[ISN] Security holes that run deep

InfoSec News isn at c4i.org
Wed Dec 22 02:34:48 EST 2004


By Mark Burnett
21st December 2004 

A couple of months ago, Toby Beaumont reported an ASP.NET
vulnerability that, depending on the server configuration, allowed
anyone to completely bypass user authentication and access protected
files. Microsoft quickly provided a fix and the issue passed without
much fanfare, mostly because the flaw wasn't widely exploited, and
consequently many people failed to recognize just how serious this
attack vector could be.

For nearly a decade, as the freedom of the Internet gave way to
anarchy, IIS was the target of countless file access and
canonicalization exploits. But Microsoft responded with an aggressive
overhaul that resulted in IIS 6, a Web server that is surprisingly
secure, even with a default installation. In fact, they did such a
great job that IIS security has since become a boring topic.

Although ASP.NET has had some problems, it too has held up fairly
well. But this last flaw revealed that ASP.NET has the potential for
serious vulnerabilities. It's not the vulnerability itself that
concerned me, but what this vulnerability told us about the
foundations of ASP.NET file access.

In a way, it reminds me of the USA PATRIOT Act, passed in response to
the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. Despite concerns over
privacy and the potential for abuse, the new law has not personally
affected anyone I know. Nevertheless, it still troubles me, because it
messes with fundamentals without anyone completely understanding the
future impact of these changes. We really cannot anticipate what
problems we might encounter, especially when this law is combined with
other future laws. If you never mess with basic civil liberties in the
first place, you never have to worry about these complexities in the

That is why this ASP.NET issue concerns me. This isn't politics, but I
see basic rules broken that might lead to complex future issues.

Poor Posture

The specific flaw Beaumont found was deceptively simple: by using a
backslash instead of a forward slash you could access secure ASP.NET
resources that normally required authentication.

So, if accessing www.example.net/secure/private.aspx is supposed to
require authentication, anyone who wants to could still access the
file by entering the URL as www.example.net/secure\private.aspx (or
using %5C instead of the backslash in IE). Even if you set NTFS
permissions to block anonymous users from accessing the file, ASP.NET
still allowed access.

As simple as it was to exploit, the existence of the bug told us a lot
about ASP.NET's basic security posture -- none of it good:

* ASP.NET was not always using NTFS permissions to enforce file

* You can fool ASP.NET by disguising the file path.

* ASP.NET did not properly filter URL requests.

* ASP.NET authentication fails open rather than failing closed.

It turns out that the problem was not with ASP.NET's authentication
code, it was an authorization issue. Authentication validates a user's
identity, but authorization is what determines if authentication needs
to take place. On a typical website, some resources are available to
everyone while other resources are only available to authenticated

The ASP.NET authorization code determines if the resource requires
authentication or not by checking the configuration file of the
current application, and looking for rules that match the requested
URL. If the URL does not match any of those rules, it checks the
configuration of the parent application for a match. If it still finds
no match, it continues up to each parent application until it reaches
the machine configuration. By default, the machine configuration
allows anyone to access anything without authentication.

This means that if you can disguise a URL so that it doesn't match any
rule, you will eventually end up at the default rule that says there
is no need to authenticate you to access this file.

In other words, if ASP.NET thinks everyone is authorized to access the
file, it won't bother running its authentication code to see if a
particular user is authorized to have access. ASP.NET opens the file
with the security context of the ASP.NET machine account (ASPNET),
unless you specifically configure the application to use
impersonation. Therefore it completely bypasses any NTFS permissions
you might have set on the file.

While there were certain limitations that prevented widespread
exploitation of this particular vulnerability, the fact that it was
even possible should have been an alarming announcement. The fact that
they did not follow such basic best practices brings into question
what other vulnerabilities might exist.

Sure, there might never be another serious ASP.NET vulnerability; and
if there are any, they might never be publicly known. But that really
doesn't matter, because that's not the point. The point is that you
must code defensively and follow best practices from the beginning
even if there are no foreseeable weaknesses with your code.

I give the IIS and ASP.NET team much credit for what they have
accomplished so far, but we are all facing a new standard. I'd like to
see them compile a list of specific best practices that they will
never, ever break. Stuff like saying they will always filter URLs, or
they will always fail closed. And then I'd like to see them publish
this list to demonstrate their willingness to stick to these rules.

This obviously isn't just a Microsoft problem, we could all certainly
learn from this lesson. But that doesn't mean Microsoft can't take the
lead in tackling this problem. Whether you are talking about politics
or programming, the concept is the same: follow best practices.


Mark Burnett is an independent security consultant and author who
specializes in securing Windows-based servers. He is co-author of the
best-selling book Stealing the Network (Syngress), and has also
co-authored or contributed to several other books, including Special
OPS: Host and Network Security for Microsoft, UNIX, and Oracle
(Syngress); Maximum Windows Security (SAMS); and Dr. Tom Shinder's ISA
Server and Beyond (Syngress).

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