Secure Programming: the Seven Pernicious Kingdoms: Page 2

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1.1 Defensive Programming Is Not Enough

The term defensive programming often comes up in introductory programming courses. Although it is increasingly given a security connotation, historically it has referred only to the practice of coding with the mindset that errors are inevitable and that, sooner or later, something will go wrong and lead to unexpected conditions within the program. Kernighan and Plauger call it “writing the program so it can cope with small disasters” [Kernighan and Plauger, 1981]. Good defensive programming requires adding code to check one’s assumptions. The term defensive programming is apt, particularly in introductory programming courses, because often novice programmers are there own worst enemy; by and large, the defenses serve to reveal logic errors made by the programmer. Good defensive programming makes bugs both easier to find and easier to diagnose.

But defensive programming does not guarantee secure software (although the notion of expecting anomalies is very much a step in the right direction). When we talk about security, we assume the existence of an adversary—someone who is intentionally trying to subvert the system. Instead of trying to compensate for typical kinds of accidents (on the part of either the programmer or the user), software security is about creating programs that behave correctly even in the presence of malicious behavior. Consider the following C function that prints a message to a specified file descriptor without performing any error checking:

void printMsg(FILE* file, char* msg) { fprintf(file, msg); }

If either argument to this function is null, the program will crash. Programming defensively, we might check to make sure that both input parameters are non-null before printing the message, as follows:

void printMsg(FILE* file, char* msg) { if (file == NULL) { logError("attempt to print message to null file"); } else if (msg == NULL) { logError("attempt to print null message"); } else { fprintf(file, msg); } }

From a security perspective, these checks simply do not go far enough. Although we have prevented a caller from crashing the program by providing null values, the code does not account for the fact that the value of the msg parameter itself might be malicious. By providing msg as the format string argument to fprintf(), the code leaves open the possibility that an attacker could specify a malicious format string designed to carry out a format string attack. (Chapter 6, “Buffer Overflow,” discusses format string vulnerabilities in detail.) If an attacker can slip in a message that looks something like this, the attacker could potentially take control of the program:

secure programming code

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This attempt at defensive programming shows how a straightforward approach to solving a programming problem can turn out to be insecure. The people who created the programming languages, libraries, frameworks, protocols, and conventions that most programmers build upon did not anticipate all the ways their creations would be assailed. Because of a design oversight, format strings became an attack vector, and seemingly reasonable attempts at error handling turn out to be inadequate in the face of attack.

A security-conscious programmer will deprive an attacker of the opportunity this vulnerability represents by supplying a fixed format string.

void printMsg(FILE* file, char* msg) { if (file == NULL) { logError("attempt to print message to null file"); } else if (msg == NULL) { logError("attempt to print null message"); } else { fprintf(file, "%.128s", msg); } }

In considering the range of things that might go wrong with a piece of code, programmers tend to stick with their experience: The program might crash, it might loop forever, or it might simply fail to produce the desired result. All of these failure modes are important, but preventing them does not lead to software that stands up to attack. Historically, programmers have not been trained to consider the interests or capabilities of an adversary. This results in code that might be well defended against the types of problems that a programmer is familiar with but that is still easy for an attacker to subvert.

1.2 Security Features != Secure Features

Sometimes programmers do think about security, but more often than not, they think in terms of security features such as cryptographic ciphers, passwords, and access control mechanisms. As Michael Howard, a program manager on the Microsoft Security Engineering Team, says, “Security features != Secure features” [Howard and LeBlanc, 2002]. For a program to be secure, all portions of the program must be secure, not just the bits that explicitly address security. In many cases, security failings are not related to security features at all. A security feature can fail and jeopardize system security in plenty of ways, but there are usually many more ways in which defective nonsecurity features can go wrong and lead to a security problem. Security features are (usually) implemented with the idea that they must function correctly to maintain system security, but nonsecurity features often fail to receive this same consideration, even though they are often just as critical to the system's security.

Programmers get this wrong all the time; as a consequence, they stop thinking about security when they need to be focusing on it. Consider this misguided quote from BEA’s documentation for WebLogic [BEA, 2004]:

Since most security for Web applications can be implemented by a system administrator, application developers need not pay attention to the details of securing the application unless there are special considerations that must be addressed in the code. For programming custom security into an application, WebLogic Server application developers can take advantage of BEA-supplied Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) for obtaining information about subjects and principals (identifying information for users) that are used by WebLogic Server. The APIs are found in the weblogic.security package.

Imagine a burglar who wants to break into your house. He might start by walking up to the front door and trying to turn the doorknob. If the door is locked, he has run into a security feature. Now imagine that the door’s hinges are on the outside of the house. The builder probably didn’t think about the hinge in relation to security; the hinges are by no means a security feature—they are present so that the door will meet the “easy to open and close” requirement. But now it’s unlikely that our burglar will spend time trying to pick the lock or pry open the door. He’ll simply lift out the hinge bolts and remove the door. Home builders stopped making this mistake long ago, but in the world of software security, this sort of goof-up still happens on a remarkably regular basis.

Instead of discussing ways to implement security features or make use of prepackaged security modules or frameworks, we concentrate on identifying and avoiding common mistakes in code that are not necessarily related to any security feature. We occasionally discuss security features, but only in the context of common implementation errors.

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