Tuesday, June 9, 2009

An easy way to hack unvalidated web input

[This was originally posted at http://timstall.dotnetdevelopersjournal.com/an_easy_way_to_hack_unvalidated_web_input.htm]

Many security bugs get overlooked because hackers use "special" tools that give them options that the original developers anticipate. For example, most web developers only test their application through a browser. While this is sometimes sufficient to check different querystring inputs, it gives one an enormous false sense of security. Consider two cases:

  • A button is disabled, therefore the developer assumes you can't click it (Example: A Save button is disabled because some data isn't valid)

  • Data is stored in a hidden field, therefore the developer assumes that you can't change it. (Example: A record's ID is stored in a hidden field)

To some people, this appears safe because IE doesn't let you click disabled buttons or change the value of hidden fields. However, IE is only used to collect the data from the page and aggregate it into a post that it sends to the webserver. What if the hacker is using a different tool besides IE that gives them more control on how to assemble and send this post (or an extension to IE that lets them modify fields)?


How to hack it


You could crack both the above cases using Visual Studio Team Test (or I bet Firebug, or the IE8 dev tools). Here's how:

  1. Open up VS Team Test

  2. Create a Test Project, and add a new web test. This opens up a recorder in IE.

  3. Navigate to the page you want to crack, such as something that stores data in a hidden field.

  4. Perform a normal save action, such as saving the page (which uses data from the hidden field)

  5. Stop the recording. Play back the test just to make sure it works in the normal case. Note how for each request, VS provides you a new row and lets you see the exact request and response, as well as what visually appears in the Web Browser.


  6. Now start the hacking. Go to the request where you saved the page (that collected data from the hidden field), and unbind that field and change its value to whatever you want. In this case, I simply had a field called "Hidden1", and I changed it's value to "abc". Note that just like IE, the webtest sends a post to the server. But unlike IE, you can easily change the contents of that post.


  7. Rerun the webtest. The new, hacked, value is sent to the server.

  8. Note that you can also script VS WebTests with C#. So, you could have a for-loop that re-submits a 1000 requests, varying the post values each time.

So, what can we do?


As a developer, we always need to validate and do security checks on the server - merely JS side validation is not enough. For example, knowing that that hidden field could be hacked, always validate that data as if it were a free-form textbox.


The problem is that this degree of extra validation (1) costs much more time, and (2) could be a big performance hit - which is especially ironic because it's for something that 99% of users won't even know about.


Allotting time requires managerial approval. However, most managers see security as one of those "nice-to-have" buzzwords, that they'll have implemented later "if time permits".

I think a good solution to this is to give management a live demo of your site being hacked (perhaps try it on the QA machine, not necessarily production). To really make a point, see if you can hack into their profile. Hopefully that will convince management that it's worth the time.


About the performance hit - I don't see a silver bullet. Most application performance can be improved by adding more resources somehow - more hardware, better design (caching, batching), coding optimizations, etc... Because applications vary so much, there's not a one-size-fits-all solution.

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