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CRV2 SecurityAlerts

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This is a draft version


How will your code and applications react when something has gone wrong? Many companies that follow secure design and coding principals do so to prevent attackers from getting into their network, however many companies do not consider designing and coding for the scenario where an attacker may have found a vulnerability, or has already exploited it to run code within a companies firewalls (i.e. within the Intranet).

Many companies employ SIEM logging technologies to monitor network and OS logs for patterns that detect suspicions activity, this section aims to further encourage application layers and interfaces to do the same.


This section concentrates on:

  1. design and code that allows the user to react when a system is being attacked
  2. concepts allowing applications to flag when they have been breached

When a company implements secure design and coding, it will have the aim of preventing attackers from misusing the software and accessing information they should not have access to. Input validation checks for SQL injections, XSS, CSRF, etc should prevent attackers from being able to exploit these types of vulnerabilities against the software. However how should software react when an attacker is attempting to breach the defenses, or the protections have been breached?

For an application to alert to security issues, it needs context on what is 'normal' and what constitutes a security issue. This will differ based on the application and the context within which it is running. In general applications should not attempt to log every item that occurs as the excessive logging will slow down the system, fill up disk or DB space, and make it very hard to filter through all the information to find the security issue.

At the same time, if not enough information is monitored or logged, then security alerting will be very hard to do based on the available information. To achieve this balance an application could use it's own risk scoring system, monitoring at a system level what risk triggers have been spotted (i.e. invalid inputs, failed passwords, etc.) and use different modes of logging. Take an example of normal usage, in this scenario only critical items are logged. However if the security risk is perceived to have increased, then major or security level items can be logged and acted upon. This higher security risk could also invoke further security functionality as described later in this section.

Take an example where an online form (post authentication) allows a user to enter a month of the year. Here the UI is designed to give the user a drop down list of the months (January through to December). In this case the logged in user should only ever enter one of 12 values, since they typically should not be entering any text, instead they are simply selecting one of the pre-defined drop down values.

If the server receiving this form has followed secure coding practices, it will typically check that the form field matches one of the 12 allowed values, and then considers it valid. If the form field does not match, it returns an error, and may log a message in the server. This prevents the attacker from exploiting this particular field, however this is unlikely to deter an attacker and they would move onto other form fields.

In this scenario we have more information available to us than we have recorded. We have returned an error back to the user, and maybe logged an error on the server. In fact we know a lot more; an authenticated user has entered an invalid value which they should never have been able to do (as it's a drop down list) in normal usage. This could be due to a few reasons:

  1. There's a bug in the software and the user is not malicious
  2. An attacker has stolen the users login credentials and is attempting to attack the system
  3. A user has logged in but has a virus/trojan which is attempting to attack the system
  4. A user has logged in but is experiencing a man-in-the-middle attack
  5. A user is not intending to be malicious but has somehow changed the value with some browser plugin, etc.

If it's the first case above, then the company should know about it to fix their system. If it's case 2, 3 or 3 then the application should take some action to protect itself and the user, such as reducing the functionality available to the user (i.e. no PII viewable, can't change passwords, can't perform financial transactions) or forcing further authentication such as security questions or out-of-band authentication. The system could also alert the user to the fact that the unexpected input was spotted and advise them to run antivirus, etc, thus stopping an attack when it is underway.

Obviously care must be taken in limiting user functionality or alerting users encase it's an honest mistake, so using a risk score or noting session alerts should be used. For example, if everything has been normal in the browsing session and 1 character is out of place, then showing a red pop-up box stating the user has been hacked is not reasonable, however if this is not the usual IP address for the user, they have logged in at an unusual time, and this is the 5th malformed entry with what looks like an SQL injection string, then it would be reasonable for the application to react. This possible reaction would need to be stated in legal documentation.

In another scenario, if an attacker has got through the application defenses extracted part of the applications customer database, would the company know? Splitting information in the database into separate tables makes sense from an efficiency point of view, but also from a security view, even putting confidential information into a separate partition can make it harder for the attacker. However if the attacker has the information it can be hard to detect and applications should make steps to aid alerting software (e.g. SIEM systems). Many financial institutions use risk scoring systems to look at elements of the users session to give a risk score, if Johnny always logs in at 6pm on a Thursday from the same IP, then we have a trusted pattern. If suddenly Johnny logs in at 2:15am from an IP address on the other side of the world, after getting the password wrong 7 times, then maybe he's jetlagged after a long trip, or perhaps his account has been hacked. Either way, asking him for out-of-band authentication would be reasonable to allow Johnny to log in, or to block an attacker from using Johnnys account.

If the application takes this to a larger view, it can determine that on a normal day 3% of the users log on in what would be considered a riskier way, i.e. different IP address, different time, etc. If on Thursday it sees this number rise to 23% then has something strange happened to the user base, or has the database been hacked? This type of information can be used to enforce a blanket out-of-band authentication (and internal investigation of the logs) for the 23% of 'riskier' users, thereby combining the risk score for the user with the overall risk score for the application.

Another good option is 'honey accounts' which are usernames and passwords that are never given out to users. These accounts are added just like any other user, and stored in the DB, however they are also recorded in a special cache and checked on login. Since they are never given to any user, no user should ever logon with them, however if one of those accounts are used, then the only way that username password combination could be known is if an attacker got the database, and this information allows the application to move to a more secure state and alert the company that the DB has been hacked.

What to Review

When reviewing code modules from an security alerting point of view, some common issues to look out for include:

  • Will the application know if it's being attacked? Does it ignore invalid inputs, logins, etc or does it log them and monitor this state to capture a cumulative perception of the current risk to the system?
  • Can the application automatically change it's logging level to react to security threats? Is changing security levels dynamic or does it require a restart?
  • Does the SDLC requirements or design documentation capture what would constitute a security alert? Has this determination been peer reviewed? Does the testing cycle run through these scenarios?
  • Does the system employ 'honey accounts' such that the application will know if the DB has been compromised?
  • Is there a risk based scoring system that records the normal usage of users and allows for determination or reaction if the risk increases?
  • If a SIEM system is being used, have appropriate triggers been identified? Has automated tests been created to ensure those trigger log messages are not accidentally modified by future enhancements or bug fixes?
  • Does the system track how many failed login attempts a user has experienced? Does the system react to this?
  • Does certain functionality (i.e. transaction initiation, changing password, etc) have different modes of operation based on the current risk score the application is currently operating within?
  • Can the application revert back to 'normal' operation when the security risk score drops to normal levels?
  • How are administrators alerted when security risk score rises? Or when a breach has been assumed? At an operational level, is this tested regularly? How are changes of personnel handled?