Top 10 Web Hacking Techniques of 2014

This year, I once again had the privilege to be one of judges for the “Top 10 Web Hacking Techniques” list that is organized by Matt Johansen and Johnathan Kuskos of the WhiteHat Security team. This is a great honor and a lot of fun to do, although the task of voting also requires a lot of reflection. A significant amount of work went into finding the issues, and that should be respected in the analysis for the top spot. This blog reflects my personal interpretation of the nominees this year.

My first job as a judge is to establish my criteria for judging. For instance:

  • Did the issue involve original or creative research?
  • What was the ultimate severity of the issue?
  • How many people could be affected by the vulnerability?
  • Did the finding change the conversation in the security community?

The last question is what made judging this years entries different from previous years. Many of the bugs were creative and could be damaging for a large number of people. However, for several of the top entries, the attention that they received helped change the conversation in the security industry.

A common trend in this year’s top 10 was the need to update third-party libraries. Obviously, Heartbleed (#1) and POODLE (#3) brought attention to keeping OpenSSL up-to-date. However, if you read the details on the Misfortune Cookie attack (#5), there was the following:

AllegroSoft issued a fixed version to address the Misfortune Cookie vulnerability in 2005, which was provided to licensed manufacturers. The patch propagation cycle, however, is incredibly slow (sometimes non-existent) with these types of devices. We can confirm many devices today still ship with the vulnerable version in place. 

Third-party libraries can be difficult to track and maintain in large organizations and large projects. Kymberlee Price and Jake Kouns spent the year giving great presentations on the risks of third-party code and how to deal with it.

Heartbleed and Shellshock were also part of the year of making attacks media-friendly by providing designer logos. Many of us rolled our eyes at how the logos drew additional media attention to the issues. Although, it is impossible to ignore how the added media attention helped expedite difficult projects such as the deprecation of SSLv3. Looking beyond the logos, these bugs had other attributes which made them accessible in terms of tracking and understanding the severity. For instance, besides a memorable name, Heartbleed included a detailed FAQ which helped to quickly explain the bug’s impact. Typically, a researcher would have had to dig through source code changelists which is difficult or consult HeartBleed’s CVSS score (5 out of 10) which can be misleading. Once you remove the cynicism from the logo discussion, the question that remains is what can the industry learn from these events that will allow our industry to better communicate critical information to a mass audience?

In addition, these vulnerabilities brought attention to the discussion around the “many eyes make all bugs shallow” theory. Shell Shock was a vulnerability that went undetected for years in the default shell used by most security engineers. Once security engineers began reviewing the code affected by Shell Shock, three other CVEs were identified within the same week. The remote code execution in Apache Struts ClassLoader (#8) was another example of a vulnerability in a popular open-source project. The Heartbleed vulnerability prompted the creation of the Core Infrastructure Initiative to formally assist with projects like OpenSSL, OpenSSH and the Network Time Protocol. Prior to the CII, OpenSSL only received about $2,000 per year in donations. The CII funding makes it possible to pursue projects such as having the NCC Group’s consultants audit OpenSSL.

In addition to bugs in third-party libraries, there was also some creative original research. For instance, the Rosetta Flash vulnerability (#4) combined the fact that the JSONP protocol allows attackers to control the first few bytes of a response with the fact that ZLIB compression format allows you to define the characters used for compression. Combining these two issues meant that an attacker could bounce a specially crafted, ZLIB-compressed SWF file off of a JSONP endpoint to get it to execute in their domain context. This technique worked on JSONP endpoints for several popular websites. Rather than asking JSONP endpoints to add data validation, Adobe changed Flash Player so that SWFs restrict the types of ZLIB-compressed data that is accepted.

The 6th and 7th issues on the list both dealt with authentication issues that reminded us that authentication systems are a complex network of trust. The research into “Hacking PayPal with One Click” (#6) combined three different bugs to create a CSRF attack against PayPal. While the details around the “Google Two-Factor Authentication Bypass” weren’t completely clear, it also reminded us that many trust systems are chained together. Two-factor authentication systems frequently rely on your phone. If you can social engineer a mobile carrier to redirect the victim’s account, then you can subvert the second factor in two-factor authentication.

The last two issues dealt with more subtle issues than remote code execution. Both show how little things can matter. The Facebook DDOS attack (#9) leveraged the simple support of image tags in the Notes service. If you include enough image tags on enough notes, then you could get over 100 Facebook servers generating traffic to the target. Lastly, “Covert Timing Channels based on HTTP Cache Headers” (#10) looked at ways hidden messages can be conveyed via headers that would otherwise be ignored in most traffic analysis.

Overall, this year was interesting in terms of how the bugs changed our industry. For instance, the fact that a large portion of the industry was dependent on OpenSSL was well known. However, without Heartbleed, the funding to have a major consulting firm perform a formal security audit would have never been made possible. Research from POODLE demonstrated that significant sites in the Alexa Top 1000 hadn’t adopted TLS which has been around since 1999. POODLE helped force the industry to accelerate the migration forward off of SSLv3 and onto TLS. In February, the PCI standard’s council announced, “because of these weaknesses, no version of SSL meets PCI SSC’s definition of ‘strong cryptography.” When a researcher’s work identifies a major risk, then that is clearly important within the scope of that one product or service. When a researcher’s work can help inspire changing the course of the industry, then that is truly remarkable.

For those attending RSA Conference, Matt Johansen and Johnathan Kuskos will be presenting the details of the Top 10 Web Hacking Techniques of 2014 on April 24 at 9:00 AM.


Peleus Uhley
Lead Security Strategist

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