Dev Week -- Writing secure software -- kees -- Wed Sep 2nd, 2009

15:05:31 - 15:56:21 UTC (Reformated from IRC log, important things highlighted.)

So, if I understand correctly, discussion and questions are in #ubuntu-classroom-chat. I'll be watching in there for stuff marked with QUESTION: so feel free to ask away. Smile :)

This session is a relatively quick overview on ways to try to keep software more secure. I kind of think of it as a "best-pratices" review.

Given that there is a lot of material in this area, I try to talor my topics to langauges people are familiar with. As a kind of "show of hands", out of HTML, JavaScript, C, C++, Perl, Python, SQL, what are people familiar with? (just shout out on the -chat channel) (oh, and Ruby) Okay, cool, looks like a pretty wide variety. Smile :)

I'm adapting this overview from some slides I used to give at talk at the Oregon State University. You can find that here:

The main thing about secure coding is to take an "offensive" attitude when testing your software. If you think to yourself "the user would never type _that_", then you probably want to rethink it. Smile :) I have two opposing quotes: "given enough eyeballs all bugs are shallow" - Eric Raymond, and "most people ... don't explicitly look for security bugs" - John Viega I think both are true -- if enough people start thinking about how their code could be abused by some bad-guy, we'll be better able to stop them.

So, when I say "security", what do I mean? Basically... I mean a bug with how the program functions that allows another person to change the behavior against the desire of the main user. If someone can read all my cookies out of firefox, that's bad. If someone can become root on my server, that's bad, etc. So, I tend to limit this overview to stuff like gaining access, reading or writing someone else's data, causing outages, etc.

Cross Site Scripting

I'll start with programming for the web. When handling input in CGIs, etc, it needs to be carefully handled. The first example of mis-handling input is "Cross Site Scripting" ("XSS").

If someone puts <b>hi</b> in some form data, and the application returns exactly that, then the bad-guy can send arbitrary HTML. Output needs to be filtered for html entites. Luckily, a lot of frameworks exist for doing the right thing: Catalyst (Perl), Smarty (PHP), Django (Python), Rail (Ruby).

Cross Site Request Forgery

Another issue is Cross Site Request Forgery (CSRF).

The issue here is that HTTP was designed so that "GET" (urls) would be for reading data, and "POST" (forms) would be used for changing data. If back-end data changes as a result of a "GET", you may have a CSRF.

I have a demo of this here: lets users add "favorite" movies to their lists. But it operates via a URL So, if I put that URL on my website, and you're logged into imdb, I can make changes to your imdb account. So, use forms. Smile :) (or "nonces", though I won't go into that for the moment)

SQL injection

Another form of input validation is SQL. If SQL queries aren't escaped, you can end up in odd situations.

{{{SELECT secret FROM users WHERE password = '$password'}}}

With that SQL, what happens if the supplied password is ' OR 1=1 --? It'll be true and will allow logging in.

My rule of thumb is to _always_ use the SQL bindings that exist for your language, and to never attempt to manually escape strings. So, for perl

    my $query = $self->{'dbh'}->prepare(
        "SELECT secret FROM users
         WHERE password = ?");

This lets the SQL library you're using do the escaping. It's easier to maintain, and it's much safer in the long-run. Some examples of SQL and XSS are seen here:

If I put: <blink>oh my eyes</blink> in the form, it'll pass through if I put:   ' OR 1=1 -- in the form, I log in, etc. seeks to solve these problems.

"GET the files"

Another thing about web coding is to think about where files live. Yet another way around the sql-bad.cgi example is to just download the SQLite database it's using. So, either keeping files out the documentroot, or protecting them: So, moving from web to more language agnostic stuff.

Invoking executables

When your need to use "system()", go find a better method. If you're constructing a system()-like call with a string, you'll run into problems. you always want to implement this with an array. python's for example. This stops the program from being run in a shell (where arguments may be processes or split up).

For example,

  • no good: system("ls -la $ARGV[0]");
  • better: system("ls","-la",$ARGV[0]);
  • best: system("ls","-la","--",$ARGV[0]);

In array context, the arguments are passed directly. In string context, the first argument may be processed in other ways.

Temporary files

Handling temporary files is another area. Static files or files based on process id, etc, shouldn't be used since they are easily guessed. All languages have some kind of reasonable safe temp-file-creation method. File::Temp in perl, tempfile in python, "mktemp" in shell, etc i.e. bad: TEMPFILE="/tmp/kees.$$" good: TEMPFILE=$(mktemp -t kees-XXXXXX)

Examples of this as well as a pid-racer are in

Secrets in memory

Keep data that is normally encrypted out of memory. So things like passwords should be erased from memory (rather than just freed) once they're done being used. Example of this is Once the password is done being used:

    fclose(stdin);               // drop system buffers
    memset(password,0,PASS_LEN); // clear out password storage memory

Then you don't have to worry about leaving it in core-dump files, etc


For encrypted communications, using SSL should actually check certificates. Clients should use a Certificate Authority list (apt-get install ca-cerificates, and use /etc/ssl/certs). Servers should get a certificate authority. The various SSL bindings will let you define a "check cert" option, which is, unfortunately, not on by default. Sad :(


One item I mentioned early on as a security issue is blocking access to a service, usually through a denial of service. One accidental way to make a server program vulnerable to this is to use "assert()" or "abort()" in the code. Normally, using asserts is a great habit to catch errors in client software. Unfortunately, if an assert can be reached while you're processing network traffic, it'll take out the entire service. Those kinds of programs should abort on if absolutely unable to continue (and should gracefully handle unexpected situations).

C stuff

Switching over to C/C++ specific issues for a bit... One of C's weaknesses is its handling of arrays (and therefore strings). Since it doesn't have built-in boundary checking, it's up to the programmer to do it right. As a result, lengths of buffers should always be used when performing buffer operations.

Functions like strcpy, sprintf, gets, strcat should not be used, because they don't know how big a buffer might be. Using strncpy, snprintf, fgets, etc is much safer. Though be careful you're measureing the right buffer. Smile :)

char buf[80];
strncpy(buf,argv[1],strlen(argv[1]))    is no good

You need to use buf's len, not the source string.

It's not "how much do I want to copy" but rather "how much space can I use?"

Another tiny glitch is with format strings. printf(buffer); should be done with printf("%s", buffer); otherwise, whatever is in buffer would be processes for format strings. Instead of "hello %x" you'd get "hello 258347dad". I actually have a user on my system named %x%x%n%n just so I can catch format string issues in Gnome more easily. Smile :)

The last bit to go over for C in this overview is calculating memory usage. If you're about to allocate memory for something, where did the size come from? malloc(x * y) could wrap around an "int" value and result in less than x * y being allocated. This one is less obvious, but the example is here: malloc(5 * 15) will be safe, but what about malloc (1294967000 * 10) Using MAX_INT to get it right helps. (I need to get an example of _good_ math.)


So, the biggest thing to help defend against these various glitches is testing.

  • Try putting HTML into form data, URLs, etc.
  • See what kinds of files are written in /tmp.
  • Try putting giant numbers through allocations.
  • Put format strings as inputs.
  • Try to think about how information is entering a program, and how that data is formulated.

There are a lot of unit-test frameworks (python-unit, Test::More, CxxTest, check). Give them a try. Smile :)

As for projects in general, it's great if a few days during a development cycle can be dedicated to looking for security issues.

Expoitng C stuff

That's about all I've got for this quick overview. I've left some time for questions, if there are any?

  • QUESTION: how could the malloc thing be a security problem?

So, the example I tried to use ( is like a tool that processes an image. In the example, it starts by reading the size. Then allocates space for it And then starts filling it in, one row at a time. If we ended up allocating 10 bytes where we're reading 100, we end up with a buffer overflow. In some situations, those can be exploitable.

  • QUESTION: what security issues are there with streams? (in C++)

I'm not aware of anything to shy away from that implementation. Obviously, where the stream is attached (/tmp/prog.$$) should be examined. But I haven't seen issues with streams before. (Maybe I'm missing something in how C++ handles formatting.)

As it happens, Ubuntu's compiler will try to block a lot of the more common C buffer mistakes, including stack overflows. glibc will block heap overflows, and the kernel is set up to block execution of heap or stack memory. So a lot of programs that would have had security issues are just crashes instead. This can't really help design failures, though.

Well, that's about it, so I'll clear out of the way. Thanks for listening, and if other questions pop to mind, feel free to catch me on freenode or via email

  • QUESTION: will ubuntu stay with apparmor or wil it move to Selinux?

Both are available in Ubuntu (and will remain available). There hasn't been a good reason to leave AppArmor as a default yet, so we're sticking with that.

MeetingLogs/devweek0909/SecureSoftware (last edited 2009-11-01 02:08:42 by mail)