· Alex · security  · 9 min read

A Comprehensive Guide to Application Security Controls

Explore the world of application security controls, by diving into their importance, focus areas, categories, best practices and regulations.

Explore the world of application security controls, by diving into their importance, focus areas, categories, best practices and regulations.

Application Security Controls

What are application security controls?

Application security controls are the measures and mechanisms that developers and security teams put in place to protect applications from threats, vulnerabilities, and attacks. These controls help ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of an application, safeguarding both the application and its data from unauthorized access, tampering, and disruption.

Application security controls are often implemented in several layers using a “defense in depth” approach. The purpose of this method is to protect the application, even if one of the layers fail (an analogy would to think like peeling an onion).

Importance of implementing security controls in applications

Now, you might be wondering why we need these application security controls in the first place. With the ever-increasing number of cyber attacks and data breaches, it’s essential to keep our applications safe and sound. Application security controls provide the last line of defense against threats, ensuring that our data and infrastructure remain protected, while ensuring availability for the users. Here are a few reasons why application security controls are super important:

  1. Protection against threats: application security controls help shield software from common security threats such as those mentioned in OWASP Top 10.
  2. Regulatory compliance: many industries have specific security regulations and standards that applications must adhere to, like GDPR, PCI DSS, and HIPAA. Security controls help ensure compliance with these requirements.
  3. User trust: implementing robust security controls in applications helps build trust with users, as they know their data is secure and their privacy is maintained. A security breach is a quick way to loose that trust.
  4. Business continuity: when applications are adequately secured, it minimizes the risk of downtime or disruption to the business, improving the availability factor.

Focus points for application security controls

Now that we know what application security controls are and why they’re crucial let’s see a few focus area where they must be applied. These can often be mapped to a framework like OWASP Top 10.

  1. Authentication: this ensures that only authorized users, services and systems can access the application by verifying their identity using methods like passwords, two-factor authentication, API keys, etc.
  2. Authorization: once a user or system is authenticated, this component determines what they can access and do within the application based on their permissions and roles. Think of things like OAUTH, RBAC (Role Based Access Control) and ACLs (Access Control Lists).
  3. Input validation, sanitization and output encoding: this helps prevent malicious input from users or external sources by validating and cleaning up the data before it’s processed by the application. Validation might something like checking the validity of an email, an SSN or anything with a specific data type or predictable format. Sanitization is the process of removing the characters or sequences of user controlled input so change in any way the intended behavior of the application (like a SQL injection would). This works together with output encoding in cases where data is reflected back to the user (for example, posting a comment that accepts HTML on a web form).
  4. Data security: this area handles the security of sensitive data by converting it into an unreadable format, making it accessible only to those with the proper decryption keys or credentials. Data security includes both data at rest (encrypting a database on the file system) and in transit (such as using TLS). Secrets (API keys, credentials, private keys, etc) are another type of data that must be manager properly, like using a secrets manager (such as AWS KMS).
  5. Logging and monitoring: by keeping a detailed record of application events and monitoring for unusual activity, this component helps identify potential security issues, breaches, availability and integrity issues.
  6. Error handling: ensures that the application can gracefully handle errors, preventing the exposure of sensitive information or the execution of malicious actions. Examples of improper error handling is leaking file system paths, data format constraints or any information that an attack could use to further advance his exploitation efforts.
  7. Regular updates and patch management: keeping applications up-to-date and applying security patches helps maintain their security posture, as vulnerabilities and threats are continuously evolving. This includes everything from operating system packages (containers) to third party libraries used in the application.

Categories of Application Security Controls

Alright, now that we’ve covered the basics of application security controls, let’s delve deeper into the various categories and types.

Preventive controls

Preventive controls are all about stopping security incidents before they happen. They help identify and mitigate potential risks and vulnerabilities, keeping your application safe from the get-go. Some examples of preventive controls are input validation, access controls, encryption and using tools like SAST (Static Application Security Testing) and SCA (Software Composition Analysis).

Detective Controls

Detective controls help you keep an eye on what’s happening in your application. They monitor, detect, and analyze security events, enabling you to spot and respond to incidents quickly. These include tools such as Intrusion Detection Systems (IDS) and logging tools (DataDog, Splunk, SIEMs).

Corrective Controls

Corrective controls focus on recovering from and mitigating the impact of security incidents. They help restore normal operations and minimize damage and include things like:

  • having a test incident response procedure
  • backup and recovery (make sure to test your backups)
  • patch management

Best Practices for Implementing Application Security Controls

Adopting a security-first mindset

The first step to securing your application is embracing a security-first mindset. This means considering security as a top priority throughout the software development lifecycle, from design to deployment. A security-first approach helps ensure that you’re always thinking about potential risks and taking proactive measures to protect your application, infrastructure and its users. This means having security controls implemented at every step of the SDLC.

Integrating security controls early in the development process

The earlier you integrate security controls into the software development lifecycle, the better. Implementing security from the start, also known as “shifting left,” helps catch and mitigate vulnerabilities before they make their way into production. This not only saves time and resources but also reduces the risk of security incidents. To integrate security controls early, you can:

  1. Perform threat modeling during the design phase to identify potential risks and vulnerabilities.
  2. Use secure coding practices, like input validation and output encoding, to minimize the chances of security flaws.
  3. Incorporate automated security testing tools into your CI/CD pipelines to catch issues quickly before they reach your users.

Regularly updating and auditing security controls

Security is continuos process, not a one-time task. You can consider it like a Continuous Security pipeline. To stay ahead of the ever-evolving threat landscape, it’s essential to regularly update and audit your security controls. This includes applying patches, updating dependencies, and ensuring that your controls are still effective against new threats and vulnerabilities. To help with this, consider:

  1. Setting up a schedule for regular security audits and assessments performed by you, the Application Security Engineer, or by getting 3rd party help.
  2. Monitoring security news and vulnerability databases for emerging threats and exploits.
  3. Leveraging automated tools and services to simplify the update and security audit processes.

Training developers on security best practices

Education is key to maintaining a secure application environment. Developers play a critical role in keeping an application secure, and it’s essential to provide them with the necessary knowledge and skills. After all, companies usually have one Application Security Engineer for every hundred developers. This is a team sport. For developers, this includes training on:

  1. Secure coding practices and common vulnerabilities (e.g., OWASP Top 10).
  2. Proper use of security tools, libraries, and frameworks.
  3. Security testing techniques, like penetration testing and code reviews.

Speaking to the team sport aspect, ideally you should identify engineers inclined towards security and empower them to become Security Champions in their organizations. The will become a security point of contact for their teams and help scale security to the entire company.

Regulations and Standards for Application Security Controls

As you dive deeper into the world of application security, you’ll find that there are various regulations and standards that help guide and shape your security controls. These rules are designed to ensure that applications meet certain security and privacy requirements, and it’s crucial to be aware of them. Let’s take a closer look at some of the most important ones.

General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)

If you’re dealing with the personal data of EU citizens, you need to be familiar with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This comprehensive data protection law governs how organizations collect, process, and store personal data. To comply with GDPR, you’ll need to implement security controls that ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of personal data. This includes measures like data encryption, access control, and breach notification procedures.

Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS)

For applications that handle credit card transactions, the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) is a must-know. This standard outlines a set of security requirements for protecting cardholder data and reducing the risk of payment fraud. Key security controls for PCI DSS compliance include encryption of cardholder data, secure network architecture, regular vulnerability scanning, and strong access controls.

Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)

If your application deals with protected health information (PHI), you’ll need to be familiar with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). This US law regulates the privacy and security of PHI, requiring covered entities and their business associates to implement safeguards to protect this sensitive data. Key security controls for HIPAA compliance include data encryption, access control, regular risk assessments, and secure data transmission.

ISO/IEC 27001:2013

For organizations looking to implement a comprehensive information security management system (ISMS), the ISO/IEC 27001:2013 standard is a great starting point. This internationally recognized standard provides a framework for establishing, implementing, and maintaining an ISMS, helping organizations manage and protect their information assets. By aligning your application security controls with the ISO/IEC 27001:2013 standard, you can demonstrate a strong commitment to security and risk management.


So, there you have it! We’ve explored the world of application security controls, diving into their importance, categories, best practices and regulations. As we’ve seen, application security controls play a crucial role in ensuring the safety of applications and the data they handle, protecting them from a multitude of threats and vulnerabilities. As you move forward, remember that implementing and continuously improving your application security controls is an continuous process. Embrace the security-first mindset and stay vigilant, adapting to new technologies and emerging trends. Your diligence will not only help keep your applications secure but also foster trust and confidence among your customers. Now it’s your turn! I’d love to hear about your experiences with application security controls, the challenges you’ve faced, and the insights you’ve gained along the way. Hit me up on contact page or subscribe and let’s continue the conversation.

About the Author:


Application Security Engineer and Red-Teamer. Over 15 years of experience in Application Security, Software Engineering and Offensive Security. OSCE3 & OSCP Certified. CTF nerd.

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