SaaS Application Security Testing: Its Role in Software Development

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Rafael Timbó
Rafael Timbó
Chief Technology Officer

Table of Contents

Security testing through SaaS can be a crucial aspect for many different types of industries that businesses may be in. Learn how vital of a role it might play in your company.
Published on
January 30, 2023
Updated on
April 11, 2024

According to the 2022 State of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) Ransomeware Attack Preparedness survey, half of 160 companies with at least 10,000 employees were hit by ransomware attacks in the last year. What's more, 51% of this group said SaaS data was the target.

These developments indicate that the stakes for companies that use SaaS applications are higher than ever. A simple hack or breach can result in revenue loss, financial penalties, identity theft, extortion, reputational loss, and even lawsuits.

Fortunately, there's a way to protect SaaS data from breaches and hacks — by adopting security testing for SaaS applications. Read this guide to learn more about SaaS application security testing, types of testing for security teams, and the purpose of security testing. We'll also cover security tips for your development team.

What Is Security Testing for SaaS Applications?

SaaS application security testing involves identifying and mitigating vulnerabilities in SaaS applications. Security testers use various techniques to look for potential security gaps, including security scans, manual tests, and reviewing application source code for common errors that can be exploited by malicious parties.

A reliable SaaS security team is a must-have for companies that use SaaS applications. This is because SaaS providers usually store a large amount and variety of sensitive data, including personally identifiable information and payment card details. Thus, they are a prime target for threat actors.

Types of Testing for Security Teams

There are many types of testing for security teams, including penetration testing, vulnerability scanning, ethical hacking, risk assessment, and infrastructure tests.

Penetration Testing

Also known as pen testing, penetration testing is a type of security test where you hire a certified security professional to evaluate your cybersecurity defenses. You can then use the results to fix vulnerabilities.

Penetration tests are usually performed through on-site audits of your company. You give the pen tester access to a certain part of your SaaS solution, and they will attempt to find vulnerabilities by analyzing your SaaS application's networks, web interfaces, third-party integrations, base code, user roles, and other components.

Besides helping you identify and fix vulnerabilities, a pen test can also help your business in the following ways:

  • General vulnerability detection: Penetration testing isn't just for SaaS. It can also help you find and fix vulnerabilities in other networks and systems.
  • Compliance: Pen testing will also help you comply with legal requirements and standards, such as GDPR, Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), SOC2, and ISO/IEC 27001.
  • Security planning: A thorough pen test will empower you to create a working cybersecurity plan and improve your technical environment.
  • Gaining partners' and customers' trust: Performing regular pen tests shows current and potential partners and customers that you care about their safety and that you are serious about protecting their personal data.

Vulnerability Scanning

As its name suggests, vulnerability scanning is the process of spotting cybersecurity flaws and weaknesses in software and systems.

Unlike penetration testing, vulnerability scanning only spots vulnerabilities. Contrarily, a penetration tester identifies the causes of vulnerabilities and logic vulnerabilities that automatic scanners may miss.

You can perform vulnerability scanning by using a vulnerability scanner to identify and create a list of all systems connected to your network. The vulnerability scanner will then:

  1. Identify each device on your network, including each device's software and operating system, as well as other attributes like user accounts and open ports,
  2. Compare each item on the list against one or more databases of known vulnerabilities, and
  3. Create a list of all systems identified and found in your network and highlight ones with known vulnerabilities.

Ethical Hacking

Also known as infrastructure tests, ethical hacking simulates a cybercriminal attack to spot vulnerabilities. Ethical hackers will use the same hacking techniques as criminal hackers to gain unauthorized access to your system and evaluate your network's resilience to attacks.

The penetration testing process consists of five stages:

  1. Planning: During this stage, ethical hackers define the goals and scope of the test, including the testing methods used and the target system(s). They also gather intelligence, such as your SaaS server and domain names, to gain a deeper understanding of how a target works.
  2. Scanning: Next, your ethical hackers attempt to understand how the SaaS platform will respond to different intrusion attempts. They usually do this through:
  1. Static analysis: This involves inspecting the SaaS code to predict how it will behave while running. Static analysis tools can scan all of the SaaS code in one try.
  2. Dynamic analysis: Ethical hackers perform dynamic analysis by inspecting an application's code in a running state. This is a more practical scanning method since it provides a real-time view of a SaaS platform's performance.
  1. Gaining access: Your ethical hackers will now use various attacks, such as backdoors, cross-site scripting, and SQL injection, to uncover your SaaS system's vulnerabilities. They will then try to exploit these vulnerabilities to understand how much damage criminal hackers can cause.
  2. Maintaining access: Your ethical hackers will see whether vulnerabilities can be used to achieve a lasting presence in your SaaS system. This step aims to mimic advanced persistent threats, which can remain in a SaaS system for months to hijack a company's most sensitive data.
  3. Analysis: Finally, your ethical hackers will analyze and compile the results of the ethical hack. They will produce a report that outlines:
  1. The vulnerabilities that they were able to identify and exploit,
  2. Sensitive data that was accessed, and
  3. The amount of time the ethical hackers were able to remain undetected in your SaaS system.

Your security personnel will then use the ethical hacking report to configure your SaaS system's security settings and safeguard it from future attacks.

As a side note, many companies refer to ethical hacking and penetration testing interchangeably. However, they are distinct tests. Penetration testers assess the security of a specific aspect of your SaaS system according to a pre-determined scope, while ethical hackers use as many types of cyberattacks on your whole system without being restricted by a scope document.

Risk Assessment

A security risk assessment (SRA) pinpoints, analyzes, and implements critical security controls in all assets, tools, and applications in your organization, including SaaS platforms. It prevents vulnerabilities and security defects by:

  1. Identifying assets in your organization,
  2. Creating risk profiles for each asset,
  3. Showing you what data is transmitted, stored, and generated by these assets,
  4. Determining the risk ranking for each asset and prioritizing them for analysis, and
  5. Applying mitigating controls for each asset using assessment results.

SRAs are typically required by compliance standards, such as SOC II, the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS), ISO 27001, HIPAA, and HITRUST CSF.

Infrastructure Tests

Also known as infrastructure penetration tests (ITS), infrastructure tests are another name for ethical hacking. Testers perform these to evaluate how secure your internal and external networks actually are. They also use them to prevent and mitigate significant security issues.

The Purpose of Security Testing

Clearly, security testing has many purposes. First, it identifies security vulnerabilities. It also protects intellectual property and confidential information, ensures compliance with industry standards, and helps address security concerns. Additionally, it can pinpoint suspicious activities.

Identifies Security Vulnerabilities

Most SaaS platforms have been thoroughly tested for bugs and security gaps. Salesforce, for instance, uses some of the most advanced technology for internet security, including:

  • Secure Socket Layer (SSL) technology, which protects your information using data encryption and server authentication,
  • Unique credentials for each Salesforce user, and
  • Secure server hosting that uses a firewall and other first-class technology to prevent access and interference from third parties.

However, SaaS applications can still be exploited through:

  • Unauthorized access: Because SaaS is connected to the internet, you can face an increased risk of account takeover when using SaaS. Not every SaaS service has geographic restrictions, allowing credential-based attacks like a brute force to originate from anywhere. Malicious parties may also access user credentials through the dark web and use those credentials for account takeovers. That's why you should use single sign-on (SSO) solutions and multifactor authentication (MFA) to protect your SaaS applications from being taken over.
  • Insecure application programming interfaces (APIs): Some SaaS solutions' APIs may have exploitable vulnerabilities. They may also lack role-based access control mechanisms, making them easy targets. You can mitigate this risk by using the security tests outlined above and protecting your communication endpoints according to best security practices, such as limiting API access based on least privilege and need-to-know principles.
  • Shadow IT: Shadow IT refers to the devices, systems, services, and SaaS applications used and accessed by departments and employees without the knowledge, oversight, or explicit approval of your legal and IT teams. Since legal, IT, privacy, cybersecurity, and procurement teams don't have the chance to vet these tools before use, organizations are often vulnerable to tremendous security risks.

A strong security testing program can help you identify, prevent, and mitigate such vulnerabilities. Specifically, the right security team will use all of the above testing methods to protect your and your clients' data from misuse.

Protects Intellectual Property and Confidential Information

Malicious third parties often hack SaaS systems to gain unauthorized access to intellectual property and confidential information. They can then sell, leak, and hold the data for ransom. They may even use personal information for identity theft crimes.

Security testing can prevent this by identifying exploitable vulnerabilities. You can then use the security test results to install stronger firewalls, security patches, and malware protection.

Ensures Compliance With Industry Standards

Depending on your industry and location, you may be required to follow certain privacy rules and standards, such as:

  • HIPAA: The HIPAA's Privacy Rule applies to all "covered entities," which include health plan providers, health care clearinghouses, and health care providers who conduct certain administrative and financial transactions electronically.
  • PCI DSS: The PCI DSS applies to all entities that process, store, and transmit cardholder data.
  • GDPR: This European Union (EU) regulation applies to all companies handling the personal data of EU residents, including those outside the EU if they offer services or goods to EU residents or monitor their behavior.
  • SOC2: This applies to any SaaS company or technology service provider that stores or handles customer data. Partners, third-party vendors, and support organizations that these companies work with should also maintain SOC2 compliance to safeguard their data systems.  

Security testing can help you meet many of these requirements. For instance, penetration testing can help you meet GDPR, HIPAA, SOC2, and ISO/IEC 27001 requirements.

Helps Address Security Concerns

Security testing can also help you address security concerns. It can find and eliminate many vulnerabilities and attack vectors, including SQL injections, cross-site scripting, brute force attacks, and insecure remote access points.

Without security testing, you would have a much harder time finding all of the vulnerabilities in SaaS applications, especially if you don't have the right tools, team members, and expertise.

Pinpoints Suspicious Activities

Lastly, security testing pinpoints suspicious activities. Without security tests like penetration tests, vulnerability scanning, and ethical hacking, you won't be able to spot hackers ahead of time. By the time you would notice them, they might've already stolen countless customers' personal information, installed malicious code on your computer, or committed identity theft.

Security Tips for Your Development Team

Now that you know the purpose of security testing, here are some security best practices for your development team.

Create a Security Checklist During Application Development

Security testing can be complicated. It involves many different types of tests, from penetration tests and vulnerability scanning to ethical hacking. Additionally, it may require hiring new people and buying new security software. As a result, security experts can easily lose track of their goals, especially when they have a dozen other concurrent projects.

Luckily, a thorough security checklist can help security experts stay on track and perform thorough security tests. Here's what you can include in your security checklist:

  1. Gather SaaS application information
  2. Ensure proper system configuration
  3. Pinpoint and access management systems to ensure the system is supporting a least privilege model
  4. Review authentication procedures
  5. Implement encryption protocols for data in transit so that it cannot be read by unauthorized third parties
  6. Test business logic to ensure your SaaS is behaving the way it should
  7. Monitor behavior and log activity for your SaaS data entry points

Keep Security Standards at the Top of Mind

You should keep security standards at the forefront. In other words, you should prioritize identifying, preventing, and addressing security standards above other concerns, even when there are a dozen other things to do.

Add a Security Engineer to Your Team

Besides reminding yourself to prioritize security standards, you can also keep security standards at the forefront by adding a security engineer to your team.

Also known as cyber security engineers, security engineers design, create, and implement software to protect your network integrity. They collaborate with your cybersecurity team or security analyst to find security gaps and develop solutions for these issues. Their other responsibilities include:

  • Staying on top of new attack vectors and techniques: Hackers are always coming up with new methods to infiltrate SaaS applications. As such, security engineers must be on the alert for new techniques and attack vectors. They must also be able to design and implement software and protocol to protect your systems from these attack types.
  • Coding: Security engineers will spend ample time writing code to build and implement security software.
  • Identifying vulnerabilities: Security engineers use various tests and tools to identify critical vulnerabilities. At a minimum, they should know application security tools, penetration testing, vulnerability scanning, ethical hacking, dynamic application security testing (DAST), and testing application security (AST).
  • Finding new ways to perform tests and find security gaps: First-class security engineers can prevent hacking by finding new ways to perform penetration tests and ethical hacking.
  • Finding new ways to improve your network systems: Security engineers will constantly look for ways to improve stability, security, efficiency, and scalability in your network systems.
  • Communicating with other team members and departments: Security engineers are also responsible for conveying their ideas and findings to relevant staff members, including management and software development teams. They may also have to train personnel to understand new protocols and use new security software.

Monitor To Ensure Security Requirements Are Being Followed

Unfortunately, team members don't always have the energy or motivation to follow security requirements. Accordingly, you should consistently monitor your team to ensure they're following your security checklist. Otherwise, you'll be back to ground zero.

Most companies monitor security teams by holding regular team meetings about security. However, consistent monitoring can be difficult, especially if you have limited cybersecurity expertise and time. A cost-effective and efficient alternative is to recruit a MAMAA-caliber cybersecurity team that can bake SaaS security measures into every IT development phase.

Make Sure Your Team Is Prepared To Handle Potential Vulnerabilities

If your organization uses SaaS applications, you must ensure that your team is prepared to handle potential vulnerabilities. Although most SaaS applications are secure, especially big-name tools like Salesforce and HubSpot, they still have many vulnerabilities, such as insecure APIs and shadow IT.

One of the best ways to safeguard your SaaS data is to hire an experienced cybersecurity professional or team through Revelo. As Latin America's premier tech talent marketplace, we provide access to over 300,000 MAMAA-caliber cybersecurity experts, including security engineers, cybersecurity analysts, cryptographers, cloud infrastructure security architects, and more.

Interested in improving your security posture with SaaS security application testing? We can help.  We can connect with you and your needs, and then send you a list of the best picks within three days. You can interview and hire the cybersecurity experts you like. Get started today.

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