Cross Site Request Forgery (CSRF)

Bare Minimum Application Security

05 January 2013

In Part 1 of this series I began by explaining the background to the series, my aims and goals in producing this, and kicked things off with some core concepts.

Part 2 focused on Cross Site Scripting (XSS) and today we continue with an issue affecting sites that accept user data.

CSRF - Cross Site Request Forgery


CSRF is the act of manipulating a form, or API endpoint, etc that stores or acts upon the action of a user, to initiate that action such that it appears a certain user initiated it, when they did not.

Real Example

<form action="/save/user_account_email" method="GET">
<input type="text" name="email">
<button type="submit">Save Email Address</button>

Seems legit - we let the user update their email address on file with this handy dandy form. But what if we do this:

$ curl -G -d email=[email protected]

No problem you say, as we grab the user ID from the active session to work out which account we’re updating. When we cURLed it, there was no valid session associated with the request so the request was not acted upon. Victory!

Cool story bro.

Unfortunately for you, this naughty hacker knows a few email addresses of folks who have accounts on Instaspam, due to public email addresses of bloggers who have been giving this hot new startup some coverage. He/she also knows about CSRF. NH sends an HTML email to those email addresses which includes the following img tag:

<img src="[email protected]">

Any recipient that has an active session on insta-SPAM and opens the email in their web browser has now handed over their account to the naughty hacker.

So what we should have done is a tokenization approach for form submissions or API calls. When you generate your form, generate a unique token that can be passed in a hidden form field, and store that token along with the authenticated user for whom it was created, and a time of expiry (TTL) that makes sense - usually 15 mins to an hour, depending on what the form does and how long it takes to fill it out. On your backend, when the controller that handles the form submission receives a request, it checks that the token is present, and that the token is still valid. If so, it processes the request. If not, it drops it. For API calls, you should have a call that creates a request token. All future requests send this token in addition to the request data, until such time that the token expires and they request a new one. Same principle as before.

Why you should care

A CSRF vulnerability gives an attacker the opportunity to impersonate your users. On the low end of the scale, this could mean your user has a poor or confusing experience on your app (information they entered deleted or altered, getting logged out mid-session, etc) or at the scarier end, allowing the loss of credit card data, personally identifiable information, personal data/content.

How to detect if someone is trying to attack you

CSRF attacks often stand out because your application flow isn’t followed. Consider the example we just had of changing the user email address. If you receive a request to that controller without having seen a request to the view that contained the form, that’s an indication that something might be wrong.

DON’T rely on checking the referrer to see if the form was submitted from your app though - remember that the referrer, as an HTTP header, can be manipulated by the attacker. Log in the controller that served the view with the form in it that the user requested that view, with a timestamp, and look for one of those log entries for every log entry of a request to the form submission controller.

Once you have tokenization in place, check your logs for requests without a token. Then also check for requests with expired tokens - many will be legit (page refreshes, etc) but some will indicate an attempted attack.

Non-security benefits of protecting yourself from this threat

You may see some reduced erroneous form submissions - such as someone’s session expiring and then hitting a form that was still open in their browser.

End of Part 3

Hopefully you now have a basic understanding of the threat of CSRF and ways to protect yourself. In Part 4, we’ll look at SQL Injection (SQLi).

And, as a reminder - I will continue to repeat a disclaimer throughout: This is a barebones, do this rather than do nothing set of suggested approaches. THIS DOES NOT CONSTITUTE ROBUST, COMPLETE AND FOOLPROOF SECURITY. The goal of this effort is to provide non-security aware founders/hackers/developers/etc with a modicum of protection at a stage in the company’s growth where there are no budgets, let alone one for Information Security. The caveat is that as soon as the company experiences growth, one of their top priorities should be to mature in to a properly developed, professionally and thoroughly provisioned Information Security program, specific to their application, industry and environment.

Just as you scaffold certain items while doing rapid coding development, this is your scaffolded application security program. Think of it as the Twitter Bootstrap of web application security.

Your Feedback / Dissent

In creating this, my aim is to improve Application Security in the early stage companies that will often consider the topic "something we'll get to when we scale". As such, critiques, comments, dissenting opinions and any other type of feedback is welcomed and indeed, heartily encouraged.

Constructive feedback will be reflected in the posts themselves at the most relevant points.

If you've got feedback for me, or you have questions about how to apply this to your own startup / project, you can get in touch:

Twitter: @dstevensio

Email: [email protected]