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Five common mistakes in the web.config file

In this post I w╬┐uld like to talk about mistakes in web.config file in ASP.Net applications.
I would like to mention the five of the most common mistakes developers make when they manipulate the web.config file.

1. Custom Errors Disabled

When you disable custom errors as shown below, ASP.NET provides a detailed error message to clients by default.

Wrong configuration:

<configuration>

<system.web>

<customErrors mode="Off">

Right configuration:

<configuration>

<system.web>

<customErrors mode="RemoteOnly">

The more information a hacker can gather about a Web site, the more likely it is that he will be able to successfully attack it. An error message can be of vital significance to an attacker. A default ASP.NET error message lists the specific versions of ASP.NET and the .NET framework which are being used by the Web server, as well as the type of exception that was thrown. Just knowing which Web-based applications are used (in this case ASP.NET) compromises application security by telling the attacker that the server is running a relatively recent version of Microsoft Windows and that Microsoft Internet Information Server (IIS) 6.0 or later is being used as the Web server.

You can build up application security to prevent such information leakage by modifying the mode attribute of the <customErrors> element to "On" or "RemoteOnly." This setting instructs Web-based applications to display a nondescript, generic error message when an unhandled exception is generated. Another way to circumvent this application security issue is to redirect the user to a new page when errors occur by setting the "defaultRedirect" attribute of the <customErrors> element. This approach can provide even better application security because the default generic error page still gives away too much information about the system (namely, that it's using a Web.config file, which reveals that the server is running ASP.NET).

2. Leaving Tracing Enabled in Web-Based Applications

The trace feature of ASP.NET is one of the most useful tools that you can use to ensure application security by debugging and profiling your Web-based applications. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most useful tools that a hacker can use to attack your Web-based applications if it is left enabled in a production environment.

Wrong configuration:

<configuration>

<system.web>

<trace enabled="true" localOnly="false">

Right configuration:

<configuration>

<system.web>

<trace enabled="false" localOnly="true">

When the <trace> element is enabled for remote users of Web-based applications (localOnly="false"), any user can get detailed list of recent requests to the application simply by browsing to the page "trace.axd." A trace log presents a wealth of information: the .NET and ASP.NET versions that the server is running; a complete trace of all the page methods that the request caused, including their times of execution; the session state and application state keys; the request and response cookies; the complete set of request headers, form variables, and QueryString variables; and finally the complete set of server variables.

A hacker looking for a way around application security would obviously find the form variable histories useful because these might include email addresses that could be harvested and sold to spammers, IDs and passwords that could be used to impersonate the user, or credit card and bank account numbers. Even the most innocent-looking piece of data in the trace collection can be dangerous in the wrong hands. For example, the "APPL_PHYSICAL_PATH" server variable, which contains the physical path of Web-based applications on the server, could help an attacker perform directory traversal attacks against the system.

The best way to prevent a hacker from obtaining trace data from Web-based applications is to disable the trace viewer completely by setting the "enabled" attribute of the <trace> element to "false." If you have to have the trace viewer enabled, either to debug or to profile your application, then be sure to set the "localOnly" attribute of the <trace> element to "true." That allows users to access the trace viewer only from the Web server and disables viewing it from any remote machine, increasing your application security.

3. Debugging Enabled

You should never deploy an ASP.Net application in debug mode. Visual Studio 2005/2010 will even automatically modify the Web.config file to allow debugging when you start to debug your application. And, since deploying ASP.NET applications is as simple as copying the files from the development folder into the deployment folder, it's easy to see how development configuration settings can accidentally make it into production, compromising application security.

Wrong configuration:

<configuration>

<system.web>

<compilation debug="true">

Right configuration:

<configuration>

<system.web>

<compilation debug="false">

Leaving debugging enabled is dangerous because you are providing inside information to end users who shouldn't have access to it, and who may use it to attack your Web-based applications. For example, if you have enabled debugging and disabled custom errors in your application, then any error message displayed to an end user of your Web-based applications will include not only the server information, a detailed exception message, and a stack trace, but also the actual source code of the page where the error occurred.

Unfortunately, this configuration setting isn't the only way that source code might be displayed to the user. Here's a story that illustrates why developers shouldn't concentrate solely on one type of configuration setting to improve application security. In early versions of Microsoft's ASP.NET AJAX framework, some controls would return a stack trace with source code to the client browser whenever exceptions occurred. This behavior happened whenever debugging was enabled, regardless of the custom error setting in the configuration. So, even if you properly configured your Web-based applications to display non-descriptive messages when errors occurred, you could still have unexpectedly revealed your source code to your end users if you forgot to disable debugging.

If you want to disable debugging, set the value of the "debug" attribute of the <compilation> element to "false."

4. Cookies Accessible through Client-Side Script

In Internet Explorer 6.0, Microsoft introduced a new cookie property called "HttpOnly". While you can set the property programmatically on a per-cookie basis, you also can set it globally in the site configuration.

Wrong configuration:

<configuration>

<system.web>

<httpCookies httpOnlyCookies="false">

Right configuration:

<configuration>

<system.web>

<httpCookies httpOnlyCookies="true">

Any cookie marked with this property will be accessible only from server-side code, and not to any client-side scripting code like JavaScript or VBScript. This shielding of cookies from the client helps to protect Web-based applications from Cross-Site Scripting attacks. A hacker initiates a Cross-Site Scripting (also called CSS or XSS) attack by attempting to insert his own script code into the Web page to get around any application security in place. Any page that accepts input from a user and echoes that input back is potentially vulnerable. For example, a login page that prompts for a user name and password and then displays "Welcome back, <username>" on a successful login may be susceptible to an XSS attack.

As mentioned earlier, it is possible to enable "HttpOnly" programmatically on any individual cookie by setting the "HttpOnly" property of the "HttpCookie" object to "true." However, it is easier and more reliable to configure the application to automatically enable "HttpOnly" for all cookies. To do this, set the "httpOnlyCookies" attribute of the <httpCookies> element to "true."

5. Cookieless Session State Enabled

In the initial 1.0 release of ASP.NET, you had no choice about how to transmit the session token between requests when your Web application needed to maintain session state: it was always stored in a cookie. Unfortunately, this meant that users who would not accept cookies could not use your application. So, in ASP.NET 1.1, Microsoft added support for cookieless session tokens via use of the "cookieless" setting.

Right configuration:

<configuration>

<system.web>

<sessionState cookieless="UseUri">

Secure configuration:

<configuration>

<system.web>

<sessionState cookieless="UseCookies">

Web applications configured to use cookieless session state now stored the session token in the page URLs rather than a cookie. For example, the page URL might change from

http://myserver/MyApplication/default.aspx to http://myserver/MyApplication/(123456789ABCDEFG)/default.aspx. In this case, "123456789ABCDEFG" represents the current user's session token. A different user browsing the site at the same time would receive a completely different session token, resulting in a different URL, such as http://myserver/MyApplication/(ZYXWVU987654321)/default.aspx.

While adding support for cookieless session state did improve the usability of ASP.NET Web applications for users who would not accept cookies, it also had the side effect of making those applications much more vulnerable to session hijacking attacks. Session hijacking is basically a form of identity theft wherein a hacker impersonates a legitimate user by stealing his session token. When the session token is transmitted in a cookie, and the request is made on a secure channel (that is, it uses SSL), the token is secure. However, when the session token is included as part of the URL, it is much easier for a hacker to find and steal it. By using a network monitoring tool (also known as a "sniffer") or by obtaining a recent request log, hijacking the user's session becomes a simple matter of browsing to the URL containing the stolen unique session token. The Web application has no way of knowing that this new request with session token "123456789ABCDEFG" is not coming from the original, legitimate user. It happily loads the corresponding session state and returns the response back to the hacker, who has now effectively impersonated the user.

The most effective way to prevent these session hijacking attacks is to force your Web application to use cookies to store the session token. This is accomplished by setting the "cookieless" attribute of the <sessionState> element to "UseCookies" or "false." But what about the users who do not accept cookies? Do you have to choose between making your application available to all users versus ensuring that it operates securely for all users? A compromise between the two is possible in ASP.NET 2.0. By setting the "cookieless" attribute to "AutoDetect", the application will store the session token in a cookie for users who accept them and in the URL for those who won't.

Hope it helps...

Comments

George said:

Very useful, thanks for sharing.

# October 24, 2009 9:02 PM

RichardD said:

I always make sure that production servers have the deployment retail="true" setting in the machine.config - this will force the debug flag to false, force the custom errors on and prevent trace output.

weblogs.asp.net/.../the-asp-net-lt-deployment-retail-true-gt-attribute.aspx

msdn.microsoft.com/.../ms228298%28VS.80%29.aspx

# October 26, 2009 1:58 PM

Navjot Singh said:

Its really useful. Thanks

# February 12, 2011 7:32 AM

LR said:

Great article! Thanks so much for taking the time to put this down!

# February 23, 2011 8:26 PM

karthikeyan k said:

useful article thanks

# June 1, 2011 6:22 AM

Lindsey said:

Wonderful post. I learned many interesting things. Thank you)

# March 27, 2012 10:24 AM

sumeet said:

AWESOME TIPS AND VERY HELPFUL ALSO... THANKS

# June 7, 2012 2:49 AM

Has said:

Thanks for such a useful article

cheers

# October 4, 2012 12:03 AM

Reiter said:

Incredible points. Sound arguments. Keep up the good spirit.

# January 22, 2013 7:21 AM