Third-party libraries and security issues

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Earlier this week, I wrote about why you should still use vanilla JS when so many amazing third-party libraries exist.

A few folks wrote to me to mention something I missed: security.

When you use code you didn’t author, you’re taking a risk. You’re trusting that the third-party code does not have security issues, that the author has good intent.

Chris makes a very good point, especially for those developers of the npm install every-damn-thing persuasion: getting an enormous framework that you don’t completely understand just because you need  a small portion of its features is bad security practice. And the target is a juicy one: a bad actor who finds (or introduces) a vulnerability in a big and widely-used library has a whole lot of power. Security concerns are a major part of why I go vanilla/stdlib where possible.

But as always with security the answer isn’t so clear-cut and simple, and I’d argue that it’s dangerous to encourage people to write their own solutions as a matter of course, for security reasons. For a start, you should never roll your own cryptographic libraries because you’re almost certainly going to fuck it up: an undetectable and easy-to-make mistake in your crypto implementation can lead to a catastrophic cascade and completely undermine the value of your cryptography. If you’re smart enough about crypto to implement crypto properly, you should contribute towards one of the major libraries. And if you’re not smart enough about crypto (and if you’re not sure, then you’re not), you should use one of those libraries. And even then you should take care to integrate and use it properly: people have been tripped over before by badly initialised keys or the use of the wrong kind of cipher for their use-case. Crypto is hard enough that even experts fuck it up and important enough that you can’t afford to get it wrong.

The same rule applies to a much lesser extent to other parts of your application, and especially for beginner developers. Implementing an authentication/authorisation system isn’t hard, but it’s another thing where getting it wrong can have disastrous consequences. Beginner (and even intermediate) developers routinely make mistakes with this kind of feature: unhashed, reversibly-encrypted, or incorrectly-hashed (wrong algorithm, no salt, etc.) passwords, badly-thought-out password reset strategies, incompletely applied access controls, etc. I’m confident that Chris and I would be in agreement that the best approach is for a developer to learn to implement these things properly and then do so. But if having to learn to implement them properly is a barrier to getting started, I’d rather than a beginner developer instead use a tried-and-tested off-the-shelf like Devise/Warden.

Other examples of things that beginner/intermediate developers sometimes get wrong might be XSS protection and SQL parameter escaping. And again, for languages that don’t have safety features built in, a framework can fill the gap. Rolling your own DOM whitelisting code for a social application is possible, but using a solution like DOMPurify is almost-certainly going to be more-secure for most developers because, you guessed it, this is another area where it’s easy to make a mess of things.

My inclination is to adapt Chris’s advice on this issue, to instead say that for the best security:

  1. Ideally: understand what all your code does, for example because you wrote it yourself.
  2. However: if you’re not confident in your ability to implement something securely (and especially with cryptography), use an off-the-shelf library.
  3. If you use a library: use the usual rules (popularity, maintenance cycle, etc.) to filter the list, but be sure to use the library with the smallest possible footprint – the best library should (a) do only the one specific task you need done, and no more, and (b) be written in a way that lends itself to you learning from it, understanding it, and hopefully being able to maintain it yourself.

Just my tuppence worth.

Anatomy of Cookie XSS

A cross-site scripting vulnerability (shortened to XSS, because CSS already means other things) occurs when a website can be tricked into showing a visitor unsafe content that came from another site visitor. Typically when we talk about an XSS attack, we’re talking about tricking a website into sending Javascript code to the user: that Javascript code can then be used to steal cookies and credentials, vandalise content, and more.

Good web developers know to sanitise input – making anything given to their pages by a user safe before ever displaying it on a page – but even the best can forget quite how many things really are “user input”.

"Who Am I?" page provided by University of Oxford IT Services.
This page outputs a variety of your inputs right back at you.

Recently, I reported a vulnerability in a the University of Oxford’s IT Services‘ web pages that’s a great example of this.  The page (which isn’t accessible from the public Internet, and now fixed) is designed to help network users diagnose problems. When you connect to it, it tells you a lot of information about your connection: what browser you’re using, your reverse DNS lookup and IP address, etc.. The developer clearly understood that XSS was a risk, because if you pass a query string to the page, it’s escaped before it’s returned back to you. But unfortunately, the developer didn’t consider the fact that virtually anything given to you by the browser can’t be trusted.

My Perl program, injecting XSS code into the user's cookie and then redirecting them.
To demonstrate this vulnerability, I had the option of writing Perl or Javascript. For some reason, I chose Perl.

In this case, I noticed that the page would output any cookies that you had from the .ox.ac.uk domain, without escaping them. .ox.ac.uk cookies can be manipulated by anybody who has access to write pages on the domain, which – thanks to the users.ox.ac.uk webspace – means any staff or students at the University (or, in an escalation attack, anybody’s who’s already compromised the account of any staff member or student). The attacker can then set up a web page that sets up such a “poisoned” cookie and then redirects the user to the affected page and from there, do whatever they want. In my case, I experimented with showing a fake single sign-on login page, almost indistinguishable from the real thing (it even has a legitimate-looking .ox.ac.uk domain name served over a HTTPS connection, padlock and all). At this stage, a real attacker could use a spear phishing scam to trick users into clicking a link to their page and start stealing credentials.

A fake SSO login page, delivered from a legitimate-looking https URL.
The padlock, the HTTPS url, and the convincing form make this page look legitimate. But it’s actually spoofed.

I’m sure that I didn’t need to explain why XSS vulnerabilities are dangerous. But I wanted to remind you all that truly anything that comes from the user’s web browser, even if you think that you probably put it there yourself, can’t be trusted. When you’re defending against XSS attacks, your aim isn’t just to sanitise obvious user input like GET and POST parameters but also anything that comes from a browser header including cookies and referer headers, especially if your domain name carries websites managed by many different people. In an ideal world, Content Security Policy would mitigate all these kinds of attacks: but in our real world – sanitise those inputs!