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Testing for User Input as a Loop Counter (OWASP-DS-005)

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OWASP Testing Guide v3 Table of Contents

This article is part of the OWASP Testing Guide v3. The entire OWASP Testing Guide v3 can be downloaded here.

OWASP at the moment is working at the OWASP Testing Guide v4: you can browse the Guide here

Brief Summary

In this test we check whether it is possible to force the application to loop through a code segment that needs high computing resources, in order to decrease its overall performance.

Description of the Issue

Like the problem of User Specified Object Allocation, if the user can directly or indirectly assign a value that will be used as a counter in a loop function, this can cause performance problems on the server.

The following is an example of vulnerable code in Java:

public class MyServlet extends ActionServlet {
   public void doPost(HttpServletRequest request, HttpServletResponse response)
		   throws ServletException, IOException {
	. . . 
	String [] values = request.getParameterValues("CheckboxField");
      // Process the data without length check for reasonable range – wrong!
	for ( int i=0; i<values.length; i++) {
		// lots of logic to process the request
	. . . 
   . . . 

As we can see in this simple example, the user has control over the loop counter. If the code inside the loop is very demanding in terms of resources, and an attacker forces it to be executed a very high number of times, this might decrease the performance of the server in handling other requests, causing a DoS condition.

Black Box Testing and Examples

If a request is sent to the server with a number that will, for example, be used to read many similar name/value pairs (for example, sending “3” to read input1, input2 and input3 name/value pairs), and if the server does not enforce a hard upper limit to this number, this can cause the application to loop for an extremely long time. The tester in this example may send an extremely large, yet well-formed number to the server, such as 99999999.

Another problem is if a malicious user sends an extremely large number of name/value pairs directly to the server. While the application cannot directly prevent the application server from handling the initial parsing of all the name/value pairs, to prevent a DoS, the application should not loop over everything that has been submitted without putting a limit on the number of name/value pairs to be handled. For example, multiple name/value pairs can be submitted by the tester, each with the same name, but with different values (simulating submission of checkbox fields). So, retrieving the value of that particular name/value pair will return an array of all the values submitted by the browser.

If it is suspected that such an error may have been made in the application, the tester can submit an increasingly large number of repeating name/value pairs in the request body with a small script. If there is a noticeable difference in response times between submitting 10 repetitions and submitting 1000 repetitions, it may indicate a problem of this type.

In general, be sure to check the hidden values that are passed to the application, as they also could play a role in the number of executions of some code segments.

Gray Box Testing and Examples

Knowing some details about the internals of the application might help the tester in locating input values that force the server to heavily loop through the same code. The testing techniques, however, follow the same pattern of the black box testing.