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Secure Coding: Attacks and Defenses

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This is an excerpt from Chapter 1: No Straight Thing from the book Secure Coding (ISBN: 0-596-00242-4), written by Mark G. Graff and Kenneth R. van Wyk, published by O'Reilly & Associates.

© Copyright O'Reilly & Associates. All rights reserved.

What is an Attack?

In a general sense, an attack on a system is any maliciously intended act against a system or a population of systems. There are two very important concepts in this definition that are worth pointing out. First, we only say that the act is performed with malicious intent, without specifying any goals or objectives. Second, some attacks are directed at a particular system, while others have no particular target or victim.1 Let's look at these concepts and terms one by one:

The immediate goal of an attack can vary considerably. Most often, though, an attack goal is to damage or otherwise hurt the target, which may include stealing money, services, and so on.
Achieving one or more of the goals above may require first reaching a subgoal, such as being granted elevated privileges or authorizations on the system.
The activities that an attacker engages in are the things that he does that could help him achieve one or more of his subgoals. These could include using stolen login credentials (e.g., username and password); masquerading as a different computer, user, or device; flooding a network with malformed packets; and so on.
The activities mentioned above may result in attack events—improper access could be granted, request processing could be suspended, storage space could be exhausted, or a system or program could be halted.
A further concept, often confused with an attack event, is the business consequence. By this term we mean the direct result of the events, such as financial balance sheets being incorrect, or a computer system being unavailable for a business process.
Lastly, the impact of the attack is the business effect. This could include the tarnishing of a company's reputation, lost revenue, and other effects.

The distinction between the attack event and its business consequence is an important one. The business consequence of an attack depends on the business purpose of the affected system, not on the specific attack actions or events. A direct consequence, for example, might be an inability to process a business transaction, resulting in an impact of loss of revenue. An indirect impact might be the tarnishing of the reputation of the business owner, resulting in an erosion of customer confidence. Figure 1-3 illustrates an example attack, showing the goals, subgoals, and activities of the attacker, along with the events, consequences, and impacts from the perspective of the target enterprise.

We've trotted out this terminology because we've found that it's critical to think clearly and precisely about attacks if we are to prevent them. Does it surprise you to hear that the potential business impact of an attack may be relevant to its prevention? It is. Knowing what is at stake is an essential part of making good design decisions about which defense mechanisms you will use.

How Would You Attack?

How do attackers attack systems? Part of the how depends on the why. Some want to probe, but do no harm. Others are out to steal. Some seek to embarrass. A few want only to destroy or win bragging rights with their cronies. While we can't anticipate all possible motivations, we will try to think with you about how someone only moderately clever might approach the problem of compromising the security of your application.

Consider a safecracker. If he is a professional, he probably owns specialized safecracking tools (a stethoscope—we are told—comes in handy). He probably also has a thorough knowledge of each target vault's construction and operation, and access to useful technical documentation. He uses that knowledge to his advantage in manipulating the safe's combination knob, its internal tumblers, and so on, until he manages (or fails) to open the safe.

Click here for a larger image.

Figure 1-3. Attack activities, events, goals, and business consequences

In an analogous attack on an application system, the miscreant arms himself with knowledge of a system (and tools to automate the application of the knowledge) and attempts to crack the target system.

Ah, but there are so many ways into a safe! A bank robber who doesn't have the finesse of a safecracker can still put on a ski mask and enter the bank during business hours with a gun. If we were planning such an attack, we might masquerade as a pair of armored car security officers and enter the vault with the full (albeit unwitting) assistance of the bank staff. Bribery appeals to us—hypothetically, of course—as well. How about you? Would you blast your way in?

There have been many good studies about the motivations and mind-sets of the kinds of people and personalities who are likely to attack your software. That's a book in itself, and in the Appendix, we point you to a few good ones. In this chapter, we'll simply encourage you to keep in mind the many facets of software and of the minds of your attackers. Once you have begun to ask what can happen, and how (and maybe why), we believe you're on your way to enforcing application security. In the case studies at the end of this chapter, we'll provide examples of constructive worrying we encourage you to do, as well as examples of what could happen if you don't worry enough.

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This article was originally published on July 16, 2003

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