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The 80/20 Rule for Web Application Security - Increase your security without touching the source code

The 80/20 Rule for Web Application Security 
"Increase your security without touching the source code"

By Jeremiah Grossman 
Version 1.8
Last Modified: 1/31/2005


After performing hundreds of web security assessments you're bound to
encounter many frighteningly insecure websites. Websites so badly
protected you could literally make off with the credit card numbers in a
way reminiscent of the movie Gone in Sixty Seconds. On the other hand
there are many websites frustratingly impervious to attack. What I'll
describe below are the subtle variations between the security "haves"
and "have-nots". Using the age old "80/20 rule", we'll look at a few
techniques anyone can use to decrease the risk of their website being
hacked. And to make it really easy you won't have to alter a single line
of code! But before jumping too far ahead lets first discuss the 80/20

At the beginning of 20th century, the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto
created a mathematical formula for describing his country's unequal
distribution of wealth. He observed that 80% of the wealth was owned by
20% of the population. Following Pareto's observation, many others
noticed similar phenomena in their own areas of expertise. In the 1930s
and 1940s, Quality Management pioneer Dr. Joseph Juran observed what he
described as the "vital few and trivial many". Juran's identified that
20% of the defects caused 80% of the problems. This has long since been
known as Pareto's Principle or "The 80/20 Rule". In the web application
security environment, I've noticed similar trends with regard to
security safeguards.

The quest for developing perfectly secure code is a noble pursuit. Let
the heavens smile down if anyone is actually successful at the endeavor.
In the course of managing website security, there's often many occasions
where fixing vulnerabilities in the source code is not an available
course of action. For example, you might have inherited a website where
the original developers are gone and no one is familiar with the
application. Your development staff is already heavily burdened by other
pressing projects. Maybe you simply have too many websites on your plate
to spend quality time securing. Whatever the particular situation fixing
the code is just not an option due to time, money, or the lasting
benefit. A few security purist may disagree with me on this point, but I
think we should have access to alternative security solutions not
embedded within the code.

We'll now begin applying Pareto's Principle to certain areas within web
application security. Specifically identifying the "vital few" security
solutions essential to protecting a website, according to the WASC
Threat Classification (http://www.webappsec.org/threat.html), without
touching any of the application code. These solutions guard against the
most common issues such as SQL Injection, Cross-Site Scripting, worms
and more! From this point forward I'm going to assume the security
basics have been taken care of. The web server and underlying operating
system is up-to-date on patches, and a properly configured firewall is
guarding the perimeter.

Disclaimer: The following is a compilation of well-known techniques that
should be used in combination with secure coding practices or as a
short-term solution towards a more permanent remedy.

The Vital Few

1) Default server error messages

Typically when hackers are looking to exploit websites, they look for
the easiest route to take. This usually manifests by testing for
Cross-Site Scripting, SQL Injection, OS Commanding, and a few other
weaknesses. These issues are the most commonly found type of
vulnerability in websites today. Take a look at BugTraq
(http://www.securityfocus.com/archive/1) if you're interested.

To test for these problems, hackers will lace URL's and post-data
requests with certain meta-characters (single quotes, semicolons,
less-than-greater-than signs, etc.) in attempts to elicit some type of
error message. Standard system error message are the most revealing sign
of weakness and invaluable during a break-in attempt.

Take the following URL's for example...

Normal URL: http://host/app.cgi?id=100

Modified URL: http://host/app.cgi?id=';

The result may produce the following error message:

Microsoft OLE DB Provider for SQL Server error '80040e14'M Unclosed
quotation mark before the character string '; ORDER BY PageNumbers'.
/articles.asp, line 152

When the error message is received, it's a dead giveaway that there is
probably a SQL Injection problem. Further, the error is helpful to the
point that it describes the nature of the problem and on which specific
line. What the hackers are trying to do is reverse engineer the system
to understand the backend SQL query. Once they understand the structure
of the query, this specific vulnerability can lead to complete data
compromise. This error message makes SQL Injection attacks 10-times
easier to exploit.

Suppressing error message can be accomplished at two locations, the web
server and application server.

Web Server 
When a web server encounters a processing error it should
respond with a generic web page, devoid of any revealing debug
information. Redirecting to a standard location works equally well.

Apache (version 1.3x and 2.0x are effectively identical) 
Syntax: ErrorDocument <3-digit-code> 
Example: ErrorDocument 500 /webserver_errors/server_error500.txt

Microsoft IIS The various software versions have GUI configuration
interfaces. Consult these following resources for proper assistance:


For completeness, error codes of 4xx and 5xx should all be handled in
the same fashion.

Application Server 
Application servers, such as ColdFusion or WebSphere,
may install with certain error messages or debug settings enabled by the
default configuration. These features should be suppressed to everyone
except perhaps the administrator.

Consult your vendor's documentation for how to lock-down and turn off
its specific administrative settings.

Macromedia ColdFusion (mode=debug)

This security technique will increase the difficulty for most of the
common Command Execution category attacks from actually succeeding.
Including SQL Injection, LDAP Injection, OS Commanding, SSI Injection,
XPath Injection, etc. Our goal is to increase the difficultly of hacker
reverse engineering the backend system. Without access to informative
error messages, the hacker is forced to perform the attack while blind
to the system internals. This defense makes these classes of
vulnerabilities many times harder for a hacker to detect and further

2) Remove or protect hidden files and directories

Many times web administrators or developers will leave files on the
server not intended for the public. These could be default files, log
files, backup files, administrative directories, temporary files,
backdoor functionality, press releases, etc. The administrator's
assumption is if the location of the file is secret and not directly
linked to the contents are safe because no one will ever find it. This
is a very dangerous assumption to make with sensitive data at risk.

Most of the time these hidden files have easily guessable names
(/admin/, /logs/, /includes/, WS_FTP.LOG, etc.) or common naming
conventions (*.bak, *.orig, *.zip). In days long past, hackers hunted
for these files by typing directly into the browser location bar. Being
a manual process it limited the number attempts a person could make it a
given amount of time. Today through a process known as "Forced Browsing"
or "Predictable File Location" (WASC Glossary:
http://www.webappsec.org/glossary.html#PredictableFileLocation), widely
available scanners of the commercial or open source variety have become
very adept at testing for tens of thousands of filename variants making
the attack much more exhaustive and likely to succeed.

To solve the problem, there are few alternatives to choose from:

a) If the number of web servers or publicly available files is not
exceedingly large, you could go through the document root tree by hand.
Using find, search for any file not ending with one of your commonly
used extensions. (*.html, gif, jpg, etc.). Then proceed
directory-by-directory removing any sensitive or non-essential files
wherever possible.

If the number of websites or file directories is just too numerous to go
through by hand, consider using a scanner. Open source scanning such as
Nikto, Paros, Wikto and others can help cut the workload. Commercial
scanning products including AppDetective, AppScan, NTOSpider, ScanDo,
and WebInspect also do the job well.

b) If the private areas need to remain on the web server, Apache and IIS
can be configured to password-protect and/or IP restrict the resources.
Even using something as simple as http basic authentication can
significantly increase the level of security.

c) If your filesystem (NTFS, EXT2/3, etc.) supports "last access"
timestamps, you can also locate files that haven't been accessed in an
extended period of time. If you don't need these files, remove them.

d) In your web server configuration turn off Apache "Directory
Indexing". Or IIS "Directory Browsing" This feature is commonly used to
create web pages on the fly for directories without index files
(index.html, default.htm, etc). But this feature can also aid an
attacker in locating sensitive files on the web server.

Apache Syntax: Options -Indexes

Microsoft IIS Within the IIS console, turn off Directory browsing in the
web site properties.

e) Google is a powerful resource for identifying many kinds of sensitive
data in your website. A few simple searches can reveal a lot. Consult
the Google Hacking Database
(http://johnny.ihackstuff.com/index.php?module=prodreviews) for
information on the various types of searches you can try.

3) Web server security add-ons

IIS Lockdown, URL Scan, mod_security, and SecureIIS are web server
security add-ons designed to guard against attacks before being
processed further by the web application. Of the many great features
within these products, which would take too long to fully explore here,
I'll focus on a few of the recommended highlights. At a high level,
these add-ons are again great for preventing many of the common attacks
like SQL Injection, Cross-Site Scripting, Worms, and Buffer Overflows
you're likely to endure.

IIS Lockdown

IIS Lockdown, designed for Microsoft's Internet Information Server
(IIS), assists by allowing administrators the ability to easily turn off
unnecessary features that might pose a security risk. With IIS Lockdown
you can disable unnecessary services, un-map unused file handlers,
un-map unused sample scripts and directories, modify permissions, etc.
And making configuration a breeze, a GUI-Driven interface and security
templates are made available as well.

IIS Lockdown and Urlscan 

URL Scan 

URL Scan, again designed for IIS, picks up where IIS Lockdown leaves off
by focusing on the http request specifically. Attacks on websites are
usually achieved by using specially crafted URL's. These URL's may
contain special characters, be overly long, or even cleverly encoded to
disguise an attack. URL Scan helps by using rules to interrogate several
facets of an http request. If anything looks out of the ordinary, an
exception can be raised.

If you're already using IIS 6.0, Microsoft recommends you evaluate the
need to use URL Scan at all. Most of the important functionality of URL
Scan is already included in the web server.

IIS Lockdown and Urlscan 


Mod_Security is the Apache equivalent of URL Scan. By working in
conjunction with Snort rules, Mod_Security can be used to analyze the
legitimacy of an incoming http request. Simple rules can be configured
to stop many forms of SQL Injection, Cross-Site Scripting and a host of
other undesirables. But, this is only the beginning. The tool has loads
of power when you really dive into it.

Introducing mod_security

Web Security Appliance With Apache and mod_security


A commercial product by Eeye, SecureIIS is a specifically designed as an
IIS ISAPI filter to block incoming attacks. Using specially crafted
filter rules (no signatures to update), SecureIIS sits between the
Internet and the web server SecureIIS to protect against buffer
overflows, parser evasions, directory traversal and other attacks.
Another good add-on to have.

4) Add httpOnly flag to sensitive cookies

When a hacker Cross-Site Scripts one of your users, cookies are a
popular target to steal. Cookie theft can lead to account compromise
(session-hijacking) and beyond to outright fraud. A user depends on
security practices of a website for protection against Cross-Site
Scripting. Users simply can't protect themselves alone. If the latest
rounds of Phishing Scam emails that exploit Cross-Site Scripting are any
indication, these attacks are bound to happen to everyone sooner or
later. While many Cross-Site Scripting defenses revolve around data
validation and sanitization, there is another powerful alternative that
is not utilized nearly enough. Microsoft created "httpOnly" cookie flag.

Example: Set-Cookie: VAL=012; expires=Monday, 09-Nov-99 23:12:40 GMT;

When a cookie is set and tagged with httpOnly, JavaScript is then unable
to read the cookie value. Meaning, when a Cross-Site Scripting attack
occurs, the hacker gets an empty value from the cookie and stealing it
becomes a pointless exercise, thereby making a session hi-jacking attack
via Cross-Site Scripting much harder.

Because setting cookies can be done at multiple levels (web server,
application server, web application, etc.), I may have to break my
promise of "without touching the code". Often times a simple
configuration is all that's required with web servers and application
servers depending on your distribution. But if a code edit is required,
it shouldn't amount to more than editing a single line. Sorry.

At the moment, the httpOnly feature is only supported by recent versions
of Internet Explorer (90% market share). The word is the Mozilla Project
should be adding the support soon.

Mitigating Cross-site Scripting With HTTP-only Cookies


As we began this discussion, the goal was to decrease the risk of a
website being hacked without resorting to source code updates. Using the
various techniques above, the difficultly level of a hacker exploiting a
website has been increased. Maybe even by as much as 80% (per the 80/20
rule), but it's hard to be certain exactly. Keep in mind though, if a
security issue remains present, the website can still theoretically be
hacked. This much has not changed. Either by fixing the code or removing
the website entirely, any problems still need to be permanently
corrected. Whatever your particular situation, these tips can assist
websites with even the most secure application code.

At this point you may be wondering, 80% sounds great, but what about the
other 20% of attacks left out? What attacks still threaten a website?
The answer is "logical flaws" and also certain varieties of "technical
vulnerabilities" (http response splitting). In other articles I've
published, I described what's called "logical flaws" or flaws in
business logic. An example would be when someone changes the sale price
of a product during the checkout process. Often these are the most
damaging type of attack since they directly circumvent business
controls. Predominantly, logical flaws are not protected by the measures
I've described. So if your business depends on the integrity of business
control functions, there is little choice but to identify and fix
logical flaws at a code level. In the meantime, hopefully this article
has helped you implement additional layers of website protection and
given access to a larger set of solutions for consideration.

About the Author

Jeremiah Grossman is the founder and Chief Technology Officer of
WhiteHat Security where he is responsible for web application security
R&D and industry evangelism. As a 7-year industry veteran and
world-renowned security expert, Mr. Grossman is a frequent conference
speaker at the Blackhat Briefings, ISSA, ISACA, NASA, and many other
industry events. Mr. Grossman's research, writings, and discoveries have
been featured in USA Today, VAR Business, NBC, ZDNet, eWeek, etc. Mr.
Grossman is also a founder of the Web Application Security Consortium
(WASC) as well as a contributing member of the Center for Internet
Security Apache Benchmark Group. Prior to WhiteHat, Mr. Grossman was an
information security officer at Yahoo! responsible for performing
security reviews on the company's hundreds of web applications.

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