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Be Careful What You Say

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Hopefully, whether you are a Java programmer or not, you read Jeff Williams' article last week on how Java developers should learn from what Microsoft is doing in security. This is good advice for all of us. Rather than fall into political wars, we need to look at the good and bad of other technologies and see how they can be applied to our situation. That is exactly what Microsoft did in developing .NET. They looked at various technologies, languages, architectures, tools, etc. in determining the approach for .NET. We will look at one of those concepts this week and how .NET takes ideas from Java and C++ and provides a significant security improvement over previous ASP applications. Let's look in on David, a would be attacker, who is trying his best to compromise a typical ASP application.

Everything's Coming up Errors

David absent mindedly brushed the hair out of his eyes, took another sip from his Dilbert coffee mug, and focused his eyes on the computer screen in front of him. Over the past hour, David had been attacking the web site of Sample Company, looking for a vulnerability to exploit that would grant him access to their corporate database. Finding a vulnerability had been the easy part. Within minutes of accessing the site, David had located a SQL Injection vulnerability that could allow him to access all of the information in the database, if he could just determine how to exploit it. But that was where things began to fall apart. Although he would never admit it to anyone, David was a little out of his league here. He envisioned himself as an elite hacker and had certainly been able to impress his friends on occasion. However, now that he was beyond his simple bag of tricks, he found himself confused as to what approach to take.

He rose and looked out the window at the rain hitting the pavement below. He felt he was close to getting in, but all he had been able to do up to this point was generate errors. Every time he tried to work around one error, he just seemed to be faced with a new one. The phone ringing jarred David from his thoughts. His best friend, Johnny, was on the line. Twenty minutes and two cups of coffee later, David hung up the phone. Johnny and he had been talking about a girl that Johnny was interested in. He had been pursuing her for weeks with no progress to speak of. A few days ago Johnny had decided to take a different approach and play it cool. He had called to let David know that there seemed to be some progress. Johnny was pretty excited about the whole thing. David figured that once she got to know Johnny, it would all wear off. David sat down and tried to gather his thoughts again.

As he looked over the error messages he had generated, David thought about how he was in the same position Johnny had been a few days ago. He decided to take the same approach and stop what he was doing and try a different slant. Rather than looking at the error messages as failures, he started to look at what they might be telling him. Within a few minutes, David realized he was on to something. While he did not have direct access to the database, he had learned more information than he had realized at first. He scrawled his thoughts on a scrap of notebook paper and sat back to study them further.

The error message on his screen read:

Microsoft OLE DB Provider for SQL Server error '80040e14' Column 'newsTBL.NEWS_ID' is invalid in the select list because it is not contained in an aggregate function and there is no GROUP BY clause. G:\WEBSITES\WWW.SAMPLECOMPANY.COM/internal/, line 241

From that, David felt like he had learned a lot of information. Some of the information he realized he now was aware of included:

  • The application uses OLE DB to communicate to the database
  • The application uses Microsoft SQL Server as the database
  • SQL commands can be passed to the database
  • There is a table called newsTBL in the database
  • The newsTBL table contains a field called NEWS_ID
  • The application is stored in the G:\Websites\ directory on the web server
  • There is a directory called internal on the website
  • There is an internal file called on the website
  • Line 241 of the page contains code to execute a SQL statement

Application Attacks for Dummies

Now that his focus had changed, David found many of the errors he had generated during his attacks had not been useless, but had generated useful information he had simply overlooked. In an earlier set of attacks, David had generated the following error message over and over:

"All queries in an SQL statement containing a UNION operator must have an equal number of expressions in their target lists."

However, when he had exactly six columns in the SQL command he was trying to inject, he received a different error message about the data types not matching. Before, he had simply been frustrated. Now he realized that the system had been telling him that there were six columns being selected in the SQL command of the application.

In a similar fashion, errors David had generated such as:

  • "Invalid object name 'tblUsers'."
  • "The number '99999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999' is out of the range for numeric representation (maximum precision 38)."
  • "Syntax error converting the nvarchar value 'tblAdmin' to a column of data type int."

had actually disclosed information about the database schema, the table names, column names, field sizes, etc. David began to think how the error messages acted as a debugger. Whenever he made a syntax error in the attack, the error messages actually assisted him in finding where the errors were and how to tweak the attack. If the application developers had realized how much information they were disclosing when they created this "attacker debugger", they would never have released the application.

David began following the directions from the error messages and within a few minutes, he had coaxed the application into revealing the field names and data types of the SQL command he had been attacking.

Armed with this new approach, David was able to extract the rest of the database schema as well as the data stored in the tables. Now that he had a debugger to assist him, David felt a lot more powerful and couldn't wait to take on the next application. He poured a fresh cup of coffee and realized he needed to call Johnny to let him know about some real progress.

.NET Error Handling

Michael read the memo from the architecture team with great interest. As the lead developer for one of the new .NET projects, these new guidelines on error handling would need to fit in with the architecture he was planning. Michael sat back to think about last fall, when the company realized that an attacker had walked through their entire database and extracted information at will. When suspicions arose that an attacker had compromised the system, Sample Company brought in an outside security consultant who had demonstrated how the attacks had been conducted and the role that error messages had played in the attack. From the error messages in the logs, it appeared the attacker had not been an elite hacker, but had still been able to compromise the system within a few hours. Michael remembered the long nights and weekends as they painstakingly went through all of their applications, applying patches and retesting the code.

While .NET was not a silver bullet, Michael realized that it did offer some techniques that could greatly assist his team in trying to handle errors in a secure manner. Michael remembered implementing ASP code such as "On Error Resume Next" and trying to make sure they hadn't missed any of the pages. The new features of .NET would allow them to implement superior error handling with significantly less risk.

Michael read one of the paragraphs again:

"On .NET applications, there are multiple distinct mechanisms, which can be used to help prevent these types of error messages from being displayed to a user. These mechanisms may be used independently, or multiple techniques may be used in combination to provide complete coverage."

Michael decided to implement a combination technique where he used contextual error handling such as Exceptions and Page_Error events for handling errors where he could provide more context to the error message or logs. For a safety net, he would use backup techniques, such as the Application_Error event or the Application Configuration File to ensure no error messages were missed and inadvertently disclosed to an attacker. These techniques fit well into the new n-tier architecture Michael was proposing and would hopefully help in keeping Michael from spending more weekends patching his application. He understood from last year's assessments that error handling would not prevent any of the attacks and that other measures would have to be taken to prevent such vulnerabilities as SQL Injection. However, Michael was determined to avoid creating another attacker debugger and making things any easier that necessary for the next would be hacker.


If application developers realized how much information they disclose when they routinely create these types of "attacker debuggers", they would not sleep so easily. We often make the job of the attacker so easy that applications can be compromised with little effort. We disclose so much information that even an incompetent attacker can figure out how to exploit the application.

Part of the problem is due to a lack of understanding by application developers. This is the issue we try to deal with at OWASP through the Guide, Top Ten List, columns and various other mechanisms. The other part of the problem is due to tools and languages that make secure error handling difficult to implement. In this area, Microsoft has taken a big leap forward with .NET from the ASP error handling model.

Whichever technique or combination of techniques are utilized, all exceptions from the database, file handling, etc. should be caught and logged, but never displayed back to the user. Only general error messages should be displayed back to the user to avoid disclosing internal or sensitive information to an attacker.

For More Information

  1. Exception Handling
  2. Page_Error, Application_Error and Application Configuration File
  3. OWASP Top Ten List - Error Handling

Jeremy Poteet is one of the leaders for the OWASP Guide and an active member of the OWASP Testing Methodology Project. He also acts as the liaison officer for the WAS-TC at OASIS and is a member of the AVDL TC. He is the Chief Security Officer for appDefense and a CISSP. Jeremy is the co-author of "Extreme Programming with Ant" and was the winner of eWeek's OpenHack IV competition.