Security Solutions for the Application Layer
How you go about securing your application layer all depends on your specific application. Applications have all sorts of different purposes and uses, so your security needs to be tailored to your unique situation.
Additionally, you’ll need to be aware of the trade-offs that may accompany tighter security measures. More security can mean more costs in data and computing power.
For example — some security solutions, while effective in preventing attacks, may slow your application down slightly. If you’re dealing with highly sensitive data like financial or medical information, this small consequence may pale in comparison to the idea of a security breach.
It’s kind of like putting seven locks on the door to your home instead of the standard single deadbolt. With seven locks, it will take you a little longer to get in and out of your house, but if you live in an area where there have been a lot of break-ins, that trade-off might be worth it to you.
That being said, what are some options you have for securing your application layer?
Application layer security begins with the communication protocol you choose, whether it’s HTTP, MQTT (a popular choice for IoT projects), or one of numerous others. Each individual protocol will have its own methods for performing user authentication — some more secure than others — so it’s important to be familiar with the patterns present in each, so that you know about any security adjustments you’ll need to make.
The HTTP server-based authentication method, for example, is usually frowned upon because it's not inherently a very secure method. If you need more security, you might choose another protocol.
Alternatively, you could keep the protocol but add in a more secure form of multi-factor authentication , like HTTP token-based authentication. With token-based authentication, the application validates a user’s credentials on their first login, then provides the client with a signed token. The client stores the token and then must provide it with every login request, helping to prevent against CSRF attacks (where unauthorized commands are transmitted from a user that the application trusts).
Also of note — most protocols will have both a standard version and a secure version. While the standard version will be more lightweight and less secure, the secure version will be more complex, likely based on DLS, and offer more protection.
Follow Best Practices for Encryption
One common misstep in protecting the application layer actually has to do with other layers, like the transport layer.
As mentioned earlier, due to the structure of all the layers, an attack at a given layer can affect all of the layers above it, though not the ones below. And while it’s critical to secure the transport layer and those other deeper layers on their own, you shouldn’t always rely on those layers to handle all your encryption. If for some reason an attacker exploits a vulnerability in the transport layer, like the infamous Heartbleed bug, data not encrypted at the application layer could be suddenly available.
For this reason, it’s always a good idea to follow best practices for encrypting your data at the application layer to avoid unplanned exposure.
You can also use application firewalls to guard your application layer, plus other layers as well. Keep in mind that most firewalls are built with specific applications in mind, though many firewalls can be configured for multiple applications.
The firewall can control all network traffic on any OSI layer up to the application layer. Basically, it makes sure that weird connections aren’t happening in places you don’t expect, and that all communications are following the desired protocols.
Making it a Reality
Whichever route you choose for application security, based on your own unique needs, make sure that your security isn’t an afterthought. Put the safety of your users — and by extension, your business — first by following these best practices.
If you’re looking for a team who can help you implement strong IoT security protocols during your development project, give the team at Very a shout. In the meantime, check out this handy guide to IoT development, and let us know if you have any questions.