I am in your HTTP headers, attacking your application

Zero-day IE exploits and general mass SQL injection attacks often overshadow potentially more dangerous exploits targeting lesser known applications and attack vectors. These exploits are potentially more dangerous because once proven through a successful attack on these lesser known applications they can rapidly be adapted to exploit more common web applications, and no one is specifically concentrating on preventing them because they're, well, not so obvious.

Recently, SANS Internet Storm Center featured a write up on attempts to exploit Roundcube Webmail via the HTTP Accept header. Such an attack is generally focused on exploitation of operating system, language, or environmental vulnerabilities, as the data contained in HTTP headers (aside from cookies) is rarely used by the application as user-input.

An example provided by SANS of an attack targeting Roundcube via the HTTP Accept header:

POST /roundcube/bin/html2text.php HTTP/1.1
User-Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (Windows; U; Windows NT 5.1; en-US; rv: Gecko/2008120122 Firefox/3.0.5
Host: xx.xx.xx.xx
Accept: ZWNobyAoMzMzMjEyKzQzMjQ1NjY2KS4iICI7O3Bhc3N0aHJ1KCJ1bmFtZSAtYTtpZCIpOw==
Content-Length: 54

What the attackers in this example were attempting to do is trick the application into evaluating system commands encoded in the Accept header in order to retrieve some data they should not have had access to. The purpose of the attack, however, could easily have been for some other nefarious deed such as potentially writing a file to the system that could be used as a cross-site scripting attack, or deleting files, or just generally wreaking havoc with the system.

This is the problem security professionals and developers face every day: what devious thing could some miscreant attempt to do? What must I protect against. This is part of what makes secure coding so difficult - developers aren't always sure what they should be protecting against, and neither are the security pros because the bad guys are always coming up with a new way to exploit some aspect of an application or transport layer protocols.

Think HTTP headers aren't generally used by applications? Consider the use of the custom HTTP header "SOAP Action" for SOAP web services, and cookies, and E-tags, and ... well, the list goes on. HTTP headers carry data used by applications and therefore should be considered a viable transport mechanism for malicious code.

So while the exploitation of HTTP headers is not nearly as common or rampant as mass SQL injection today, the use of it to target specific applications means it is a possible attack vector for the future against which applications should be protected now, before it becomes critical to do so. No, it may never happen. Attackers may never find a way to truly exploit HTTP headers. But then again, they might and apparently have been trying. Better safe than sorry, I say.

Regardless of the technology you use to, the process is the same: you need to determine what is allowed in HTTP headers and verify them just as you would any other user-generated input or you need to invest in a solution that provides this type of security for you. RFC 2616 (HTTP), specifically section 14, provide a great deal of guidance and detail on what is acceptable in an HTTP header field.

Never blindly evaluate or execute upon data contained in an HTTP header field. Treat any input, even input that is not traditionally user-generated, as suspect. That's a good rule of thumb for protecting against malicious payloads anyway, but especially a good rule when dealing with what is likely considered a non-traditional attack vector (until it is used, and overused to the point it's considered typical, of course).

Possible ways to prevent the potential exploitation of HTTP headers:

  1. Use network-side scripting or mod_rewrite to intercept, examine, and either sanitize or outright reject requests containing suspicious data in HTTP headers.
  2. Invest in a security solution capable of sanitizing transport (TCP) and application layer (HTTP) protocols and use it to do so.
  3. Investigate whether an existing solution - either security or application delivery focused - is capable of providing the means through which you can enforce protocol compliance.
  4. Use secure coding techniques to examine - not evaluate - the data in any HTTP headers you are using and ensure they are legitimate values before using them in any way.

A little proactive security can go along way toward not being the person who inadvertently discovers a new attack methodology.

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Published Jan 15, 2009
Version 1.0

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