded and decrypted offline and out of sight. With research showing that 76% of data breaches exploiting stolen credentials, this vulnerability with disc-layer encryption is especially troubling. This is yet another strong argument for the deployment of application layer security versus the traditional disc-layer encryption.

As discussed previously, many organizations have their data stored in the cloud or on the servers provided by their web hosts. Businesses need to be careful about the hosts they choose to run their sites, because several less reputable hosts will earn millions of dollars by utilizing low quality servers that are more vulnerable to security breaches and track data to sell to unknown third party companies.

The worst part about this scenario is that the confidential data can be accessed from any application tied to the compromised account. To avoid this, be sure to go with cloud-based hosts that offer free SSL encryption, DDoS prevention, and network monitoring at the bare minimum. 

Security and coding go hand-in-hand

Developers and security teams need to work together closely from the beginning to ensure security measures are adequately written into coding. This “security-as-code” culture embeds protections into your code at all stages as a fundamental part of the software. 

By adopting effective application security methods and practices, confidential data is better protected from data breaches and reduces the volume of surface area that is vulnerable to hackers. More importantly, application-layer encryption acknowledges that cybersecurity incidents are increasingly becoming the norm by proactively reducing the amount of access a hacker can obtain once a vulnerability is identified. 

Artificial intelligence has also made some significant changes in how security teams detect and address security anomalies, and this will likely continue in the future. However, continuous cybersecurity education and training among developer teams, along with a close partnership with security experts, will always be an important factor now and in the future to enable the writing of secure code into an application-level of encryption.

Theodoros Karasavvas

About the Author: Theodoros Karasavvas

Theodoros ‘Theo’ Karasavvas is a freelance writer based out of Corinth, Greece. He has written for Ars Technica, American Express, Gizmodo, Gold Visa Japan, Mental Floss, and Ancient Origins, among others. He has a Master of Studies in Law from the University of Athens and speaks four languages. He specializes in writing about history, current events, tech trends, and privacy technology.

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