How to Perform a Website Security Audit Assessment

May 7, 2024 in Tutorials, Website Security

Website security measures provide critical peace of mind as you protect your web presence against hackers, data breaches, and other cyberattacks. Without strict security protocols, you risk viruses, malware infections, and a whole host of other problems that leave your website, your customers, and your reputation at risk.

Unfortunately, even if you take all the critical steps to address security vulnerabilities, infiltrations are always possible. Simply put, today's threat actors are extremely talented and persistent. Vigilance needs to take a step up — and that's where a website security audit or assessment can come into play. Keep reading to learn what this involves, why it's important, and what it will take to prevent today's most harmful attacks.

What is a website security audit?

A website security audit involves a systematic approach to identifying vulnerabilities and security loopholes. It involves a full overview of the site's core files, server, and plugins, all of which are examined for both existing and potential problems. During this process, the website in question is scanned for common weaknesses, with the entire infrastructure examined in detail. This may be followed by configuration and penetration testing.

A website security audit can help:

  • Identify outdated software or poorly configured websites that are vulnerable to cyber threats.
  • Protect data by evaluating encryption techniques and access controls, guaranteeing the security of sensitive data.
  • Stop hacking attempts and unauthorized access to your website by looking at code and server configurations.
  • Ensure that your website complies with applicable laws and industry standards.
  • Bolster security measures, such as setting up firewalls, creating secure passwords, and updating software frequently.

Website security audit checklist

Website security audits are extensive by nature. They strive to detect a wide range of vulnerabilities and infections and call for a similarly wide range of strategies to reveal where and how your website may be at risk. We've created a detailed checklist that outlines this risk assessment process, so you can feel more confident in what, exactly, you're about to undergo.

Preparing for the audit

Website security audits are most successful when they are thoroughly planned and prepared. This means understanding why you need an audit and what, exactly, you intend to learn. Ideally, you will already have a basic idea of where your website security is lacking, although, of course, you'll also want to be prepared for unexpected infections or vulnerabilities to be uncovered during any security testing.

Begin by setting a few clear and concise goals to guide this process. Which website elements invite the most risk? Which security issues have you faced in the past? Highlight these target areas or problems as you define the scope of your audit. This is where our checklist can come in handy: it helps you determine what you want to cover during your audit and how extensive the security testing should be.

Running a security scan for website vulnerabilities or infections

Once you have a plan in place, it's time to determine the current status of your website. This means scanning for malware that has already possibly infected your site, as well as the vulnerabilities that allowed the malware to take over in the first place. This scan needs to be thorough, as anything that goes unchecked could leave your website open to future security risks and attacks.

Check for common vulnerabilities

Vulnerabilities are weaknesses that make it easier for hackers to gain control over your site or even your hosting web server. If discovered by malicious parties, these misconfigurations can be exploited, leading to stolen data or malicious content distribution. Common website vulnerabilities include:

Security concerns such as outdated software and open admin ports should also be identified and addressed during this vulnerability assessment. Security breaches come in many forms, and both information security experts and novices will face these security threats.

Conduct malware scans

Vulnerability scans should be accompanied by malware scans, which reveal which types of malicious content have already entered your website via previously exploited vulnerabilities. Examples include:

  • Ransomware
  • Spyware
  • Trojans
  • Fileless malware
  • Worms
  • Viruses
  • Rootkits
  • Keyloggers
  • Bots or botnets

While it is possible to manually check for malware, this process is time-consuming and calls for a great deal of cybersecurity expertise. Automated malware scanning and security tools are a far more reliable option. This solution can be used during your website security assessment but can also be continued as a daily routine to provide peace of mind long after your audit has been completed.

Identify weak passwords

Weak passwords provide threat actors easy access but are often neglected by website owners and users. A data security audit provides the perfect opportunity to determine whether passwords follow best practices. Dedicated password audits can reveal whether password lengths are sufficient or whether common words or patterns appear too often.

Later, we'll touch on strategies for promoting strong password protection moving forward. For now, it's simply important to understand where your passwords fall short.

Analyzing data protection measures

Strong encryption provides a much-needed extra layer of security. This is best provided with SSL and TLS certificates, which can validate your identity while paving the path to an encrypted connection. Take some time to assess whether the current level of validation is sufficient. It's also important to check whether these certificates have expired or need to be renewed soon.

Note that this step is all the more important now that Google has announced the potential for a future requirement of 90-day SSL certificates. This means that if you are still manually managing and renewing your certificates, your team will need to be extra vigilant to ensure they don’t expire.

Ensuring website integrity

Has your digital information been corrupted or otherwise interfered with at some point? Without an in-depth web security audit, you may never realize that your website and its data are less accurate, consistent, or complete than you expected.

To begin, check for website defacements. During a defacement attack, malicious players penetrate your website and replace its content. This is often regarded as the virtual version of graffiti. This can damage your reputation and lead to considerable downtime as you work to get rid of it. These types of malicious code are typically easy to detect, but monitoring solutions can ensure that you catch instances of defacement as quickly as possible.

Other essentials include a full review of logging mechanisms, plus examining file and directory permissions. The former provides better insight into the status of your cybersecurity setup and may help identify new threats. Unfortunately, configurations tend to be poor for custom application event logging, even though this tends to provide more powerful insight than strictly infrastructure logging. In general, plan to keep process monitoring and transaction logs separate, as these serve decidedly separate purposes.

Evaluating network security

Your website's underlying network infrastructure can be vulnerable to attacks. During a security audit, you can gain greater oversight of the various hardware and software components that play into your overall network security status. Steps to consider include:

  • Analyze firewall configurations. Firewalls form essential barriers and should be robust to amplify protection. Web application firewalls (WAFs) are especially important, as they serve as a critical line of defense against brute force attacks and other security threats.
  • Evaluate intrusion detection and prevention systems. Intrusion prevention detection systems (IDPS) provide network oversight and can highlight loopholes in your information security setup. Are these systems accomplishing their intended purpose? Take a close look at coverage (both quantity and quality) along with protocol decodes and susceptibility to common evasion techniques.
  • Check for open ports. Are any UDP or TCP port numbers currently configured to accept packets? If so, threat actors may gain easy access to sensitive data. Conduct a network scan to reveal which ports have been unintentionally left open.

Reviewing user accounts

Strict password policies are critical for preventing brute force attacks. These must be developed and enforced — and ideally, they will incorporate multi-factor authentication. Users should also be encouraged to use lengthy passwords (at least twelve characters) involving random strings of letters, numbers, and characters.

Don't forget to assess user roles, which determine the level of access that various types of users get. The rule of least access should always be followed, meaning that higher-level permissions are only given to a few select users and only when they're essential to carrying out key tasks.

Finally, any overview of password protection should delve into session management procedures. This defines exchanges between web applications and users.

Security monitoring and incident response

In the event of a breach, what will your response look like — and how much downtime will your site suffer? High-level security monitoring will help you detect issues early on when they're often easier to mitigate.

Beyond this, a thorough plan must be developed for responding to potential incidents as, no matter how robust your security strategy becomes, the occasional breach remains within the realm of possibility. Begin with a thorough overview of security event logging solutions. From there, verify incident reporting and escalation processes.

Reporting and remediation

Once you've uncovered key vulnerabilities or security oversights, what will you do with that information? This must be clearly and thoroughly documented so that you are aware of the full spectrum of risks. Prioritize based on urgency and severity — and then refer all issues to your information security team.

Now, it's time to create an actionable plan. How will you translate audit findings into actual security solutions? Be sure to incorporate a timeline, which will keep your team on track as they implement much-needed security improvements.

Ongoing security maintenance

A website security audit should not be a one-time task. New issues are sure to arise, and security procedures may take some time to refine. As such, auditing should be a central part of your long-term cybersecurity strategy. This means committing to regular audits and penetration tests. Hopefully, each additional audit will reveal fewer and less severe concerns than your initial assessment. If you aren't seeing sufficient progress, you can tailor your action plan accordingly.

Additionally, you want to stay up to date on the latest cybersecurity developments, including new audit tools and technologies, as well as details about recent breaches suffered by other organizations — and emerging threats that have the potential to wreak havoc. Threat actors are constantly adjusting their strategies and methods, so it takes an active security posture to keep them at bay.

The importance of website security checklists

Website security checklists play a crucial role in ensuring the integrity and safety of online platforms, particularly regarding eCommerce. These checklists are essential for maintaining PCI DSS (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard) compliance, which is standard for any website handling payment card information. They help identify and secure sensitive information (i.e. credit card numbers, personal data, etc.) through rigorous security measures and protocols. By implementing comprehensive security policies, including encryption and regular audits, website owners can mitigate risks associated with data breaches and cyberattacks.

Moreover, security checklists aid in managing user access effectively, ensuring that only authorized personnel have access to sensitive data and functionalities through robust access controls. These controls limit access to specific areas of the website based on user roles, reducing the risk of unauthorized data breaches. Overall, website security checklists are indispensable tools in the fight against cyber threats, protecting both businesses and users.

Automating the website security process

The website security assessment process is extensive and time-consuming. This is a lot to handle on your own, but thankfully, solid support is available every step of the way.

SiteLock offers a variety of automated services designed to optimize your security audits and assessments. Our comprehensive set of solutions incorporates high-level malware scanning and removal, vulnerability patching, and website backup services.

Reach out today to learn more about these strategies and the role our plans can play in boosting security for your business website.

Photo by Pixabay

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