This post was published in April 2011, so the information in the post or about me in the sidebar may no longer be correct.

Web Application Cracking Workshop #1

Yesterday I was at the Hackspace to learn about web exploits and security testing from Darren McDonald. The following is a write-up of what we did and learnt that afternoon.

The brief warning we were given at the beginning went something like this: if you try and compromise somebody’s machine without their permission, you stand a decent chance of being prosecuted under the Computer Misuse Act. Which probably means never getting a job involving computers again. All the hardware we were trying to break yesterday was owned by Darren.

To start, we were pointed to the (free) Burp Suite and shown how to intercept HTTP requests by proxying traffic through Every request and response is shown in Burp before being passed on, with the option to modify any part of the request before it reaches the server.

As a web developer, I’d always heard that relying on client-side validation was A Bad Idea, but I’d never seen just what can happen if you don’t validate input server-side. The moral of the story?

If you’re relying on the browser to provide decent, well-formed information (including from things like hidden fields): don’t.

We were shown a purposefully badly written online store as an example, where the cost of a product was a parameter in the request (!). Using something like Burp, it’s easy to set a GET or POST parameter (the cost, in this case) to whatever you want.

And then it was time to talk about XSS. The simplest test for a cross-site scripting vulnerability on this site was to enter <script>alert(1)</script> into an input field. The example we were given was a guestbook, and we ended up with dialog boxes, JavaScript redirects and XKCD comics galore. I was reminded of the #cashgordon incident last year.

An hour after the session began, I was thinking about how session cookies are actually a huge headache, and one I hadn’t considered before Firesheep got everybody thinking. Using Darren’s session ID, it was easy to steal his session and abuse his “10% staff discount”.

We worked through some examples of pages with progressively better and better input sanitation, thinking about what the developer had done to protect their site and how we could get around it.

Moving on, we looked at SQL injection attacks and how you can then tell which kind of database the site is using. I’ve been working on limiting the permissions on, for example, the WordPress database user here, and this reinforced just how important it is.

Apparently 10—20% of sites have some kind of SQL injection vulnerability, which is a worryingly large number.

It was great to get a broad overview of the basics of web security, and it’s given me plenty to think about for past and future projects. Brilliant to see a couple of people interested in joining the Hackspace after attending the session, too. Many thanks to Darren for taking the afternoon to share his expertise, and I’m looking forward to the next one.


By Vanderdecken on 17 April 2011 at 13:36:

Sounds awzm. With enough free time (and, y'know, being located in London or anywhere near it) I’d LOVE to do this kind of thing.

By Michael on 22 April 2011 at 20:24:

Remember those Dice adverts along the lines of:

Select * FROM jobs WHERE type = AND location =

Remember how they suddenly disappeared? Well, turns out I found a forum post (can’t remember where now) where someone said they entered something like ‘ OR * ;DELETE FROM jobs; SELECT * FROM jobs WHERE location=’

Well their jobs database went blank suddenly…

Turns out the advert was the exact SQL query they used…

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