An example of how my builder mindset helps me find new solutions for breaking the security model of applications.
During a recent assessment, I was pentesting a hybrid mobile application that is a companion to a web application. The applications allow users to collaborate while creating new interactive digital content. Through the web interface, content creators are allowed to upload a wide range of files, including HTML files, and share the content with other individuals in their organization. Thus, any user with proper permissions is able to view and edit shared content.
When the mobile application is used to view content, files are download to the local device storage and then displayed within a web view. If a shared content file is an HTML file, the mobile application will fully render it within the web view without any controls in place that govern the import of remote libraries, including malicious ones. This is potentially dangerous as the downloaded and rendered content files are run in the context of the running hybrid mobile application.
In a time-boxed penetration test, taking time to understand a custom scheme could be a poor use of valuable testing time. It’s often helpful to find shortcuts to expedite the reverse engineering and experimenting process. During this penetration test a moment of clarity struck as I realized that I would be able to accelerate my understanding of the mobile application’s custom URL scheme by leveraging common developer tools.
To further explain, one of my past projects involved the creation of a hybrid mobile application. The main advantage of creating a hybrid mobile application is the speed gained from extending a single code base across multiple platforms, but one of the biggest drawbacks is the amount of difficulty that comes with debugging the application. When I was searching for a method of debugging my hybrid mobile application, I eventually settled on the WEb INspector Remote (
weinre) tool as it was created exactly for this purpose. And with the advancements in application deployment techniques (e.g., npm for Node.js), it appeared that
weinre had become even more easily deployable than the last time I had used it.
weinre is a debugger for web pages, like FireBug (for FireFox) and Web Inspector (for WebKit-based browsers), except it’s designed to work remotely, and in particular, to allow you to debug web pages on a mobile device such as a phone: http://people.apache.org/~pmuellr/weinre-docs/latest/
Run the following npm command:
$ sudo npm -g install weinre
To run the
weinre server and have it listen on all interfaces (not just localhost), run the following:
$ weinre –-boundHost -all-
You should see a message similar to this: “
2012-10-12T20:33:06.957Z weinre: starting server at http://localhost:8080” Since you used the —
boundHost -all- option, your
weinre server should now be available from any machine that can access the server by specifying its hostname/IP address.
In a matter of minutes, I was able to quickly stand up a
weinre server that a malicious HTML content file would connect to. Once connected, I would be able to launch a
Once a malicious HTML content file was opened by any user whom the file was shared with, the
Executing remote alert() command with
Essentially, it was
Now I would be able to upload files with a stored cross-site scripting payload that not only could manipulate a user’s mobile device data but also would provide information that could compromise a user’s account.
To avoid becoming victim to the same attack, the first step would be to avoid the rendering or execution of code with user-supplied data. This goes back to the principle of always being wary of any user-supplied data. Create a wrapper that will dynamically return the desired contents rather than directly executing or rendering the contents of a user-supplied file.
In a previous post, MAC Cryptographic Errors and Vulnerabilities in SSO Authentication, we discussed that rolling your own solution and not leveraging established open-source libraries that perform the same task is often not a good idea. There are too many places for things to go wrong and often not enough eyes/minds working on the code. For hybrid mobile applications, the most popular open-source option is the Apache Cordova project, which includes security controls for whitelisting URLs. At the very least, the developers could have referenced the source code for examples of how to implement whitelisting functionality.
- Store the decryption key on the mobile device by utilizing secure storage methods provided by the mobile SDK (e.g., Android keystore, iOS keychain, etc.)
Always remember, code obfuscation is not a security solution, as the most determined hackers will always find a way to make sense of the code. It only provides an additional roadblock that hopefully causes the attacker to second guess whether they want to put forth the effort to reverse engineer the code.
Builders, Breakers, and the Balance in Between
In the world of security, there is a school of thought that technical individuals can be separated into one of two categories: builders and breakers. One of the core principles that we believe at Praetorian is that builders make the best breakers. As we see it, one will have a much easier time breaking what one understands. However, in my personal journey of transitioning from a builder to a breaker, I had my share of struggles as there were times when I felt my developer background hindered my thought process as a breaker. Although I was always able to quickly break down applications, there were instances when I became too entrenched in my builder mindset. I either overanalyzed source code, or became too focused on testing part of an application where a potential developer’s mistake would likely end in a functionality problem rather than a security vulnerability. I eventually realized that the real advantage of coming from a builder background was not the ability to transition between each mindset, but being able to find a balance in between. Finding that balance would lead me to thinking outside the box by pulling in experiences and tools that would enable me to have a different perspective on solving a problem.
The above narrative was a perfect example of me finding that balance by leveraging my knowledge as a builder to find a new solution to breaking the security model of an application. I don’t want this to sound like an attack on the breakers who don’t come from a builder background. I intended it more as a reminder to think outside the box and look beyond the normal security testing techniques to find that balance in between builder and breaker. For a builder turned breaker, it means leveraging skills, techniques, and tools that you might have come across during life as a builder. For lifelong breakers, it is encouragement to take some time to familiarize yourself with the world of the builder, as it might provide you additional perspective and thus additional solutions to solving your next big problem.
“The world we have created is a product of our thinking; it cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” ~ Albert Einstein