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Demystifying the OWASP Top 10- A Data-Driven List You Can Trust

As a devsecops engineer, keeping on top of the most critical risks facing your web applications is challenging yet imperative. This is exactly why the OWASP Top 10 list has become an invaluable industry benchmark – it raises awareness of the most prevalent security weaknesses in a data-backed, easy to understand format.

First released in 2003, the OWASP Top 10 has come a long way from expert opinion to rigorous data analysis. Each revision to the list, occurring every 2-3 years, utilizes increasingly robust processes to quantify real-world risks that you can trust as an accurate reflection of the top threats.

The Exhaustive Effort Behind OWASP Top 10 Risk Analysis

So what goes into formulating such a trusted benchmark?

The process kicks off with a call across the security community for raw data contributions. This includes stats from application testing vendors, bug bounty programs, and enterprise organizations on security flaws detected across countless assessments.

This mountain of findings gets systematically categorized using Common Weakness Enumerations (CWEs). CWEs act as a universal language to describe different classes of security weaknesses in abstract terms.

For example, “Improper Neutralization of Input During Web Page Generation” (CWE ID 79) encompasses weakness that could allow XSS vulnerabilities. Each CWE entry provides descriptions, demonstrative examples, and mapping to platforms and programming languages.

A screenshot of a web page describing CWE-79: Improper Neutralization of Input During Web Page Generation ('Cross-site Scripting').

The key benefit is that specific vulnerabilities that publicly disclosed, denoted in CVEs (Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures) references, map directly to these CWE definitions. A perfect case is the notorious Log4Shell Remote Code Execution bug CVE-2021-44228 mapping to CWE-94: Code Injection.

Bringing it all together, these various CWEs then get tied to broader categories of risks as outlined in the OWASP Top 10 list. Comparing the 2013 and 2021 lists shows just how exhaustive this mapping has become:

  • 2013 list: 13 CWEs mapped
  • 2021 list: 391 CWEs mapped!

A Data-Driven Risk Rating Methodology

With a tsunami of structured data on security weaknesses pouring in, how does OWASP analyze this to rank the Top 10 risks?

The answer lies in formulating a consistent data-driven risk rating methodology. Each potential risk gets scored based on two key dimensions:

Exploitability: ease of exploit based on the attack vector, complexity, privileges required, and user interaction.

Impact: technical effects on confidentiality, integrity and availability.

These sub-factors each get weighted to produce an overall 5 level risk score:

  • Critical: 9+
  • High: 7+
  • Medium: 4+
  • Low: 1+
  • Note: Many risks score in the high range

Beyond just prevalence, this allows prioritizing the Top 10 by the real potential for damage from high probability exploitation. And the extensive data mapped to CWEs allows risk likelihood to quantify based on evidence vs guesses.

Community Weigh-In: Surfacing Emerging Risk Trends

Of course, past attack data can only reveal so much about the future. To incorporate rising threats, OWASP conducted surveys amongst security professionals regarding concerns not yet reflected in data.

The two emerging risks voted to the Top 10 include “Security Logging and Monitoring Failures” and “Server-Side Request Forgery“.

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So while grounded in evidence, the final list incorporates community domain expertise to stay ahead of evolving attack trends.

OWASP Top 10: Benchmark Awareness, Not a Checklist

With such a thoroughly constructed methodology, the OWASP Top 10 stands as the application security industry bellwether all technical leaders should understand for risk awareness.

However, it’s not meant as a simple checklist to mark off. The Top 10 represents the minimum critical risks – not an exhaustive inventory. There are many other concerns that could impact your organization specifically depending on your tech stack and vulnerabilities.

Think of OWASP Top 10 as your north star – guiding attention towards tackling the proven and emerging threats causing the most exploitation and damage industry-wide. It informs training developers on writing more secure code as well as prioritizing your mitigation efforts on the risks that matter most.

By demystifying the rigorous and data-backed process powering the OWASP Top 10, security leaders can have confidence it reflects the most prevalent web application security risks. This allows focusing remediation, training and governance efforts on the best areas to make an impact based on criticality.

We hope this post helped in Demystifying the OWASP Top 10. Thanks for reading this post. Please share this post and help secure the digital world. Visit our website, thesecmaster.com, and our social media page on FacebookLinkedInTwitterTelegramTumblrMedium, and Instagram and subscribe to receive updates like this.  

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About the author

Rajeshwari KA

Rajeshwari KA is a Software Architect who has worked on Full Stack development, Software Design and Architecture for small and large-scale mission critical applications in my 16 + years of experience. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.

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