The security of Web applications

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1 AARMS Vol. 8, No. 1 (2009) INFORMATION SECURITY The security of Web applications VALÉRIA PÓSERNÉ OLÁH Budapest Tech, John Von Neumann Faculty of Informatics, Budapest, Hungary The network (LAN) and the operation system (OS) layers are now successfully protected as they have been the main targets of attacks. It can also be shown statistically that attacks are now concentrating on the application layer. This article points out the tasks to be carried out to eliminate damages and analyze reasons that inhibit effective protection. Introduction At the time when the internet consisted of only static web-pages, protection could easily be provided. The worst outcome of these attacks was, when somebody displayed illegal content on a static webpage. However, due to the fast development of information technology and the spread of on-line services, where the content of the (dynamic) webpage can be arranged by the user, the question of IT security has become more complex. A well-protected and appropriately managed network usually has proper security tools (network, host based intrusion detection system, firewalls). But as firewalls allow incoming HTTP and HTTPS traffic, it creates a vulnerable point in the system unless we provide security at the application level. At present, intrusion detection pattern that would effectively detect intrusions is not typically used at the application level, and mostly there is no repair software either. In addition, there are a remarkable number of homemade applications where security problems were not even considered during development. The only main point was the correct operation. Hence, I found it important to examine what threats cause the biggest problems concerning the application level, and what we can do to avoid being vulnerable to these threats. Statistics speak for themselves Surfing on our favorite pages on the internet we can encounter different error messages (the most serious one is database errors with function calls) which reveals a lot of information about the system itself. What can a hacker achieve, who is an expert on this field, and is actually looking for this information? Using this information the intruder can penetrate the network step by step. Received: May 18, 2009 Address for correspondence: VALÉRIA PÓSERNÉ OLÁH

2 Statistics prove that intruders are exploiting the vulnerable points of application layer more and more (using the path of less resistance). Attacks against web applications have dramatically risen (Gartner: application layer attacks account for 75% of all the attempts). 1 Bill Gates: 64% of software developers are unsure about being able to write a secure application. 2 Research of the Web Application Security Consortium (WASC): 3 More that 7% of the applications examined can be cracked automatically. 7.72% of them suffer from high severity vulnerability. In 96.85% of web applications high severity vulnerability was found after applying a manual, detailed vulnerability search. The question can be put, Why don t we repair our applications? According to statistics, in every 1000 lines there are 15 severe security errors. An average application contains thousand lines. The above mentioned research states that a security error can be diagnosed in 75 minutes and fixed in 6 hours. Let s count. It is worth contrasting the costs of repair with the losses caused by the outage. The costs to fix increase exponentially if the repair is only applied after the system goes live (Fig. 1). Figure 1. The cost to fix in the different period of the Lifecycle, Source: National Institute of Standards and Technology Here is an example for possible dangers when ignoring the vulnerability of the application layer. At the conference called PWN 2 OWN organized by CanSecWest, three systems had to be cracked, the most recent Vista SP1, the newest operation system 174 AARMS 8(1) (2009)

3 from Apple and a Ubuntu Linux. The Apple was cracked in 2 minutes. They didn t concentrate on the operation system layer but they got into the system through an error in the Safari browser (a parameter wasn t handled properly). 4 The most frequent vulnerabilities and forms of attacks The Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) is an open software development system including a number of manufacturers. It provide a framework to analyse the security of web based services, develop support programs, create a knowledge base, which can serve as a reference for system administrators, software developers and users alike. 5 According to their research the top 10 vulnerability points are: 3 Cross-Site Scripting; Injection flaws; Malicious file execution; Insecure Direct Object Reference; Cross-Site Request Forgery; Information Leakage and Improper Error Handling; Broken Authentication and Session Management; Insecure Cryptographic Storage; Insecure Communications; Failure to Restrict URL Access. The characteristics of attacks Analyzing the different forms of attacks, I concluded that the first couple of vulnerabilities are typical examples of exploiting a not correctly checked parameter of some sort. These intruders use the so called unwanted functions that come from the development phase, for example, for a user name an application accepts not only names but SQL queries and the application runs it as well. The hackers pass a script or function call and in doing so they gain different information. Using this information they get admission to the system, get admin/root authority or just obtain data. Running scripts through web pages Exploiting maladjusted web-servers a hacker can run malicious codes on the browser. Possible errors of web-servers: 6 data called in by the browser (e.g. on a user form) are not filtered and they are sent back to the browser; AARMS 8(1) (2009) 175

4 when the server sends the data back and the browser runs the script: for example: the web-page uses the name given after the username to welcome the visitor; the server sends the browser back the malicious scripts with the data; the browser runs it; it is a further threat that the script seems to come from the webpage that is being used; serious damage can be done believing that we are on a secure web-page. Solutions for application security Examining the most frequent vulnerabilities, I found that the most popular forms of attack is typically taking advantage of vulnerabilities created during development when input data are unchecked or checked but not properly. The most effective protection against these threats would be if we could avoid creating these vulnerability points during the development phase. For the security of the application layer it is important to regard the security holes errors too, not just the functional, or performance errors. We should perform security tests continuously even in the operation phase, for something is safe now, is not necessarily safe tomorrow. The application must be audited again and again with our most recent knowledge. There are solutions that help our work, but unfortunately they are not widely spread in Hungary. For instance, the HP Application Security Center solutions, or similar tools by IBM. They offer you effective help in the whole lifecycle of the application (development, testing and the live operation phases). These applications build in the development environment, for example the Visual Studio, IBM Rational Application Developer, Eclipse, etc. They can analyze the source-code or even the compiled application or a combination of the two is also possible. When vulnerability is found, a detailed description is given (e.g., Cross-Site-Scripting), including the most important features, possible implications, ways to exploit it, and ways to correct it. Furthermore, there is a option to apply the suggested solution. When dealing with live applications, there s a possibility to search for automatic security errors. The appropriate programs can examine the compliance with regulations, for instance SOX, HIPAA, PCI, BASEL II., etc. Reports can be made. They contain integrated tool-kits (e.g. brute force tool, cookie analyzer, SQL injection, etc.) It is important to note that when a tested application is reported to meet the requirements, does not necessarily mean that it will pass the audit. However, if the tester program finds an error, it is certain that the application will violate a regulation and it is sure to fail the audit. 176 AARMS 8(1) (2009)

5 Further measures to increase security On the browser side: do not allow the scripts to be run automatically; if a script needs to be run to use a (secure) web-page, allow it only from the home-page check the content and the source of the link before clicking on it; the status bar can be altered with most browsers. With the content of the link, one can play safe only at HTML source code level. The last two steps cannot be expected to take from a lay user, thus it is more important what we can do during the development of the application or on side of the web-server. On the web-server side: restrict data-flow to the browser with minimal data input; set a limit for the input data and check that the limit is kept; delete the <script>, <object>, and <embed> embedded elements if they are not necessary; if possible accept data input only from the HTTP POST, which separates data from the URL, while with the HTTP GET the URL also contains the data; use session IDs which can be received exclusively from a single page (e.g. from the home page). Visitors with invalid session IDs are sent back to the homepage. The disadvantage here is that you cannot make a link to the deeper levels of the web-page; check the content of the cookies, before sending them to the browser; use one kind of coding on a web-page (e.g. ISO ), so the special characters can be separated; separate any special characters from the data received from the browser; allow only secure links and check the content of the referred fields in the HTTP status bar; separate any special characters sent to the browser. The format of the incoming and outgoing data can be different. Thus, it is possible that some special characters are needed at the input, while there is no need to send them at all. Conclusions Due to the increase of web-services, newer and more popular vulnerability points are springing up in computer systems, and therefore extensive care is needed when making an appropriate protection of the application layer. In my opinion, the reason for the popularity of the new target lies in the fact that traditionally attacks started from the network layer or the operation system layer, so the protection was first set up here making the activities of hackers so hard that they now attack somewhere else (the path of less resistance), which is now the application layer. AARMS 8(1) (2009) 177

6 I examined the most frequent forms of attacks against the application layer, but for lack of space I failed to give a full description of them, however there several articles, studies dealing with them. Studying how these attacks work, I found that the most frequent and most popular forms of attacks exploit those vulnerability points, where during software development the incoming data on the client side are not or not properly checked, moreover in many cases possible errors are not managed well. Looking into the protection possibilities I concluded that a lay user cannot be expected to take professional steps, however it is the developers and operators of applications who can take up the fight against the new forms of attacks by eliminating the vulnerability points, which unfortunately does not happen in most of the cases. As I see, the reason for this is that the applications are not made by security experts, as Bill Gates said at the RSA conference in 2005, his developers do not consider themselves security experts. It is no wonder as it is not taught at university, and even on the faculty of application development is hardly mentioned how to write codes safely. It is also problematic that the number of people working in security has not increased at the same rate as the number and the extent of applications have grown. Few people have to manage a vast number of applications that are changing so quickly. There are other problems that draw away the energy from security. As I have already mentioned, the main aim is to have the system run (intensive project schedules), the planning falls behind, then the development falls behind with the deadline remaining the same, so there is much less time for testing. The quality controllers and testers are not security experts either. The tests carried out do not deal with the application layer either. It would help to solve these problems at a great extent if the software developers used tools, already available on the market, to enhance security at the development phase and if software operators regularly checked the security of running applications as well. References 1. NG, D.: Our Vision for Application Security, /rsdc_vision_for_application_security.pdf, p. 16, Bill Gates szerint lényeges a biztonság, Web Application Security Consortium: Web Application Security Statistics, KISS, Á. Z.: 2 perc alatt feltörték a MacBook Airt, MUHA, L., BODLAKI, Á., CSIKELY, J., ENDRÉDI, G., BODLAKI, Á.: Az informatikai biztonság kézikönyve , Verlag Dashöfer Ltd., 2005, ISBN , ANDREWS, M., WHITTAKER, J. A.: How to Break Web Software, Addison-Wesley, 2006, ISBN , AARMS 8(1) (2009)

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