tssci security

Baby steps with web application security scanners

Web application security scanners have not matured much. I guess patent wars and company-buyouts have caused a lot of stagnation over the past year. However, I think the problems may run deeper than just controversy and industry drama.

AppScan DE and DevInspect as exceptions -- largely the web application security scanner industry is filled with technology that has to spider, or crawl, a website.

However, in most cases, scanners do not crawl the application -- only the web server HTML content and the subsequent links. There is a process known as link discovery, where the spider in a scanner will typically find links and follow them. But what if the link information is inside a Flash file, or other part of the application that a typical spider/crawler can't get into?

This is why I like the word, "Crawling", to accurately describe the process a web application security scanner goes through when it spiders a site and does link discovery. Sure, the spider can use robots.txt, or a Sitemap protocol to get a better picture (or a mostly complete map) of the links the crawler must find and explore. Looking at the big picture -- a complete and accurate crawl of the application -- is far from realized using these tools today.

I also like to use the word "Walking" (i.e. an evolution of "Crawling") to refer to scanning technology that does more than simple link discovery using robots.txt, Sitemap, and/or "grep" type techniques. For example of a "walker", there is the OWASP Sprajax Project. While limited (as discussed in the book Ajax Security), Sprajax is capable of enumerating call endpoints in an ASP.NET AJAX application (used to be Microsoft Atlas) and fuzz the inputs found.

In order for a scanner to be useful, it also has to be functional. I am not going to purchase a commercial product that is unable to support common web application technology (Ajax is found in over 30% of web applications, while Flash is found in at least 40%). With numbers like these, we're talking about common adoption. This is not a trivial thing when you have to assess many different web applications day-to-day. These technologies are growing at a very fast pace -- and we have to look at other RIA/RCP frameworks that are emerging on the scene.

Over 70% of web applications primarily use CSS, only occasionally using HTML features such as tables. Only 2-3% of popular websites are without CSS. Yet, the web application security scanners do not look into the formatting/presentation layer -- nor do they utilize attack-vectors such as HTML/CSS injection of HTML/CSS (as opposed to HTML injection of Javascript, which more widely a concept of XSS).

With these kinds of issues, I prefer open-source tools to costly commercial scanners -- which is why I mention them often. I don't believe in leading with a tool because the tools are often quite poor. There are excellent approaches that are completely different than the typical situation where people jump to a web application security scanner to solve a particular problem.

The best current approaches all seem to revolve around strategy consulting that recommends Fagan inspection as a process-oriented solution to secure coding. Fagan inspection is just the beginning of a secure coding process. Many are referring to this new age of security consulting as "Secure SDLC" or "Security in the SDLC", and the practices of the Microsoft SDL, OWASP CLASP, and Cigital Touchpoints are the usual suspects.

When practices such as inspection and developer-testing are encouraged early in the SDLC (requirements, design, and programming phases), forced at build-time (integration phase), and verified before release (functional, regression, and operations testing phases) -- this is software assurance / software security SixSigma in 2008. Of course, this is the exact model that I suggest in my CPSL "Secure SDLC" process.

Secure SDLC techniques such as secure inspection and unit tests that assert software weaknesses (such as CWE or OWASP T10-2007) don't need to worry about "Crawling" or "Walking". They're already "Running" at full speed.

The TS/SCI Security Team will return with Day 10 of the ITSM vulnerability assessment techniques tomorrow!

Posted by Dre on Monday, January 21, 2008 in Security and Tech.

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