Category Archives: Primer

Primers specifically written for those new the security domain

Understanding Cookies

Photo: Mrs. Magic

Photo: Mrs. Magic

When testing web applications, penetration testers should look at how the session is handled. Session management is commonly overlooked by developers and system administrators. It is so often overlooked that it is one of the OWASP Top 10, refereed to as “Broken Authentication and Session Management.”

This article will cover certain attributes that cookies typically have. In the future we will address how to use attribute tags to help aid developers in securing their applications. This article assumes the reader has a basic understanding of what a cookie is.

Here is a sample HTTP response. This is what the server responds with after a client request is made. The response has been edited for brevity.

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Content-Type: text/html
Set-Cookie: session=YnJldHQ6bXlwYXNzd29yZA==;expires=Thu, 30 Dec 2037 00:00:00 GMT;path=/;
Content-Length: 8400

For those unfamiliar with cookies, a cookie consists of a name/value pair. In this case the cookie name is “session” and the cookie value is “YnJldHQ6bXlwYXNzd29yZA==

Following the cookie name/value pair are the attribute/value pairs that apply to that cookie and are delimited with a semicolon. In this example their are three attribute/value pairs: expires, path, and domain.

Expires Attribute

expires=Thu, 30 Dec 2037 00:00:00 GMT

The expires attribute is used to tell the browser when the cookie should no longer be used. Browsers will cache this cookie locally until the expires date is reached. When the expires date is reached the browser will stop sending the cookie after the browser is closed. In our example the cookie will remain valid until December 30th, 2037.

Path Attribute


The Path attribute specifies the subset of URLs to which this cookie applies. In this case, the cookie will be sent for any request to this server. If a user requests /bobsapp/ or /tomsapp/ this cookie will be sent.

Domain Attribute

The Domain attribute specifies the domain for which the cookie is valid. An explicitly specified domain must always start with a dot. In our example, this cookie will be sent to and any sub-domains of (e.g.

In a future article we will continue looking at the attribute/value pairs that cookies can have and will even revisit these attributes explaining how each needs to be understood to securely handle a user’s session.

Further Reading:

RFC 2109 – HTTP State Management Mechanism
RFC 2965 – HTTP State Management Mechanism (New Version)


Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF)

Photo: Joe Penniston

Photo: Joe Penniston

This is the fifth-part in a ten-part-series describing the OWASP Top 10. (See all the OWASP Top 10)

What is Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF)

Cross-Site request forgery is a client-side vulnerability that allows an attacker to make requests on the user’s behalf. Although, most CSRF exploits require a user to be authenticated to the susceptible site to be successful, this is not always the case.

An Example of Cross-Site Request Forgery

A user (victim) opens their browser and logs on to their online banking application located at

After checking their balance they browse away from the site (without logging off) and start reading web pages about olives from Madagascar. One of these olive sites is owned by an attacker. The attacker’s website has the following img src tag:

<img src="">

When the victim’s browser loads the malicious page that contains this img src tag, the victims browser makes the transfer request (/transfer.asp?to_acct=445544&amount=1000) to using the authenticated cookie from the earlier session. Upon making this request, the bank then transfers $1,000 from the victim’s account to account 445544. The attacker has now successfully executed a cross-site request forgery attack against a user of

How Do You Prevent Cross-Site Request Forgery

Any sensitive request that is generated by the user should force the user to “re-authenticate.” A simple example is that of change password functionality. You always want to verify the user knows the old password before changing their password, even if they are currently authenticated.

If you determine that “re-authentication” may be an inconvenience for the user or if all of your requests are considered sensitive then the application developers should include a random token that is unique to the user session. This token should not be present in the cookie, but rather as a hidden field in the HTML and then appended to the URL during any form submission.

When the attacker attempts to trick the users browser into making a request, the web application will look for this random token. The random token will not exist for the request, and the request will be denied. This prevents the CSRF attack from being successful.

Note: Having SSL does not protect your application from CSRF vulnerabilities.

OWASP Top 10

When developing a security strategy for web applications many companies have no idea where to begin. The Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) understood this problem and developed the OWASP Top 10.

The OWASP top 10 are the top 10 vulnerabilities that are found in web applications. This will begin a 10-part series dedicated to each of these vulnerabilities.

If you are a developer, you should understand these vulnerabilities. Understanding them is critical into introducing less vulnerabilities into your code.

The OWASP Top 10:
A1 – Cross Site Scripting (XSS)
A2 – Injection Flaws
A3 – Malicious File Execution
A4 – Insecure Direct Object Reference
A5 – Cross Site Request Forgery (CSRF)
A6 – Information Leakage and Improper Error Handling
A7 – Broken Authentication and Session Management
A8 – Insecure Cryptographic Storage
A9 – Insecure Communications
A10 – Failure to Restrict URL Access

Don’t Click That Link!

Photo: B.G. Lewandowski

Photo: B.G. Lewandowski

Why did you just click that link? Most likely you have came to this site by clicking a link from another site. Why did you do that? Did you trust the person who sent you the link? Did you click a link from Twitter, Facebook, or an email someone sent you?

When you click a link, you are telling your browser, “I trust this person.” However, this is not the way we use the Internet. We click on links all the time. We click on links from “untrusted” sources. We click links from people we don’t know and we even click on URL’s that have been modified. On Twitter, a person is much more inclined to click the shortened link then they are to click Even though the shortened link could redirect to the site.

But, why would someone trick you into clicking a cleverly disguised link? The site that you are redirected to may seem harmless. It could also be extremely malicious.

What happens if this page, (the one you are currently viewing), was filled with Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF) links? This web page could be setup with all types of malicious intent. However, you didn’t know that when clicking the link. Now, it is too late.

If this site did have Cross-Site Requests, I could do things such as:

  • Change the password on your Facebook account
  • Transfer the money from your on-line bank account to another account
  • Enact trades from a financial institution such as E*Trade

The sites that I exploit would have to be vulnerable to CSRF. But researchers, such as Mike Bailey and Russ McRee, are constantly finding CSRF vulnerabilities in web applications.

An example of how clicking links from untrusted sources is never good was demonstrated in Billy Rios and Nitesh Dhanjani, Bad Sushi talk. In their presentation they described sending phishers a word document stating their account numbers were inside. They sent this email to 25 known phishers. 10 of the phishers opened the word document and were presented with this. In addition, there was another link that said, “Actually, my account information is here.” 3 of the 10 clicked on that link. Even the phishers click links they shouldn’t.

What should be done? Who knows. It is human nature to trust people and we can’t get things done if every time someone sends us a link we open up a VMware image to view a link. So continue using the Internet the way you have been and remember, “These aren’t the droids your looking for.”

Buzzword: FUD – Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt

Photo: crowolf

Photo: crowolf

FUD is becoming a very common acronym to hear in security circles. The acronym FUD has been popping up on Blog postings, emails, tweets, and at security conferences.

FUD is an acronym that stands for Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. The phrase describes marketing schemes that are focused on using Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt to sell a product. Good example of FUD are sensational headlines such as, “Conficker Now Instructed to Steal” or more famously, “Hackers Can Turn your Home Computer into a Bomb!

With FUD campaigns the marketer is attempting to use FUD to sell something. This marketed item could be a “security” product or FUD can be used to create a buzz around the “item at hand.”

One quick way to identify FUD is spotting a headline or article that is greatly sensationalized, has a lot of speculation, or makes gross generalizations. The other critical factor in FUD is there is a lack of information in the article. FUD articles clearly point out the problem, but fail to point out how the author arrived at this conclusion.

Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt pray on human emotions and marketing campaigns that exploit this will not be going away any time soon.

XSS – Understanding Cross Site Scripting

If it hasn’t already, Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) will soon be replacing SQL injection as the new buzzword in the security sector. XSS will continually be a topic on this blog as well as others [1],[2],[3],[4]. Due to this fact, I think a primer would be a good idea for those who don’t know or understand this problem.

Many articles have been written about Cross-Site Scripting and if you want to have a better understanding of the problem, I suggest you read those documents (Links at the bottom of the post).

Basically, There are 3 types of Cross-Site Scripting:

  1. Stored/Non-Reflective/Persistent Cross Site Scripting (User visits the XSS’ed page)
  2. Non-Stored/Reflective/Reflected Cross Sited Scripting (User clicks a link that embeds the script into the loaded page)
  3. DOM Based Cross Site Scripting (please read this article)

All of these names make it confusing for a first timer to understand XSS. There really should be a better web application security standards organization. Here is a breakdown of Persistent XSS and Reflective XSS. These are the big two that most people talk about when they are referring to Cross Site Scripting. If you understand these well, you will be able to participate in 90% of XSS conversations.

Persistent Cross-Site Scripting
Persistent XSS is arguably more dangerous than reflective XSS. This attack embeds the malicious script permanently into the web application. The script will then wait until people access the page it is located on.

Here is an attack using Persistent Cross-Site Scripting:

  1. The victim visits a website they trust,
  2. A script has been inserted by an attacker on a page they happen to visit while on
  3. The script executes in the context of
  4. The victim is then compromised.

Note: Obviously, someone can increase the chances of the victim visiting this page (step 2) through social engineering, phishing, etc.

Reflective Cross-Site Scripting
These are the ones the media usually reports on. [1],[2],[3]. In this attack, some type of social engineering is involved for the attack to be successful.

Here is an attack, using Reflective Cross-Site Scripting:

  1. The victim gets an email/Instant Message that contains a link.
  2. The victim clicks the link. (Requires User Intervention)
  3. A script has been inserted by an attacker on the page they then visit.
  4. The script executes in the context of that site.
  5. The victim is then compromised.

Note: I want to reiterate that this attack requires some type of user intervention (step 2).

Why is Cross-Site Scripting Bad?
Cross-Site Scripting can lead to all sorts of different exploits, including system compromise. For an attacker to do this, they need to break out of the browser’s context. We have seen examples that breaking out of the browser is not that hard to do.

In addition, an attacker can also establish a bi-directional channel using iframes. This creates a man-in-the-middle attack. The attacker can then intercept key strokes, use the victim as an intranet portscanner, and even stealing creditials. The attacker is only limited by their knowledge of scripting.

Example of a bi-directional channel

Hopefully, this gives you a better understanding of Cross-Site Scripting. Feel free to leave comments if you don’t understand something and I will address it in the article.

Additional Resources:
Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) FAQ
OWASP Guide to XSS
XSS tutorial
XSS Video Tutorial (via youtube)
XSS Attack API