As technology advances, new programming languages are constantly being introduced to the market. However, despite all of these new languages, Java — a language first introduced in 1995 — continues to grow in popularity. In fact, a study conducted late last year found that it is the most popular coding language in the world for developers, with over 65 percent of respondents stating they use java applications.
To put this in perspective, the most popular phone in 1995 was the The Motorola StarTAC, pictured below. This means java has been around long enough to see that phone turn into the iPhone 14 — with wifi, an OLED display and a 48 megapixel camera. In the time it has taken phones to make such a leap, java has retained its usefulness and its popularity since the mid-90s. Sure, the language has evolved and improved over time. But it hasn’t been supplanted by any other languages built from the ground up in the 21st century.
Java is an incredibly powerful language, but as the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. Java’s popularity is exactly what makes it a particularly attractive target for cybercriminals, who are constantly looking for vulnerabilities to exploit. Java security should be top of mind for any developer working on a system that is partially or fully written in Java. Let’s explore why.
Why Is Java So Popular?
One of the main factors contributing to Java’s widespread use and success is its cross-platform compatibility. Java programs can run on any platform that has a compatible Java Virtual Machine (JVM) installed, making it easy to develop applications that can run on multiple operating systems.
Meanwhile, Java’s object-oriented programming allows for code reuse and modularity, making it easier to write and maintain complex applications. Java’s large and active developer community is also a key factor in its success. Millions of developers worldwide contribute to its growth and success, making it easier to find resources, tools, and libraries for Java development.
Other factors contributing to Java’s popularity include reliability and scalability. Java is known for its ability to handle large volumes of data and traffic, making it well-suited for developing enterprise-level applications. As a result, Java is a popular choice for developing applications that require reliability and scalability.
Java is as Uniquely Vulnerable as it is Uniquely Powerful
Java is a compiled language that runs on a virtual machine. This means that Java applications can run on any platform that has a compatible JVM installed. However, this also means that the JVM itself is a potential attack vector. Attackers can exploit vulnerabilities in the JVM to bypass security controls and execute arbitrary code.
One of the most difficult aspects of Java is its architecture, which allows for dynamic code loading at runtime. Attackers can use this feature to inject malicious code into Java applications and circumvent traditional security measures. Insecure deserialization attacks on Java applications can also allow attackers to execute arbitrary code in a protected application.
Because Java is compiled into byte code, it presents as regex — which looks unreadable to most people. It requires a deeper level of domain knowledge to effectively secure. Cybersecurity experts must be able to understand the intricacies of the Java language and its execution environment to properly protect against threats.
Another challenge is the sheer size of the Java ecosystem. The Java Virtual Machine (JVM) is used by millions of developers worldwide, and there are thousands of third-party libraries and frameworks available for Java. This makes it difficult for enterprises to keep track of all the dependencies in their Java applications and ensure that they are secure. This is how Log4j took over the internet in November 2021. Log4j was a widely used library for logging in Java infrastructures, which means that essentially any company with Java applications was affected. Because so many businesses rely on Java applications, simply turning them off would have been detrimental to their system’s functionality.
How to Protect Your Java Applications
This may all sound like bad news, but the point of this piece is not to dissuade you from using java; it is the best language to use for many use-cases. It simply comes with unique challenges, which you can address.
The complexity of Java applications and the risk associated with their vulnerabilities make it critical for enterprises to implement Java-specific security measures. Without adequate security, organizations risk exposing sensitive data, intellectual property, and customer information to malicious actors. This can result in costly data breaches, reputation damage, and legal liabilities.
Here are some best practices you can follow to lower the security risk to your Java applications:
Keep Java and all related software up to date: This includes not just the Java Virtual Machine (JVM), but also any third-party libraries and frameworks used in the application. New vulnerabilities are discovered all the time, and software updates often include patches to address these vulnerabilities.
Use secure coding practices: This involves following coding best practices that minimize the risk of introducing vulnerabilities into the application. Examples include validating user input, sanitizing data, and using secure encryption algorithms.
Implement access controls with least privilege: This involves restricting access to sensitive data and functions within the application to only authorized users and processes. This can include role-based access controls, multi-factor authentication, and encryption of data at rest and in transit. Additionally, narrow the definition of “authorized” user to include as few people as possible without compromising the functionality of the program.
Regularly perform security assessments: Regular assessments help to identify potential vulnerabilities and security gaps in the application. This includes vulnerability scanning, penetration testing, and code review.
Train developers and other stakeholders on secure coding practices: This ensures that all members of the development team are aware of the risks and best practices associated with Java application security. This can include training on secure coding practices, threat modeling, and secure development lifecycle methodologies.
Build in Security Guardrails at the dev stage: Since Java is so complex, maintaining a fully secure environment will always be tricky. But you can cut out a lot of the potential risk and number of vulnerabilities by keeping commonly exploited bugs out of the system completely. WAFs can be bypassed — but source code cannot.
Java is Here to Stay — How Should I Proceed?
Bottom line, there will always be new additions to the coding language space, each of which come with their own advantages and disadvantages. However, in spite of these additions, Java’s popularity in the software development industry has endured for almost three decades. And this endurance means that these applications will continue to make attractive targets to attackers, who highly favor working on exploits with multiple use cases. So java’s complexity, combined with its popularity amongst both developers and attackers, means that experts will continue to be necessary.
Those whose job it is to maintain java programs should remain vigilant when protecting these applications and prioritize Java-specific security solutions. The unique security challenges associated with Java applications require specific security measures to ensure that they are protected from potential attacks. Java — pros and cons included — isn’t going anywhere. So if it’s your job to keep such programs running, strap in for the long haul — and make sure you’re using all the help you can get.
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