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Web Security, Privacy & Commerce, 2nd Edition by Gene Spafford, Simson Garfinkel

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Chapter 1. The Web Security Landscape

This chapter looks at the basics of web security. We’ll discuss the risks of running a web server on the Internet and give you a framework for understanding how to mitigate those risks. We’ll look at the risks that the Web poses for users—people who simply want to use the Web to get information or participate in online communities. And we’ll look at the hype surrounding web security, analyze what companies (probably) mean when they use the phrase “secure web server,” and discuss overall strategies for reducing the risks associated with the World Wide Web.

The Web Security Problem

When we published the first edition of Practical Unix Security in 1991, we gave a simple definition of computer security:

A computer is secure if you can depend on it and its software to behave as you expect.

This definition has stood the test of time. Whether you are talking about a complex attack such as cross-site scripting, or you are discussing the age-old problem of password sharing, the fundamental goal of computer security is to minimize surprise and to have computers behave as we expect them to behave. Our definition puts forth a holistic approach to protecting computers and the information that they contain: a web site is as dead if it is compromised by an attacker as it is if the sole web server on which the site resides washes away in a flood. Web security, then, is a set of procedures, practices, and technologies for assuring the reliable, predictable operation of web servers, web browsers, other programs that communicate with web servers, and the surrounding Internet infrastructure. Unfortunately, the sheer scale and complexity of the Web makes the problem of web security dramatically more complex than the problem of Internet security in general.

Today’s web security problem has three primary facets:

Securing the web server and the data that is on it

You need to be sure that the server can continue its operation, that the information on the server cannot be modified without authorization, and that the information is only distributed to those individuals to whom you want it distributed.

Securing information that travels between the web server and the user

You would like to assure that information the user supplies to the web server (usernames, passwords, financial information, the names of web pages visited, etc.) cannot be read, modified, or destroyed by any third parties. You want similar protection for the information that flows back from the web servers to the users. It is also important to assure that the link between the user and the web server cannot be easily disrupted.

Securing the end user’s computer and other devices that people use to access the Internet

Finally, web security requires that the end user’s computer be reasonably secured. Users need to run their web browsers and other software on a secure computing platform that is free of viruses and other hostile software. Users also need protections for their privacy and personal information, to make sure that it is not compromised either on their own computers or by their online services.

Each of these tasks, in turn, can be broken down into many others. For example, in the case of a web publisher, the goal of securing the web server used in electronic banking might include the following tasks:

  • Devising and implementing a system for verifying the identity of users who connect to the web server to view their bank statements, a process also known as authentication. One approach to authentication involves implementing a system of usernames and passwords, devising a technique for distributing the initial passwords to the users, and creating a mechanism for users to securely change their passwords or obtain new passwords when their old passwords are forgotten.

  • Analyzing the programs and scripts that operate the web site for flaws and vulnerabilities (e.g., making sure that a web page that leads to the display of one user’s account can’t be tricked into displaying the account of another user).

  • Providing for secure, off-site backup of user information.

  • Creating a secure logging and auditing facility that can be used for billing, conflict resolution, and so-called “nonrepudiation” (see the note in Section 4.1.1 in Chapter 4), and investigation of misuse.

  • Balancing the load among multiple servers to protect against usage spikes and hardware failures, and to provide responsive service.

  • Creating a second data center so that in the event of a disaster (e.g., an earthquake, blizzard, explosion, or invasion from outer space) affecting the primary data center, services will continue.

  • Providing for redundant Internet connections, using multiple service providers, to minimize the chances that a service disruption on the Internet will prevent users from reaching the web site.

  • Securing your Domain Name Service (DNS) service so that an attacker can’t change the domain name to point to another organization’s server.

  • Protecting your billing records so customers will be charged accurately for services rendered.

  • Creating a 24-hour Network Operations Center, or employing the services of an outside monitoring organization, so that if there is a security incident the bank will be able to respond to it in a timely fashion.

  • Providing for the physical security of your site and servers.

  • Providing adequate training for your personnel so they know what to do in an emergency and can resist a social engineering attack.

As you can see, the items on this list include technology that needs to be created and deployed, procedures that need to be followed, and policies that need to be developed. Security is not an additional feature that can be purchased after-the-fact and simply bolted on to an existing system. Neither is security a set of policies that can be implemented within an organization by a single person who has the mandate to be Chief Security Officer. Building a secure computing environment is an involved undertaking that requires careful planning and continued vigilance. The reward is a computing infrastructure that continues to function in the face of adversity—whether that adversity results from man-made attacks or natural disasters.

Securing the Web Server

Securing the web server is a three-part process. First, the computer itself must be secured using traditional computer security techniques. Second, special programs that provide web service must be secured. Finally, you need to examine the operating system and the web service to see if there are any unexpected interactions between the two that might compromise the system’s overall security.

Server security is complicated because most web servers run on traditional multi-purpose operating systems, such as Unix or Windows NT. The web server can be used to exploit bugs in the host security, and failings in host security can be used to probe for problems with the web server. Consider these two typical attacks:

  • A poorly written script or application may make it possible to change a web server’s configuration file, which can then be modified so that the web server runs with excess privileges. By exploiting a host security flaw, an attacker could then create a privileged script that would lead to the attacker’s obtaining full access to the entire computer system.

  • A web server may have well-written scripts and be running on a secure operating system, but a related database server may contain a default account that allows full access to anyone on the Internet. By connecting to the database server and typing a few commands, an attacker may be able to get access to the names, email addresses, and credit card numbers of every customer who has purchased something from the web site.

The first part of server security, securing the underlying computer system, involves a complete examination of the computer’s hardware, its operating system, and add-on programs. The goal of this process is to make sure that authorized users of the system have sufficient capabilities or privileges necessary to perform their work, and nothing more. For example, you may wish to allow all users to read the contents of the server’s main web page, but you probably do not wish to give any unidentified user the ability to shut down the computer or alter the system accounting files. Traditional computer security techniques are also designed to secure the system so that people on the Internet cannot break into it and gain control. Chapter 15 presents an overview of several generic techniques; the references in Appendix E contain many more.

To secure the computer’s web service, you first need to understand how the program that serves web pages works and how it is configured. Examine the server’s configuration to make sure that the correct levels of privilege and authorization are granted for the files that are on the server. Next, examine the scripts—be they CGIs written in Perl, ASP pages written with VBScript, or stand-alone programs written in C—to make sure that each script properly follows your security policy and that it cannot be exploited by a malicious Internet user. Information on how to do this is in Chapter 16.

Finally, you need to look for possible interactions among all of the various components that are running on the computer. This can be a difficult and tedious process to perform. Generally speaking, the best way to minimize interactions is to minimize dependencies between different components that make up your system, and to make sure that each component makes few assumptions about the environment in which it is operating.

Simplification of services

One of the best strategies for improving a web server’s security is to minimize the number of services provided by the host on which the web server is running. If you need to provide both a mail server and a web server, the safest strategy is to put them on different computers. On the system that runs your web service, design the system to run only your web services, choose an underlying operating system and web server that don’t come with lots of extra defaults and unnecessary options, and remove all the services and options you know you don’t need. The more complex the system, the more interactions, and the more that can go wrong . . . or be abused by an attacker.

Another good strategy for securing the information on the web server is to restrict access to the web server. The server should be located in a secure location, so that unauthorized people do not have physical access to the equipment. You should limit the number of users who have the ability to log into the computer. The server should be used only for your single application; otherwise, people who have access to the server might obtain access to your information, or accidentally change something that allows others to gain access. And you should make sure that people who remotely access the server for administrative purposes do so using secure means such as SSH, SecureID, or S/Key.

Policing copyright

Many web developers also want to protect the information that they put on their web sites from unauthorized use. Companies putting pay-per-view information on a web site would like to prevent users from downloading this information and sharing it with others who have not paid for the service. Most web sites that provide information freely to the public prefer that each Internet user pick up the data for themselves, so that the sites can track the number of downloads and possibly show an advertisement at the same time. Some web sites have threatened legal action—and there have even been a few lawsuits—when one web site displays information that is taken from another, even if that other web site distributes the same information “for free.”

It is impossible to impose technical solutions that limit the spread of information once it has been provided to the user. If the data is viewed on the user’s screen, that information can simply be copied off the screen and either printed or saved in a file. At the very least, the screen can be photographed and the photograph later scanned. “Copy protected” sound can be recorded with a tape recorder and redigitized.

Although a number of copy protection systems for web data have been proposed (and marketed), they can all be subverted by a sufficiently-motivated attacker. As an alternative to technical measures that prevent copying, some web sites have instead invested in a technique called digital watermarking . This involves making very small, hidden alterations to the data to store a form of identification of the material. The alterations can’t be noticed by the user, and are done in a special fashion to defeat attempts to remove them. Images, sound files, and other watermarked data can be examined with programs that find and display the identifying information, showing the true owner and possibly the name of the person for whom the copy was first produced.

Securing Information in Transit

Much of the initial emphasis in the field of web security involved the problem of protecting information as it traveled over the Internet from a web server to the end user’s computer. The concern was that someone eavesdropping on the network (at intermediate nodes) might copy sensitive information, or alter information in transit.

There are many ways to protect information from eavesdropping as it travels through a network:

  • Physically secure the network, so that eavesdropping is impossible.

  • Hide the information that you wish to secure within information that appears innocuous.

  • Encrypt the information so that it cannot be decoded by any party who is not in possession of the proper key.

Of these techniques, encryption is the only technique that is practical on a large-scale public network. Physically securing the Internet is impossible. Information hiding only works if the people you are hiding the information from do not know it is hidden. Additionally, encryption can prevent outside alteration, or make it obvious when the information has been changed.

One of the pivotal events in the launch of the World Wide Web was Netscape Communications’ development of an easy-to-use system for sending encrypted information over the Internet. Called the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), this system made it possible for unsophisticated users to employ cryptographic security similar to what had previously been reserved for banks and governments. The encryption provided by SSL made it possible for people to transmit credit card numbers securely over the Internet using the Web, which many people at the time said was a prerequisite for electronic commerce. That’s why Netscape is generally credited with launching the commercialization of the Internet and the Web.

In fact, there were no real barriers to Internet commerce solved by SSL. Before SSL, consumers routinely purchased items by sending credit card numbers by email. Under U.S. regulations, consumers are only liable for $50 in fraud on credit cards: they had little to fear. But large merchants and the credit card companies were worried about the apparent lack of online security and wanted to do something that would address this perceived vulnerability. What Netscape really did to advance Internet commerce was to create a reasonably good browser and then distribute it widely, creating an audience for web sites.

Indeed, SSL is only one component of web security. SSL makes it possible to send usernames, passwords, and credit card numbers securely over the Internet, but SSL doesn’t provide protection for the information at the two ends of the connection.

Another risk to information in transit is a denial-of-service attack resulting from a disruption in the network. A denial-of-service can result from a physical event, such as a fiber cut, or a logical event, such as a bug in the Internet routing tables. In February 2000, a large-scale denial-of-service attack against several prominent Internet sites made the front pages of newspapers around the world; this event resulted from a sustained attack against these servers by computers all over the Internet. One of the most common attacks involved in this incident simply repeated requests for web pages—thousands every second, from hundreds of different servers.

Today there is no practical way for an individual to defend against denial-of-service attacks, although redundancy, high-capacity connections, and backup systems can help to minimize their impact. Ultimately, it will take effective use of the legal system to pursue and prosecute attackers to make these attacks less frequent.

Securing the User’s Computer

Security threats facing users have become front-page news—but these threats have not materialized in the way that was widely expected.

For the first five years of the Web’s existence, web security was largely an academic exercise. Companies including Netscape, Microsoft, and Macromedia distributed browser software, while computer researchers at universities such as UC Berkeley and Princeton found flaws in those programs. Each new vulnerability in a web browser generated a front-page story in the New York Times with ominous warnings of how the flaw could be exploited by a “hostile” web site. A few days later, the embarrassed vendor would distribute an update. It all made for good newscopy, but in fact only a small percentage of computer users actually downloaded the fixes; most users remain vulnerable. Nevertheless, few losses to date are attributable to any browser flaw.

Over that same period, millions of computer users suffered billions of dollars in losses from real attacks experienced over the Internet. Most of the damages were caused by fast-moving computer viruses and worms that traveled by email, or that involved automated exploitation of flaws in network service programs.

Computer security professionals had long maintained that education was the most effective way to secure end users’ computers. The theory was that if you could teach users how to make reasonable decisions about their computer’s security, and if you could teach them to recognize unusual situations, then the users would be far more effective at protecting their own security than any program or computer could ever be.

In recent years, however, some people have revised their opinions, and are now putting their hopes for strong end user computer security in technology, rather than in a massive education effort. The reason is that computer systems are simply too complex for most end users to make rational security decisions. A good example comes from the history of computer worms and viruses. In the late 1990s, users at large organizations were instructed to never run a program that was emailed by somebody that they didn’t know. Unfortunately, this advice left these users wide open to attack from computer worms such as ILOVEYOU (discussed in Chapter 12). These worms propagated automatically by sending copies of themselves to everyone in the victim’s address book. To the people receiving copies of this worm, the email messages appeared to come from somebody they knew, and so the individuals who received the worm frequently ran them—which resulted in files being deleted and the worm propagating to other victims.

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