Good morning, Worm, Your Honor

[This was originally posted August 2003 on the now-defunct site before the Samy worm and sophisticated XSS attacks appeared. In the five years since this was first posted, web applications still struggle with fixing XSS and SQL injection vulnerabilities. In fact, it’s still possible to discover web sites that put raw SQL statements in URL parameters.]

With the advent of the Windows RPC-based worm, security pros once again loudly lament the lack of patched servers, security-aware power users once again loudly blast Microsoft for (insert favorite negative adverb here) written code, and company parking lots at midnight still have a few sticker-laden cars of sysadmins fixing the problem. Of course, there are a few differences such as Joe and Jane’s home computers have been caught red-handed showing vulnerable ports (unlike SQL Slammer or the IIS worm of the month which targeted servers not usually found in home networks), but the usual suspects still linger.

In fact, we could diverge onto many different topics when talking about worms. For starters, what’s the point of arguing against full disclosure when worms arise weeks (SQL Slammer, our RPC friend) or months (Nimda and Code Red) AFTER the patch has been released? Obviously, that sidesteps many arguments against full-disclosure but it’s food for thought. What about the plethora of port scanners and one-time “freebie scanners” that security companies pump out to capitalize the hysteria? Yes, there are administrators who don’t know what’s on their network, but I’m willing to bet there’s a larger number of administrators trying to figure out how to test, update, and manage a patch for 100, 1,000, or 5,000+ systems. You can’t release a patch and expect it to be applied to 1,000 servers within 24 hours. The tools to manage the patch process are too few, while the number of scanners is overwhelming. That’s not to say that security scanning isn’t necessary — it’s just a small part of the process. Administrators need help with patch testing, installation, and management.

Okay, so I’ve diverged onto a few topics already; but the one I wanted to highlight is what happens when a worm exploits a Web Application vulnerability? has a nice essay on one concept of such a worm. How easily could one spread? It may not be hard with a SQL injection and xp_cmdshell(). Who will be the scapegoat? It probably won’t involve cute references to “Billy Gates.” You can’t blame administrators for not being able to download a universal patch (although some ISAPI filters or Apache modules could prevent a lot of attacks). In the end, you have to return to the programmers. They must be aware that Web applications have vulnerabilities that don’t fall into the bloated category of “Buffer Overflow.”

Buffer overflows are sexy to report when they involve popular software. Plus, it’s nice to see a group doing security research for fun. Yet when a worm finally targets Web applications, nmap and vulnerability scanners in the nature of nikto or nessus probably won’t cut it when administrators want to check if their Web applications are vulnerable. Instead, they’ll want web application-aware tools to check live systems and code review tools to audit the source code. The proliferation of buffer overflows has led to some useful code review tools and compilers that can spot a minority of potential overflow vulnerabilities. The OWASP is a good start. Hopefully, the tools to audit web applications and review source code will reach a point so that the next worm won’t spread through e-commerce applications. Everyone talks about how much worse a buffer overflow-based worm could have been, but a worm that gathers passwords and collects credit card numbers from an e-commerce application has more implications for the average Internet user than a worm erasing a company’s hard drives.

Published by Mike Shema

Mike works with product security and DevSecOps teams to build safer applications. He also writes about information security, with an infusion of references to music (80s), sci-fi (apocalyptic), and horror (spooky) to keep the topics entertaining. He hosts the Application Security Weekly podcast.

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