Tuesday, 30 October 2007

What can you learn from the bad guys?

Really, is there something you can learn from them? Confucius said some time ago: "I'm always glad to meet another voyager: if it's a pleasant man, I can learn what I can do better, if it's an unpleasant man, I can learn what I shouldn't do!". But can we learn something in apositive sense? In order to be able to answer this, let us return to the realm of IT.

What do the really bad IT-guys do? They break in into systems! They use a host of techniques, and one which is particularly interesting is the "SQL injection" (I personally prefer the more colourful - if slightly incorrect - name "SQL hijacking"). Let's explain it using an SQL example. If we build an SQL query string like this:
query = "SELECT * FROM users WHERE name = ' " + userName + ' ";
Now, if we supply an user name string like, say "dummy' or name not null --", the resulting SQL query looks like*:
SELECT * FROM users WHERE name = 'dummy' or name not null --'
And this will get you the list of all users in the system! If the submitted username is like "xxx'; DROP TABLE users; --" the attacker can even get nasty on the database! Simple but effective!

So what, you'd say, how many bad guys will have direct access to my SQL database? Well, you'd be surprised! If you have a Web application which accesses an SQL database the following scenario is conceiveable. The bad guy invokes your SQL database indirectly requesting an URL in the form:
which, when appended to the "SELECT * FROM users WHERE id=" string will grant the attacker the admin privileges! Or, when he requests the URL in the form:
the disaster is looming! I don't want to discuss this in detail, as it's not a hack instruction page, but I hope you've got the general idea: this a real problem for the Web application development. Well, that's all very bad behaviour and all, but the question is: why should we learn anything about this?

Recently I was charged with extension of a J2EE web application for one of my clients.They were using a proprietary custom tag JSP library**, whose sources were not available (unfortunately, in a big company that's not so unusual). The custom tag library was rather nice, but as the code was gone, it was not extensible. For example, I couldn't specify the onClick attribute for the custom button tag:

<somelib:button action="someapp/SomeAction.do" image="..." ... ⁄>
Can you see it? Think, think... Yes! Let us try some JSP/Javascript injection:

<somelib:button action="someapp/SomeAction.do \" onClick=\"alert('Gotcha!'); \" " image="..." ... ⁄>
which produces, when iterpreted to HTML, a wonderful:

... url="someapp/SomeAction.do" onClick="alert('Gotcha!')" image="..."
The reason why this is working*** ist the fact that \" isn't interpreted as the end of string sign, as it is escaped with a "\" ! So we have a kind of double bottom here - on one level we have a regular string, which, when interpreted, is transformed into something different sematically - it's the second bottom. Isn't it beautiful? On one level (tags) we have a senseless string, which on the lower level (HTML) gets injected into a page code and starts living its own life! Like a seed coming to life after a hibernation phase. Since then I used this technique in several other places, and it never ceases to amaze me. Look at that: <somelib:help key="start_task" tooltip="Help \" align=\"right\" "/>.

So now we can answer the title question: from the bad guys, we can learn how to extend a non-extensible JSP custom tag library! And yes, Confucius was right: we can learn from every person. Indeed.

* here "--" comments out the last apostrofe, but we might as well add some ineffective condition like "and name='yyy" to balance the apostrophes.
** for those of you not doing J2EE: a custom tag is a sort of macro generating HTML code when interpreded on the server side
*** this works on Tomcat, and as Tomcat is the reference implementation of a Servlet container... guess what.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I need to hear just what Mavis says with that :D