10.3. Application Logic Flaws
Application logic flaws are the result of a lack of understanding of the web application programming model. Programmers are often deceived when something looks right and they believe it works right too. Most flaws can be tracked down to two basic errors:
I explain the errors and the flaws resulting from them through a series of examples.
10.3.1. Cookies and Hidden Fields
Information stored in cookies and hidden form fields is not visible to the naked eye. However, it can be accessed easily by viewing the web page source (in the case of hidden fields) or configuring the browser to display cookies as they arrive. Browsers in general do not allow anyone to change this information, but it can be done with proper tools. (Paros, described in the Appendix A, is one such tool.)
Set-Cookie: authenticated=true; path=/; domain=www.example.com
The application assumes that whoever has a cookie named authenticated containing true is an authenticated user. With such a concept of security, the attacker only needs to forge a cookie with the same content and access the application without knowing the username or the password.
It is a similar story with hidden fields. When there is a need in the application to perform a two-step process, programmers will often perform half of the processing in the first step, display step one results to the user in a page, and transmit some internal data into the second step using hidden fields. Though browsers provide no means for users to change the hidden fields, specialized tools can. The correct approach is to use the early steps only to collect and validate data and then repeat validation and perform the main task in the final step.
Allowing users to interfere with application internal data often results in attackers being able to do the following:
An example of this type of flaw can be found in numerous form-to-email scripts. To enable web designers to have data sent to email without a need to do any programming, all data is stored as hidden form fields:
<form action="/cgi-bin/FormMail" method="POST"> <input type="hidden" name="subject" value="Call me back"> <input type="hidden" name="recipient" value="email@example.com"> <!-- the visible part of the form follows here --> </form>
As was the case with cookies, the recipient field can be manipulated to send email to any email address. Spammers were quick to exploit this type of fault, using form-to-email scripts to send unsolicited email messages.
Many form-to-email scripts still work this way but have been improved to send email only to certain domains, making them useless to spammers.
10.3.2. POST Method
Some believe the POST request method is more secure than GET. It is not. GET and POST both exist because they have different meanings, as explained in the HTTP specification:
Because a casual user cannot perform a POST request just like thata GET request only requires typing the URL into the location field, while a POST request requires basic knowledge of HTMLpeople think POST requests are somehow safe. An example of this misplaced trust is given in the next section.
10.3.3. Referrer Check Flaws
The referrer field is a special header field added to each request by HTTP clients (browsers). Not having been created by the server, its contents cannot be trusted. But a common mistake is to rely on the referrer field for security.
Early versions of many form-to-email scripts did that. They checked the Referer request field (also known as HTTP_REFERER) and refused to work when the contents did not contain a proper address. This type of check has value. Because browsers populate the referrer field correctly, it becomes impossible to use the form-to-email script from another web site. However, it does not protect against spammers, who can programmatically create HTTP requests.
10.3.4. Process State Management
Process state management is difficult to do in web applications, and most programmers do not do it when they know they should. This is because most programming environments support stateless programming well, but do not help with stateful operations. Take a user registration process, for example, one that consists of three steps:
Choosing a username that is not already in use is vital for the process as a whole. The user should be allowed to continue on to the second step only after she chooses an unused username. However, a stateless implementation of this process does not remember a user's past actions. So if the URL of the second step is easy to guess (e.g., register2.php), the user can type in the address and enter step 2 directly, giving as a parameter a username that has not been validated (and possibly choosing an existing username).
Depending on how the rest of the process is coded, this can lead to an error at the end (in the best case) or to database inconsistency (in the worst case).
Another good example of this problem is the use of form-to-email scripts for registration before file download. In many cases, this is a stateless two-step process. The source code will reveal the URL of the second page, which usually contains a link for direct download.
10.3.5. Client-Side Validation