This site is the archived OWASP Foundation Wiki and is no longer accepting Account Requests.
To view the new OWASP Foundation website, please visit

Exception Handling

Revision as of 15:58, 29 October 2014 by Bill Sempf (talk | contribs) (Promoted.)

(diff) ← Older revision | Latest revision (diff) | Newer revision → (diff)
Jump to: navigation, search


An exception is any error condition or unexpected behavior that is encountered by your application. There are several key security concerns to be aware of when handling exceptions in .NET web applications:

  • Preventing system information leakage that could aid a malicious user.
  • Ensuring the application fails securely under all circumstances, both expected and not expected.
  • Using a centralized error strategy to reduce points of failure and promote consistency.
  • Log when exceptions are thrown and include sufficient detail for security auditing.

Displaying Errors

When your application displays error messages, it should not give away information that a malicious user might find helpful in attacking your system. For example, if your application fails while attempting to connect to a database, it should not display an error message that includes the connection string being used.

The default display mechanism for unhandled exceptions in ASP.NET is controlled via the <customErrors> element in the web.config file. This element includes a mode attribute that can be set to: Off, On, or RemoteOnly. This mode setting should never be set to Off in a production environment because it will cause exception details to be displayed to the end user which may include sensitive information about the system.

<customErrors mode="RemoteOnly" defaultRedirect="/Error">
  <error statusCode="404" redirect="/Error?id=404" />
  <error statusCode="403" redirect="/Error?id=403" />

HTTP Status Codes

When reviewing error responses be careful that a malicious user is not able to glean any potentially sensitive information about the system from the status code returned. For example: an API search that takes a tenant ID parameter and returns an HTTP 404 response for no results, and an HTTP 500 response if the tenant ID does not exist. An attacker could potentially leverage this information to determine if a tenant ID is valid or not. One solution would be to catch the exception thrown when a supplied tenant ID does not exist, and return an HTTP 404 status code with the error response.

Where to Catch Exceptions

There are a variety of places within a typical web application where exceptions can be caught and logged. First and foremost you want to catch exceptions at an application level and ensure they are handled properly. Often this may be the only location necessary to catch exceptions. In addition to this, handling exceptions at lower levels in the application will give you more control and may provide you with more detailed contextual information.

If you use try/catch blocks to handle exceptions be aware of two concerns:

  1. Avoid using the Exception class but instead use a descendant class that is the most applicable to the condition you are expecting.
  2. Be careful not to just catch an exception and continue processing. Always use the throw statement to re-throw the exception unless you are certain that this will not leave the application in an unexpected and potentially vulnerable state.
catch (SmtpException ex)

Logging Exception Details

Logging exception details is important when you need to properly diagnose error conditions with the system. You don't want this detail to be displayed on an error page because it may inadvertently aid a malicious user in an attack. Logging allows your error pages to display a simple generic message alerting end users that an error has occurred, with possibly some options for contacting support. The detail you need for assisting with these issues will be kept securely in the log store.

You can use several methods to log exception events, including popular third party libraries: log4net, nlog, Common.Logging, etc. An out-of-the-box solution included with .NET is System.Diagnostics Tracing as shown in the code examples in this article. These trace messages can then be written out using trace listeners such as the TextWriterTraceListener configured here.

  <trace autoflush="true">
      <add name="EventTracer" 
        type="System.Diagnostics.TextWriterTraceListener, System, Version=2.0.3600.0, Culture=neutral, PublicKeyToken=b77a5c561934e089" 
        initializeData="<app root directory>\eventtrace.log" />

One benefit to using System.Diagnostics Tracing in your code is that most logging frameworks already support including these events and writing them to a variety of output types.

For detailed security guidance specific to logging see Reviewing Code for Logging Issues.

Application Level

The following code example shows how to create an error handler in the Global.asax.cs file that will catch and log all unhandled ASP.NET errors at the application level. Unhandled exceptions must be logged within Application_Error rather than in a subsequent page defined by <customErrors>, because the exception details are only available at this point.

void Application_Error(object sender, EventArgs e)
  // Get the exception object.
  var exception = Server.GetLastError();

  // Log exception details. Be sure to include items like client IP 
  // address and current authenticated user if applicable.


Use the Server.ClearError() method with caution when handling exceptions. This method will clear the exception state and allow execution to continue rather than displaying an error message to the end user. There are valid scenarios where this is needed, but in general you should avoid this as it could allow a malicious user to bypass security controls if they are somehow able to force an error condition.

ASP.NET Web Forms

ASP.NET web form pages provide the ability to capture exceptions at the page level in a similar fashion to the application level. This may be useful if you need to perform failure handling logic or log additional detail unique to the page.

void Page_Error(object sender, EventArgs e)
  // Get the exception object.
  var exception = Server.GetLastError();

  // Log exception details. Be sure to include items like client IP 
  // address and current authenticated user if applicable.


The MVC Controller class provides an OnException method similar to the Page_Error method in ASP.NET Web Forms. It allows you to process all unhandled exceptions thrown by actions of the controller. One option for implementing exception logging is to create a base controller class and defining the OnException method in this one central location.

protected override void OnException(ExceptionContext filterContext)

A second (and arguably better) approach is to utilize the System.Web.Mvc.HandleErrorAttribute which can be used to handle exceptions at the application, controller, or action level. To apply this at the application level you add an instance of HandleErrorAttribute to the GlobalFilterCollection at application startup. This takes affect before the Application_Error method in Global.asax.cs, and by default will redirect to the Error view in the ~/Views/Shared folder. This will bypass any custom error pages defined via the <customErrors> element in web.config.

public static void RegisterGlobalFilters(GlobalFilterCollection filters)
  filters.Add(new HandleErrorAttribute());

You can log the exception details right within the Error.cshtml view using properties from the view model which is of type System.Web.Mvc.HandleErrorInfo.

@model System.Web.Mvc.HandleErrorInfo

    ViewBag.Title = "Error";
    // Log exception details

<h1 class="text-danger">Error.</h1>
<h2 class="text-danger">An error occurred while processing your request.</h2>


When handling exceptions for your API endpoints you generally want to return a JSON or XML response rather than redirect to an HTML page. ASP.NET Web API provides exception filters to customize how exceptions are handled. A good way of adding exception logging is to derive your own class from System.Web.Http.Filters.ExceptionFilterAttribute and override the OnException method as shown.

public class LogExceptionFilterAttribute : ExceptionFilterAttribute 
  public override void OnException(HttpActionExecutedContext context)

You can apply the [LogExceptionFilter] attribute to any ApiController, or add it at a global level using the following code at application startup.

System.Web.Http.GlobalConfiguration.Configuration.Filters.Add(new LogExceptionFilterAttribute());


By default any exception thrown within Web API will return an HTTP response status code of 500 (Internal Server Error). For more control over the response you can use HttpResponseException as shown.

public Product GetProduct(int id)
    Product item = repository.Get(id);
    if (item == null)
        throw new HttpResponseException(HttpStatusCode.NotFound)
            Content = new StringContent(string.Format("No product with ID = {0}", id)),
            ReasonPhrase = "Product ID Not Found"
    return item;

Web API Global Error Handling (Added in Web API 2.1)

There are a number of cases in Web API where an exception can occur that falls outside of what exception filters can handle. These include exceptions in controller construction, message handlers, routing, and response content serialization. To handle these exceptions you will need to register a class that implements the IExceptionLogger interface, or derives from the ExceptionLogger base class.

public interface IExceptionLogger
  Task LogAsync(ExceptionLoggerContext context, CancellationToken cancellationToken);

You then register your class at application startup to ensure that all exceptions raised during a Web API request life cycle are captured and logged.

System.Web.Http.GlobalConfiguration.Services.Add(typeof(IExceptionLogger), new MyExceptionLogger());

Logging Sensitive Data

Be careful when logging exception details that you do not inadvertently expose sensitive data to a logging system or external reports that may have relaxed access controls compared to the primary system. For example if a SqlException is thrown and the details contain a connection string, you may want to mask the password attribute before logging the event. Use care when logging exception details that may contain the following types of data:

  • Passwords
  • Authentication tokens
  • Personally identifiable information (PII)
  • Personal health information (PHI)
  • Credit card data