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Safeguarding Applications from CSRF Vulnerabilities

Mitigate CSRF Vulnerabilities Today
Table of Contents

Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF) Attack

Application attacks are on the rise and becoming more advanced. On average, applications have more than 10 vulnerabilities when they release into production, leaving significant opportunities for attackers to exploit. As developers are pushed to speed release cycles for improved and complex applications, they must quickly and effectively prioritize vulnerability remediation. Too often, cross-site request forgery (CSRF) vulnerabilities are neglected and do not get fixed before code is released into production.

The above is true because CSRF application attacks result only in state changes when successful, meaning that user data is not at risk. Though a user's personal data is left unharmed, their personally identifiable information (PII), passwords, and even money are at risk. Developers and application security teams focus on more advanced attacks that could lead to sensitive data exposure; as a result, CSRF vulnerabilities are not remediated, leaving cyber criminals with more opportunities for successful execution.

What Is CSRF?

CSRF application attacks manipulate a user’s web application into executing unwanted commands. A CSRF attack takes advantage of the fact that applications do not have the capacity to recognize the difference between malicious and secure requests once a user is authenticated. Attackers usually initiate the process by creating a corrupted link that they send to the target via email, text, or chat. A CSRF attack is often referred to as a “one-way” attack, as attackers can access and manipulate HTTP requests but cannot access the responses that follow. Therefore, they target state-changing requests within the application, generally leaving sensitive data unharmed.

cross-site scripting (XSS) attack, on the other hand, is a “two-way” attack, allowing bad actors to not only tamper with requests but also read responses and even extract data. In XSS attacks, cyber criminals interfere with a browser-side script, injecting it into trusted websites. XSS attacks are not limited to actions only users can perform and thus they can jeopardize the content and code on an entire HTML page. The most notable difference between the two is authentication, where CSRF attacks require a successful login of the user, whereas XSS attacks do not.

How Does a CSRF Application Attack Work?

CSRF attacks work by targeting vulnerabilities in web applications, which makes them incapable of distinguishing between valid and malicious commands. Web applications are designed to automatically include cookies and session cookies once authentication is successful. Attackers first build a URL that mimics an action they wish to execute once the user is authenticated. Then, they must come up with a clever means of delivery or the link, one that has the highest probability that the user will click. For successful execution, the target must be logged into an application and in an active session. Once a user is authenticated and the malicious link is clicked, attackers have all they need to manipulate requests. This includes changing the target’s email, allowing unwanted transfers from banking accounts, or making undesired purchases.

Because cookies contain authentication data, they allow for faster logins and extended sessions. While this is convenient for users, attackers can exploit this application vulnerability by remaining authenticated in the user’s account as long as the session allows. During the authenticated session, attackers have full access to a user’s account and are able to make any number of changes without triggering an alert.

How To Prevent a CSRF Attack

The best defense against a CSRF attack is to equip applications with a way to distinguish between legitimate and forged HTTP requests. One of the most effective ways is to change the way that applications manage cookies and CSRF tokens. Most of today's applications have built-in CSRF token defenses that help avert the risk of an application attack. However, as they are built-in, these defenses must be constantly configured to provide the strongest line of defense.

The Use of CSRF Tokens

When configuring CSRF tokens to effectively prevent CSRF attacks, two things should take place. First, CSRF tokens should be configured to be generated on the server side. Second, the option for token generation should renew per request and not per session. With these two configurations, applications are more secure but lack efficiency. If tokens generate per request, things such as the “back button” can no longer remain valid. This means that with each click, users face the possibility of needing to re-enter their credentials. This is perhaps why most applications configure CSRF tokens per session, bringing about an additional application vulnerability if sessions are not properly managed.

Cookie Management

Cookies are always sent along with requests from one origin to another as long as they are deemed secure. This allows for cross-domain passing of cookies, which can include user credentials. To combat this CSRF vulnerability, organizations need to flag cookies to transform them into same-site cookies. This means that the browser decides whether to execute requests based on the origin of the cookies, possibly preventing a CSRF attack. There are three possible options when choosing same-site cookies attributes, including lax, strict, or none. The none attribute grants permission for the sharing of cookies to all parties, which includes third-party and advertisers. Lax comes with more restrictions, allowing only first-party cookies to be sent or accessed. Strict is the most secure, used in banking applications and others that hold PII. Though this type of cookie management is more secure, it is still just an additional layer of defense that leaves holes for particular application attacks including XSS.

Verifying Headers

When an HTTP request presents itself to an application, the browser can choose whether to accept or deny it. The key to allowing secure and legitimate HTTP requests is determining whether requests are coming from the source origin. If the request is not verified, it most likely falls under the forbidden headers list and the request is discarded. This is not the case for XSS attacks, which can manipulate script that the browser accepts. A strict verification process for all HTTP requests still leaves room for manipulated code injections if attackers know and understand the parameters.

Legacy Application Security Fails To Secure Against CSRF Attacks

Legacy application security penetration testing and scanning approaches are employed by organizations to detect and remediate vulnerabilities in development before code releases are extended into production. But as organizations embrace DevOps and Agile practices, legacy application security simply cannot scale to meet the corresponding demands of speed and flexibility. Penetration testing pushes application security into testing, which dramatically increases the cost of vulnerability remediation. This also delays development cycles and code releases.

Legacy application scanning such as static application security testing (SAST) and dynamic application security testing (DAST) shifts application security left, but both come with various challenges. Legacy SAST uses signature-based scans to identify potential vulnerabilities. But running application security scans and triaging and diagnosing security alerts require specialized application security specialists. Additionally, SAST generates significant false positives that consume valuable time. DAST generates fewer false positives, but a higher number of false negatives. As a result, both legacy SAST and DAST approaches impede release cycles while increasing application risk.

Instrumentation Transforms Application Security

Instead of legacy application penetration testing and scanning approaches, organizations are increasingly recognizing that security instrumentation is the answer. Embedding security within applications using telemetry enables developers to pinpoint vulnerabilities when application routes are exercised in runtime. Application security monitoring no longer requires application security specialists, as is the case with legacy application security approaches.

When security instrumentation is extended into production, this creates an application security platform approach. As applications run in production, runtime application self-protection (RASP) enables security operations (SecOps) teams to identify cyberattacks on applications before they are able to exploit vulnerabilities.

Suggested Content

eBook: How to Keep up With the Rapidly Expanding Scope of the OWASP Top Ten

White Paper: Route Coverage Through Instrumentation and Automated Vulnerability Management

White Paper: Advanced Threat Landscape and Legacy Application Security Ratchet Up Risk

Solution Brief: Contrast Protect with Runtime Application Self-protection (RASP)


Learn More About Contrast Security

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