Web Security : Seeking Design Flaws - Bypassing Required Navigation, Attempting Privileged Operations

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1. Bypassing Required Navigation

1.1. Problem

If navigation between protected areas of your web application is easily predictable and weakly enforced, it may be possible to skip some protections by directly requesting pages out of order. This recipe demonstrates how to predict navigation and then attempt to bypass it.

1.2. Solution

By far, the easiest way to predict navigation is to follow the required course, then go back and use what you have learned to skip a step. For instance, imagine a shopping cart system that uses the following URLs in sequence:






What happens if a user pastes in the confirmOrder.asp URL immediately after verifying their address? If the sequence of the order were weakly enforced and poorly validated, conceivably the order would be shipping without ever having been paid for!

In order to discover this weakness, all one must do is place a valid order, record the appropriate URLs, and use this information the next time to navigate to an out-of-sequence URL.

1.3. Discussion

While the example above is somewhat trivial, this particular vulnerability is quite common. Another variation on this theme is to include parameters in the URL that indicate the current state of the process. If you see a URL like, you should consider what happens if you change that to Many software-download websites try to force users to enter a name and email address before downloading free or trial versions of software. Very often a quick glance at the HTML source will tell you where the download link is. You can directly browse to that link without entering a name or email address.

There are many ways to prevent this vulnerability, such as using formal authentication or authorization, or just keeping a checklist of visited pages in session data. The difficult part is identifying a sequence as required and what the various paths are. As these paths are essentially state information about the user, state transition diagrams can be particularly helpful during test design.

You may be familiar with state transition diagrams from software development. Traditionally, state transition diagrams formalize the legitimate pathways through the system. By following a few valid paths, one can test many states sequentially. However, in this case you should use the state transition diagram to identify and attempt the invalid transitions. This removes the efficiencies normally associated with state transition test design, but still helps identify good security tests.

While predictable IDs represent the majority of cases, there are other forms of unprotected predictable navigation. The most classic example is perhaps the default administrator account. Many software packages are shipped with a default administrator account, accessible via an admin page with a default password. Do not let default admin pages remain exposed without a custom password (and perhaps not even then)! The default admin password will usually be specified in the documentation for all to see. This example is so well known that it’s become something of a cliché, but a quick Google query reveals that many, many applications still expose admin pages ( The lesson here is: when using software packages, always check to ensure that the passwords and settings have been changed from the default or that the defaults are built to be secure.

Beware Bypassing Navigation

At a major university, the Psychology 101 course was extremely popular with as many as 500 or more students enrolled in any given semester. The professor and teaching assistants found it cumbersome to proctor and grade exams for so many students, so they built an online exam system. Exams could be taken in computer labs, scored immediately, and the grades could be more easily tracked and curved.

Each exam required the student to answer all the questions, then it showed the student her score and ultimately revealed the questions she got wrong—along with the correct answers. The online exam system allowed students to take previous years’ exams from home, just like proctored exams, except they could be taken by anyone at any time.

While taking a practice exam, one student discovered that you could skip to the answer page prior to submitting the questions! While the page indicated that the student got every answer wrong, it clearly displayed the correct answers. Using this information, the student could then go back to the question portion of the exam and submit the correct answers. The proctored exams fell prey to this technique as well.

Rather than face these sorts of issues, the professor decided to scrap all online exams and resort to pencil and paper—and video record the entire lecture hall during tests.

One dilemma here is that HTTP is inherently stateless; you cannot depend on HTTP alone for information on what the user has done. The advent of links makes it easy to design navigable paths through an application. Yet it’s just as easy to navigate to a page even if a link isn’t explicitly provided—nobody has to obey the suggested route unless programmatically enforced.

2. Attempting Privileged Operations

2.1. Problem

Privileged or administrative features need to be protected from general use. In order to ensure that such features are protected by a basic level of authentication, this recipe walks you through a simple attempt at privilege escalation.

2.2. Solution

Log in as an administrator or user with special privileges. Navigate to a page that requires these privileges, containing links or forms that trigger actions that only such special users can perform. Copy the current URL as well as the links for each of these actions. If the page contains forms, try saving the page to your local machine in order to capture them. With this data in hand, log out of your privileged user role and log in as a regular user or guest. For each URL and link, paste the link into your address bar. If the page is accessible and allows a regular user account or guest to perform privileged operations, you’ve identified a privilege escalation issue.

For form submissions, edit the local copy of the saved form to ensure that the form action directs to your test server rather than your local machine. For example, if the form used a relative path of "formSubmit/submit.php" then you’d need to append the URL you noted first, such as "" to it, to become action="".

After you’ve logged in as a regular or guest user, submit this form from your local machine to your web application. If it triggers the same action as it would for an administrator, this would be a privilege escalation issue.

2.3. Discussion

You’re not always just defending from unauthenticated attackers. The most sophisticated attacks will come from within. Your own users will know your application better than anyone else and already have a level of authentication beyond a guest. You don’t need many users before one will start poking around, attempting common attacks.

The test described above looks for vertical privilege escalation, which is trying to get a higher level of access than intended. Another variant of this test identifies horizontal privilege escalation, which is accessing another similar users account. Instead of using a URL with administrator privileges, use a URL with another user’s query parameters. If by pasting a URL containing certain identifiers you are able to access another user’s account, you’ve found a horizontal privilege escalation issue.

This kind of testing, where you login as one user and paste his URL into another user’s session, seems pretty straightforward. Is it really remarkable? It turns out that most commercial, automated web test tools do not test very effectively for these sorts of issues. By adding either manual or automated tests of this sort to your test process, you will be performing tests that you cannot get from software that costs tens of thousands of dollars.

3. Abusing Password Recovery

3.1. Problem

If your application has a password recovery feature, you need to examine it for the kinds of data it might leak about your users or for vulnerabilities that cause security failures.

3.2. Solution

There are several types of password recovery mechanisms, but they generally fall into three categories:

Personal secret

When registering, the application will record several verification facts. These typically include obscure details of one’s life history—such as the name of one’s high school or make and model of one’s car. This secret serves as a backup password (one that is not likely to be forgotten).

Email recovery

The unique identity and access provided by an email account serve as an alternative way to contact a person and thus verify their identity. This method depends on the security and privacy of an email address.

Administrated recovery

The user, upon forgetting the password, is prompted to contact an administrator. Whether by phone, email, or even in person—the administrator is responsible for verifying the user’s identity prior to password recovery.

Each of these methods has strengths and weaknesses. Administrated recovery is the most difficult to hack anonymously or remotely. However, it has long been revealed that people are often the weakest link in a security setup. Social engineering can go a long way. Email recovery is also difficult to crack, although arguably less secure than the real human contact of administrated recovery. Email accounts are rarely truly secure; to depend on email for password recovery means relying upon a third party for security.

This leaves the personal secret as the most-likely-to-be-hacked password recovery mechanism. There is the case where a particular user is targeted (and thus the attacker can learn the mother’s maiden name, name of first significant other, or other “secret” information). However, this is impossible to test.

If your application includes a personal secret password recovery mechanism, you must ensure that the personal secrets are somehow more secure than the password itself! These personal secrets will generally not include numerals or special characters—as passwords often do. They will likely be short, common names or phrases. These attributes make them very easy to attack.

For example, if your application allows you three chances to answer a security question to verify identity and that question happens to be “What was the make and model of your first car?”, then you may be vulnerable to a basic dictionary attack. There are a very limited number of vehicle models sold—and even in this set, an attacker would attempt the most popular models first. Given the sales trends in the United States for the last 10 years or so, one could attempt “Toyota Camry,” then “Toyota Corolla,” and finally “Honda Civic.” These three cars cover a good 10–15% of the American population. If one was able to try this attack against 1,000 or so user accounts, it is certain that a number of accounts would be compromised.

3.3. Discussion

This attack is essentially the same as attempting a great number of passwords, just with a different form of user authentication. Standard practice is to record several personal secrets, and then prompt the user for three of them during password recovery. This does help reduce the chances of infiltration, but does not completely remove it. Consider the following three questions:

  • What was your mother’s maiden name?

  • What was the name of your first childhood pet?

  • What was the name of your first significant other?

Because names are not distributed randomly, there is a very high chance of one of these questions being the most common name in that type. For example, an attacker could try “Smith,” “Rosie,” and “Emily.” These are statistically common names for each of these questions. Asking three questions does reduce the chance of any one attack getting through. If the odds were 10% for a single question, the odds here are closer to 0.1%. Still, given enough accounts to try, that represents the potential to access a few accounts per thousand attempts.

Defense against these dictionary attacks is relatively straightforward. By the time an attacker is attempting thousands of combinations, significant processing power is required. This is not going to be a manual process—an attacker will automate it. There are many methods of defense, but one of the most popular is CAPTCHA ( It tries to force the user to enter letters that they see on the screen to prove that they are a human, as opposed to an automated computer program. The images that are displayed are specially designed to be hard for computers to decipher, but easy enough for a human.

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