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Chapter: Security in Computing : Security in Networks

Web Site Vulnerabilities

A web site is especially vulnerable because it is almost completely exposed to the user. If you use an application program, you do not usually get to view the program's code. With a web site, the attacker can download the site's code for offline study over time.

Web Site Vulnerabilities


A web site is especially vulnerable because it is almost completely exposed to the user. If you use an application program, you do not usually get to view the program's code. With a web site, the attacker can download the site's code for offline study over time. With a program, you have little ability to control in what order you access parts of the program, but a web attacker gets to control in what order pages are accessed, perhaps even accessing page 5 without first having run pages 1 through 4. The attacker can also choose what data to supply and can run experiments with different data values to see how the site will react. In short, the attacker has some advantages that can be challenging to control.


The list of web site vulnerabilities is too long to explore completely here. Hoglund and McGraw [HOG04], Andrews and Whitaker [AND06], and Howard et al. [HOW05] offer excellent analyses of how to find and fix flaws in web software. Be sure to review the code development issues in Chapter 3, because many code techniques there (such as buffer overflows and insufficient parameter checking) are applicable here.


Web Site Defacement


One of the most widely known attacks is the web site defacement attack. Because of the large number of sites that have been defaced and the visibility of the result, the attacks are often reported in the popular press.


A defacement is common not only because of its visibility but also because of the ease with which one can be done. Web sites are designed so that their code is downloaded, enabling an attacker to obtain the full hypertext document and all programs directed to the client in the loading process. An attacker can even view programmers' comments left in as they built or maintained the code. The download process essentially gives the attacker the blueprints to the web site.


The ease and appeal of a defacement are enhanced by the seeming plethora of vulnerabilities that web sites offer an attacker. For example, between December 1999 and June 2001 (the first 18 months after its release), Microsoft provided 17 security patches for its web server software, Internet Information Server (IIS) version 4.0. And version 4.0 was an upgrade for three previous versions, so theoretically Microsoft had a great deal of time earlier to work out its security flaws.


Buffer Overflows


Buffer overflow is alive and well on web pages, too. It works exactly the same as described in Chapter 3: The attacker simply feeds a program far more data than it expects to receive. A buffer size is exceeded, and the excess data spill over into adjoining code and data locations.


Perhaps the best-known web server buffer overflow is the file name problem known as iishack. This attack is so well known that is has been written into a procedure (see http://www.technotronic.com). To execute the procedure, an attacker supplies as parameters the site to be attacked and the URL of a program the attacker wants that server to execute.


Other web servers are vulnerable to extremely long parameter fields, such as passwords of length 10,000 or a long URL padded with space or null characters.




Web server code should always run in a constrained environment. Ideally, the web server should never have editors, xterm and Telnet programs, or even most system utilities loaded. By constraining the environment in this way, even if an attacker escapes from the web server application, no other executable programs will help the attacker use the web server's computer and operating system to extend the attack. The code and data for web applications can be transferred manually to a web server or pushed as a raw image.


But many web applications programmers are naïve. They expect to need to edit a web application in place, so they install editors and system utilities on the server to give them a complete environment in which to program.


A second, less desirable, condition for preventing an attack is to create a fence confining the web server application. With such a fence, the server application cannot escape from its area and access other potentially dangerous system areas (such as editors and utilities). The server begins in a particular directory subtree, and everything the server needs is in that same subtree.


Enter the dot-dot. In both Unix and Windows, '..' is the directory indicator for "predecessor." And '../..' is the grandparent of the current location. So someone who can enter file names can travel back up the directory tree one .. at a time. Cerberus Information Security analysts found just that vulnerability in the webhits.dll extension for the Microsoft Index Server. For example, passing the following URL causes the server to return the requested file, autoexec.nt, enabling an attacker to modify or delete it.







Application Code Errors


A user's browser carries on an intricate, undocumented protocol interchange with applications on the web server. To make its job easier, the web server passes context strings to the user, making the user's browser reply with full context. A problem arises when the user can modify that context.


To see why, consider our fictitious shopping site called CDs-R-Us, selling compact discs. At any given time, a server at that site may have a thousand or more transactions in various states of completion. The site displays a page of goods to order, the user selects one, the site displays more items, the user selects another, the site displays more items, the user selects two more, and so on until the user is finished selecting. Many people go on to complete the order by specifying payment and shipping information. But other people use web sites like this one as an online catalog or guide, with no real intention of ordering. For instance, they can use this site to find out the price of the latest CD from Cherish the Ladies; they can use an online book service to determine how many books by Iris Murdoch are in print. And even if the user is a bona fide customer, sometimes web connections fail, leaving the transaction incomplete. For these reasons, the web server often keeps track of the status of an incomplete order in parameter fields appended to the URL. These fields travel from the server to the browser and back to the server with each user selection or page request.


Assume you have selected one CD and are looking at a second web page. The web server has passed you a URL similar to





This URL means you have chosen CD number 459012, and its price is $15.99. You now select a second and the URL becomes


http://www.CDs-r-us.com/ buy.asp?i1=459012&p1=1599&i2=365217&p2=1499


But if you are a clever attacker, you realize that you can edit the URL in the address window of your browser. Consequently, you change each of 1599 and 1499 to 199. And when the server totals up your order, lo and behold, your two CDs cost only $1.99 each.


This failure is an example of the time -of- check to time-of-use flaw that we discussed in Chapter 3. The server sets (checks) the price of the item when you first display the price, but then it loses control of the checked data item and never checks it again. This situation arises frequently in server application code because application programmers are generally not aware of security (they haven't read Chapter 3!) and typically do not anticipate malicious behavior.


Server-Side Include


A potentially more serious problem is called a server-side include. The problem takes advantage of the fact that web pages can be organized to invoke a particular function automatically. For example, many pages use web commands to send an e-mail message in the "contact us" part of the displayed page. The commands, such as e-mail, if, goto, and include, are placed in a field that is interpreted in HTML.


One of the server-side include commands is exec, to execute an arbitrary file on the server. For instance, the server-side include command


<!#exec cmd="/usr/bin/telnet &">



opens a Telnet session from the server running in the name of (that is, with the privileges of) the server. An attacker may find it interesting to execute commands such as chmod (change access rights to an object), sh (establish a command shell), or cat (copy to a file).


For more web application vulnerabilities see [HOG04, AND06, and HOW05].

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