You should love your users, kind of. You should also fear them. For our purposes, there are three different types of user against which you need to protect.
- evil users
- dumb users
- careless users
This is the obvious category — there are real black-hat hackers, cyber-terrorists, and ubiquitous bots probing the web for weakness around the clock.
Users cannot always figure out which link to click, what format they should use to input their data, how to create secure passwords, how to submit an order, ad nauseaum.
This group is you and your engineering team. The late night merge, the mistyped database command, and the junior developer will break your soul when you are least expecting it.
Now, combine all three groups — dumb and careless users make it easy for evil users to discover exploits. TL;DR — you need to care about web security and you need to act to protect your products and systems.
But, how much do I really need to care about web security?
If you are reading this post, I assume that you are learning about web security in order to protect an ‘average’ website or application.
What do I mean by average?
Are you engineering a product for a Fortune 500 company? Are you working on web technology for a financial institution? Are you processing and/or storing credit card information on your servers? Are you protecting confidential government information?
If you answered yes to any of the above, I am a little nervous that you are reading this… If you answered no to all of the above, then start by securing against the following common exploits.
At a high-level, we will cover two different types of web application exploit — injection and cross-site request forgery. We will start with injection.
As a general approximation, we can say that code injection is an exploitation that occurs when an application sends untrusted data to an interpreter that alters the intended logic of the program, usually maliciously (source).
We will talk about important types of code injection — SQL injection and HTML/script injection.
SQL injection is an exploit that injects a SQL database command in order to read or modify the database (source).
This is a very common, dangerous, yet easy to prevent exploit. Imagine that some asshole wanted to drop your production database (containing all of your customer data). Now, imagine that you have a login form that allows users to login to your application via a username and password combination.
Now, it could be the case that your form sends a POST HTTP request to a server, which then composes a SQL query out of the form data. The SQL query could be something simple like the following:
If your server hits a database with the above SQL query, the server will get back all of the user records with
Password for the
password fields. Assume the authentication is based on such a simple presence validation.
Now, imagine that the aforementioned butthead submits some evil data via your login form. Maybe she enters
Username in the
username form-field, and then for the
password she enters
"Password';DROP TABLE users".
If your SQL query API allows for multiple statements to be executed in a single call, then your SQL server will execute something similar to the following:
Goodbye user data. The
';DROP TABLE users' string was the injected SQL code, which was unknowingly executed by the SQL server, resulting in the loss of all your user data.
Please take the following away from this section — SQL injection flaws occur when a SQL database server interacts with the database using statements composed out of data from an external source.
But, you need to dynamically query your database, so how do you avoid SQL injection exploits? Here are some good guidelines. Note, these topics will be expounded upon further in the section below covering protection mechanisms.
- always write SQL statements that use parameters instead of direct variable evaluations
- (optional) use an ORM that generates parameterized statements
- validate input data using well-tested regular expressions
- escape characters that have special meaning within SQL
I will describe the above protection techniques in detail after we have covered all of the different exploits. Let us move on to another injection exploit called XSS, which stands for cross-site script injection.
XSS – Cross-Site Script Injection
XSS, cross-site script injection, or cross-site scripting, is an exploit that injects a script into a web document. When other users view the compromised web document, the script is executed by the client environment with the same access to resources as the surrounding web document. With the granted resource-access, the malicious script can run amok with private content, session cookies, localStorage data, and more (source).
XSS comes down to getting a script into some web document that will be sent to a client web-browser; the script gets treated as though it is delivered from a trusted source, so it can access certain privileged information in the environment. Usually, the script will capture the privileged information and send it to a server of its choosing for later use.
Here is the usual example of an XSS exploit, as described by Wikipedia (slightly modified):
- Hacker observes that your website contains an XSS vulnerability — the comments section will display whatever is typed for a new comment, even if the comment text contains HTML tags, so all script tags are executed
- Hacker posts a new comment with the following text:
I love the puppies in this story! They’re so cute!
authstealer.js script accesses the current user’s authorization cookie and sends it to a secret server for storage
- Now, when anyone visits the webpage with Hacker’s comment, the
authstealer.js script will run and steal the current user’s authorization cookie data
- Hacker can now impersonate visitors with valid accounts on your website — e.g., Hacker could login as a user and steal the credit card information stored in the account profile of the impersonated user
Takeaway from this section: XSS flaws occur when a web document is vulnerable to injection of foreign scripts executed unknowingly by a client environment. This often occurs through the acceptance of unsanitized user input.
But, you need to accept user input throughout your site! How do you avoid these XSS vulnerabilities? Similar to the protections against other injection exploits, here are some guidelines to avoid XSS exploit:
- escape unstrusted input strings — there are many available security encoding libraries
- sanitize HTML input — there are many available sanitization engines
- don’t store private information in session cookies — session data is public, for the most part
Let us proceed to the last exploit-type that we will cover in this post, before we circle back to protection mechanisms. This final exploit, cross-site request forgery, hereforth CSRF, will take our discussion into the rapidly-changing world of browser security policy. On y va.
CSRF – Cross-Site Request Forgery
Cross-site request forgery, CSRF, XSRF, one-click attack, or session-riding, is a type of confused deputy exploit. At a high-level, the web browser is confused by an HTTP request that forges the identity of a legitimate user. The web browser unknowingly misuses the authority of the legitimate user in service of the request forger.
What does CSRF look like in practice?
Usually, a hacker finds a way to place a link, image, or script into a web document where a legitimate user will be logged-in. A legitimate user visits the website, is authenticated, visits the page that serves the web document infected with the hacker’s code, and is enticed to execute the hacker’s bait. Then, the hacker can ‘ride’ the legitimate user’s authenticated session and forge a request that appears as though it was made by the legitimate user — usually, the forged request does something naughty while it has the legitimate user’s permissions.
The above scenario assumes that the exploited site is storing the legitimate user’s authentication data in a session cookie that has not expired. Here is another example, though more specific:
- Let’s assume that a hacker posts a comment with a link on
https://origin-site.com — the link source looks like this:
<a href="http://hackity-hack.com/squeeze-page">THIS IS SO IMPORTANT YOU NEED TO SEE IT!</a>
- Let’s also assume that
https://origin-site.com is a webpage where a legitimate user is usually authenticated
- A legitimate user visits
https://origin-site.com and is authenticated — a session-cookie is planted to authenticate further requests
- This user sees the hacker’s comment with the link and obviously needs to see where this link goes; click
- The legitimate user of
https://origin-site.com is transported by the web browser to
http://hackityhack.com/squeeze-page, where the following script is run:
- Finally, let’s assume that the
/user-data endpoint responds with all of the user’s sensitive data, if the requestor is authenticated
- The hacker appears to be a legitmate requestor and receives the sensitive data
- The hacker sends the sensitive data directly to his server to save for later use
Takeaway from this section: CSRF exploits occur when a party forges a request to a website as a user that is ‘trusted’, confusing the web browser into performing commands on behalf of the forged user.
Thankfully, the above CSRF attack will not work.
Enter the web application security model — in our case, the same-origin policy for XMLHttpRequest asynchronous requests. Let us quickly turn our attention to the same-origin policy and how it prevents the above attack.
The Same-Origin Policy (XHR)
The same-origin policy for XHR (SO policy for this section) is a concept from the browser security model for web applications. Note well, all major web browsers implement some form of a SO policy, though the details of implementation may differ.
Roughly, the SO policy only allows scripts from one webpage to access data from another webpage, if both webpages have the same origin (source).
In order to understand how the SO policy prevents the above CSRF attack, let’s dissect the SO policy.
What does it mean for a webpage to have the same origin as another webpage?
Two webpages have the same origin if and only if both webpages are served from the same combination of URI scheme, hostname, and port number
https:// are different protocols (part of the URI scheme) — they generate different origins. Similarily,
v2.site.com are different hostnames, thus, they generate different origins according to the SO policy. Finally,
http://site.com:4001 have different port numbers, so they have different origins.
Now, we can see how the SO policy prevents the above CSRF attack — the SO policy requires that the two webpages have an exactly matching origin, but
http://hackityhack.com do not have a matching origin. So, the browser’s implementation of the SO policy should catch the forged request and disallow it.
Great, the SO policy saves us from some CSRF exploits. So, why are we talking about CSRF?
Life is never that simple…
For most production applications, the SO policy is too restrictive! Also, extra protection measures are required to stop many types of CSRF exploit.
Let’s tackle the latter complication first — how to add extra protection based on the SO policy to prevent a larger swath of CSRF exploit.
CSRF Tokens — Cookie-to-Header Tokens
Web applications can be further secured against CSRF by using CSRF tokens, also called cookie-to-header tokens. Here is the idea — when a user is authenticated, a session cookie is set with a random token, which is copied into a custom HTTP header on the client.
We are now aware of how to secure against CSRF, how the SO policy helps in this cause, and how cookie-to-header tokens are used for extra security. Let’s circle back to the earlier caveat — the SO policy is too restrictive.
Safely Circumventing the SO policy
What does it mean to say that the SO policy can be too restrictive?
Most web applications these days are not islands — they consume and serve resources with other applications, which may be on different domains. The SO policy makes asynchronous HTTP communication between applications on different domains quite difficult. For example, large applications tend to be fragmented into modules using subdomains like
admin.site.com — the SO policy considers
admin.site.com to be of different origin, so resource sharing between the components will require a circumvention of the SO policy.
There are multiple options for circumventing the SO policy. Note well, none of the options is perfect, nor will any of the options be one hundred percent cross-browser compatible. I will do my best to clearly state the tradeoffs of each option, and I will provide a fun decision-tree at the end to help you choose the best option for your use-case.
The options for ‘relaxing’ the SO policy, which I will briefly discuss in turn, are cross-origin resource sharing (CORS), JSON with padding (JSONP),
document.domain manipulation, and the
window.postMessage message system.
Cross-Origin Resource Sharing (CORS)
CORS defines a way in which a browser and server can interact to safely determine whether or not to allow the cross-origin request. It allows for more freedom and functionality than purely same-origin requests, but is more secure than simply allowing all cross-origin requests. It is a recommended standard of the W3C (source).
CORS allows a server to opt into serving requests that come from disparate origins — cross-origins. That is, CORS allows a server to selectively circumvent the browser’s Same-Origin policy by whitelisting requestor domains. The whitelisted origins can then make requests to the server without running afoul of the SO policy. Because the ‘allowed’ cross-origins are specified in a whitelist, all other cross-origin requests are still filtered by the SO policy — keeping your app secure.
Ok, so how do we use CORS?
CORS works by extending HTTP with a new request header option (
Origin) and a corresponding response header option (
Access-Control-Allow-Origin). So, in order to use CORS, the server needs to specify the correct options in HTTP response headers. Here is an example of CORS options that could be written to an HTTP response header:
The first option,
"access-control-allow-origin", is the whitelist of requestor origins — the whitelisted origins can be specified using exact strings or wildcard patterns. The example above allows all cross-origin requests to the server (
* is a wildcard pattern).
The next option,
"access-control-allow-methods", is the whitelist of methods — the whitelist of HTTP verbs that the server will respond to when requested cross-origin. Note very well, the
"OPTIONS" action needs to be specified in order to use CORS (in almost all cases) because it allows the browser to send a ‘pre-flight’ request to the cross-origin server to determine more information about the safety of the request. To learn more about pre-flighted requests, check out the Mozilla developer docs guide on pre-flighted requests.
"access-control-allow-headers" option is used to respond to pre-flight requests with the whitelist of HTTP headers allowed in the actual CORS request.
The final option,
"access-control-max-age", is the number of seconds that a browser can cache the results of a preflight request before the results expire.
In summary, if a server specifies CORS options, it can serve requests for resources cross-origin. Currently, CORS is the best option for maintaining web app safety while relaxing the SO policy; however, CORS is currently only supported in IE 10+, Firefox 3.5+, Safari 4+, and Chrome 10+ (for more information on CORS). If you need to support cross-origin resource sharing on older browsers, you need to consider JSONP.
Side Note: Websockets and Whitelisting
This is the same concept as XHR CORS, except with websockets instead of XHR requests.
JSON with Padding (JSONP)
JSONP, or JSON with padding, is often used to safely circumvent the SO policy when ‘old’ browser support is required. So, what is JSONP, how does JSONP safely circumvent the SO policy, and when should it be used?
JSONP safely circumvents the SO policy because the SO policy isn’t enforced on script tags in the same way as other XHR requests and because JSONP only works with GET requests.
Because JSONP only works with GET requests, it can’t be used for all of your cross-origin resource sharing needs. However, JSONP is especially useful for ‘one-off’ GET requests cross-origin that require older browser support.
The final two options for safely circumventing the SO policy can be used to supplement cross-origin requests by CORS and JSONP.
The browser will relax the SO policy between two documents (cross-origin) if both documents set the
document.domain property to the same domain value. The browser will then allow those two cross-domain documents to communicate and share resources as though they were on the same origin.
One document is allowed to access another if they have both set document.domain to the same value, indicating their intent to cooperate, or neither has set document.domain and the domains in the URLs are the same (source).
This sounds awesome — why not use it for all your cross-origin needs? Setting
document.domain only works for frames/iframes, not XHR… Well, that sucks. Any other options?
window.postMessage method is part of a new API for messaging between browser windows (cross-origin allowed) using a simple event system to post and receive messages.
I am most excited about this option for cross-origin communication, however, it is not fully supported yet (source).
The general approach to using
window.postMessage goes like this:
- get reference to a
someWindow = window.open('somewindowdetails')
- setup an event listener on
window.addEventListener("message", handleMessage, false)
- declare a
handleMessage function to take the message event and check the
handleMessage callback receives an
event object with the following useful properties:
origin : the origin of the window where the message originated — represented as a string
source : the window object of the origin window
data : the message sent to the receiving window
In order to safely use this API for cross-origin communication, you must check the
event.origin in your event handler function. For example,
if (event.origin !== 'someorigin') return;, will only receive the message if the message
Like I mentioned at the start of this section, the
window.postMessage API is exciting but not supported enough (at the time of this post) to make it a complete solution for cross-origin communication.
So, we don’t seem to have single, clean solution for dealing with cross-origin resource sharing. Let’s discuss heuristics for choosing between the options.
Choosing Between Techniques to Safely Relax the Same-Origin Policy
How do I choose between the different techniques to safely relax the SO policy? I use the following cross-domain decision tree:
Cross-Domain Decision Tree (credit @mracus)
- Do you need to make a cross-domain request using older browsers?
- No — use CORS
- Yes — Is there a lot of data in the request?
- No — use JSONP
- Yes — Is there a lot of data coming back in the response?
- No — use iFrames
- Yes — use a mixture of CORS, JSONP,
document.domain (try not to hate life)
Once you have chosen your cross-origin communication strategy, you still need to use the simple protection mechanisms mentioned in the different sections above. Let’s conclude with a summary of the protection mechanisms.
Protecting against Injection
It is actually fairly simple to protect you web application and users from the most common injection exploits. The simple heuristics go as follows:
if data is being sent to a server, validate and sanitize the data before sending it to the server
This means that you need to write custom validations for your data (client-side), and take advantage of many popular sanitization libraries available based on tried-and-true regexp patterns. Don’t send data to your server unless you know that it has been checked and cleaned.
if data is being received from a server, escape the data before rendering it to the user
This means that you don’t assume that your server is sending you clean data! Assume that your server is compromised (you effed up the validation/sanitization stage) — so, escape your data before rendering it (in case the data contains malicious scripts or html). There are also many popular ‘escaping’ libraries available.
If you follow those two general principles, you will protect your app and users from the majority of injection attacks.
Protecting against CSRF
Similarly, it is fairly simple to protect against cross-site request forgery. First, the Same-Origin policy is free. Second, use cookie-to-header tokens to validate the identity of all requests.
By protecting against injection and cross-site request forgery, you have protected against the majority of attacks that any web application will encounter.
Summary: Practice Safe Security
In order to practice safe security, care about the security of your applications, know the common exploits, prevent the low-hanging exploits, and learn how to safely relax the Same-Origin policy without exposing your web application to threats.