This article was originally published in the April 2016 edition of the php[architect] magazine in the "Security Corner" column.
In my previous column I talked about legacy applications and provided some general "quick hit" tips to help you secure your application. I'm going to continue the same theme this month and offer a few more helpful hints you can use immediately. You'll notice as I go through these points that they all have something in common - they're relatively generic. Legacy applications are a whole different beast when it comes to the mish-mash of technologies, development practices and naming conventions. Unfortunately this also means there's no way to really effectively secure it without a good look at how it's doing things.
Consider this a word of warning that your mileage may vary when it comes to applying these tips. Don't expect that, if you treat these like a checklist, your application will be magically secure. After all, most of the security issues (probably 9 times out of 10) come from the integration of functionality and tools, not the tools themselves.
If you've done any reading about application security, you'll see one theme mentioned over and over: "don't trust the user". What this basically boils down to for you the developer is that any of the input you get for your application to use should be considered tainted. I briefly touched on this in the section about ``$_REQUEST` in last month's article, but I want to expand on it a bit further here and offer suggestions on how you can avoid using potentially malicious data. There's two key things to think about when working with input: validation and filtering.
As a side note, there's a difference between "filtering" and "escaping" though many will use those terms interchangeably. Filtering is the act of taking the data passed in and removing malicious/bad data from it before use while escaping is taking the data provided and removing the malicious content prior to output.
The basic definition of "validation" is ensuring that the data you've been given is what you're expecting. If you're looking for a US phone number, you definitely want the three-three-four format (or just 10 digits without country code). Same with things like social security numbers or credit card numbers - you know what they're supposed to look like so you can verify that structure. That's all validation is - verifying the structure and type of the incoming data. Some, like the numbers I mentioned before, are easier to judge but others, like free-form text, are a bit more difficult. In that case you have to determine what kind of text you might allow (hint: usually denying HTML content is a good place to start).
Here's some examples of validation:
- Structured data (like phone numbers or credit card numbers) - URLs - Email addresses - Required
Required? Yep, that's technically a kind of validation too. Most people think of it as something separate but it should be treated the same as any other rule. While there are solutions for validation built in to PHP (like
filter_var) I recommend pulling in a good validation library that lets you make more complex validations. There's a great one from Particle-PHP project, the Particle\Validator library, that "makes validation fun" with an easy-to-use fluent interface. So, for example, say we wanted to verify that the string the user gave us exists, is a certain length and is only alpha-numeric characters. While we could use PHP itself to do these kinds of checks (
strlen and a regular expression), the library makes it a one line affair:
<?php $validator->required('input')->lengthBetween(2, 10)->alnum(); ?>
By running that through the validator and providing it with the data to check, you can easily check for a match. Some frameworks will also come with their own validators. Laravel, for example, makes a validator available in its controllers for easy use. You can just pass the request itself in to it and define the rules as an array:
$this->validate($request, [ 'email_address' => 'required|email' ]);
There's plenty of options out there but for legacy applications I highly recommend pulling in a library and creating validation that way. You could even introduce it at a model layer (you've refactored to use models, right?) and run a
validate() method to make the logic reusable.
Another relatively easy security feature to introduce into your legacy application is the idea of Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF) tokens. These are randomly generated tokens that in effect prove that the data being submitted did come from your site. Here's how they work:
Usually the form field will look something like:
<input type="hidden" name="_csrf_token" value="3441df0babc2a2dda551d7cd39fb235bc4e09cd1e4556bf261bb49188f548348"/>
And the code to generate the hash is relatively easy too:
$hash = hash('sha256', openssl_random_pseudo_bytes(256));
What problem are we trying to solve here? Well, because of the way the web works, any site can make a request to any other site using one of the HTTP methods (like
PUT, etc). This means that a completely different site could be sending a
POST request to yours with whatever data they'd like. By introducing these tokens you can outright dismiss these outside submissions and drop the data they've given.
There's a few tricks to using these tokens to keep in mind too:
These two suggestions are a bit more complex than the ones in the previous article but they're still things that are completely within reach when refactoring for security in your legacy application. While the CSRF tokens are a bit more of a "quick hit" the validation will probably take longer to get right, especially if your software is currently accepting a wide range of potential data and not just simple form posts. Keep in mind, though, that one of our main goals is to simplify. These suggestions are relatively simple but could get overwhelming pretty quickly if you're not careful. As the famous author Ralph Waldo Emerson once said "Nothing is more simple than greatness; indeed, to be simple is to be great."
With over 12 years of PHP experiece and a focus on application security Chris is on a quest to bring his knowledge to the masses, making application security accessible to everyone. He also provides application security training and consulting services.