Decoding The Web Application Protection: Understanding Authentication, Session Management, and Access Control

Ravitej Bandlekar
8 min readAug 26, 2023
Source: https://www.strongdm.com/

In our previous blog post, we laid the foundation by exploring the basics of essential web application defensive mechanisms. Now, it’s time to take the next step. In this article, we’re diving deeper into the core defensive mechanisms that form the backbone of robust web security.

We can categorize the fundamental defensive mechanisms into three distinct parts.

A. Handling User Access

B. Handling User Input

C. Handling Attacker

Handling User Access

The primary objective of any virtual application should be the ability to effectively manage user access to its data and functionality. These user categories encompass anonymous users, regular authenticated users, and administrative users. It’s evident that various user types hold distinct permissions to access the web application’s data.

For instance, let’s consider the scenario of a collaborative document editing platform. Different users, such as authors and reviewers, require varying levels of access. An author can edit and revise a document, while a reviewer might have the privilege to suggest changes. This stratification of user roles ensures a controlled and secure environment, enhancing the overall user experience.

Most of the web application handle access using a trio of interrelated security mechanisms:

  • Authentication
  • Session Management
  • Access Control

Each of these mechanisms represents a significant segment of an application’s potential points of vulnerability. They are interconnected and collectively contribute to robust security, but paradoxically, they could also be perceived as the most fragile element in the chain. A flaw in any individual component could potentially grant malicious actors the means to circumvent defenses and gain unauthorized access to the application, thereby compromising both its functionality and data.

Authentication

Authentication is a fundamental method for managing user access. It ensures that a user is truly who they claim to be. Without authentication, applications would treat all users as anonymous, implying a minimal level of trust.

Most commonly used applications utilize authentication processes where a provided username and password combination is checked to grant users access to the application’s features and data. For applications focused on security, extra layers of protection like Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) and smartcards are implemented. Furthermore, these authentication methods often come with additional functions like self-registration, account recovery, and the ability to change passwords.

While the concept of authentication, which is simply verifying the identity of a user, might appear simple on the surface, the actual mechanisms and systems put in place to achieve this are often quite complex. These mechanisms are designed to ensure that users are who they claim to be before granting them access to a system, application, or data. However, despite their apparent simplicity, these authentication mechanisms can suffer from a variety of issues that arise from both their design and how they are implemented.

  • Design Flaws: The process of designing and constructing authentication systems can lead to inherent vulnerabilities. Design flaws may arise from not anticipating specific types of attacks or failing to account for all possible scenarios. Malicious actors frequently take advantage of these weak points in the design to illicitly access systems.
  • Implementation Errors: Even when an authentication method is meticulously planned, mistakes can emerge during the actual implementation. Errors in coding, configurations, or the integration of different systems can inadvertently introduce vulnerabilities.
  • Inadequate Security Measures: At times, authentication systems may not encompass essential security measures to defend against contemporary threats. For example, depending solely on passwords without incorporating supplementary security layers like Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) can render systems more prone to breaches.
  • Evolving Threat Landscape: The techniques employed by malicious individuals to circumvent authentication are continually changing. What might have provided security a few years back could now be susceptible due to the emergence of new attack methods.
  • Human Factors: Users might not follow best practices when it comes to choosing strong passwords, keeping them safe, or practicing caution while sharing personal information. This human aspect can undermine even the strongest authentication systems.
  • Insufficient Updates and Maintenance: Security weaknesses could be identified after an authentication system is put into operation. If the system doesn’t undergo consistent updates and maintenance, these vulnerabilities might linger without being resolved, exposing the system to potential attacks.
  • Social Engineering: Adversaries frequently leverage human psychology to manipulate people into divulging their authentication credentials. This manipulation can take various forms, such as phishing emails or impersonation tactics.
  • Complexity of Integration: Large systems often have various components and services that need to work together seamlessly. This complexity can introduce points of failure or vulnerabilities if not managed properly.

The interplay of these elements contributes to the diverse array of weaknesses that can be present in authentication mechanisms. To counter these challenges, security experts remain engaged in a continuous effort to pinpoint and resolve vulnerabilities, enhance authentication protocols, and educate users on the optimal strategies for protecting their credentials.

Please review this article, which provides additional insights into the concept of authentication.

Session Management

After successfully authenticating a user to a web application, the subsequent task in managing user access involves session management. This concept comes into play when an authenticated user interacts with resources they are authorized to access. This interaction generates a substantial amount of traffic between the web application server and the user’s browser simultaneously. The web server might be handling numerous requests and responses concurrently, catering to both authenticated and non-authenticated users.

To ensure efficient access control, the application requires a method to distinguish and handle the sequence of requests originating from individual users. Virtually all applications address this necessity by establishing a session for each user and providing a token that serves as the identifier for that session. The session consists of a collection of data structures stored on the server, which monitor the user’s ongoing interaction with the application. The token, a distinct string, is used by the application to correlate with the specific session.

Ordinarily, HTTP cookies are the conventional means of transmitting these session tokens, although some applications employ hidden form fields or include the token in the URL query string. Ideally, if a user remains inactive for a specific duration, the session expires automatically.

The process described above, involving session management and the issuance of session tokens, can inadvertently become an attack surface if not properly implemented and secured. Attackers might exploit vulnerabilities in this system to gain unauthorized access or manipulate user sessions. Here’s how:

  • Session Hijacking/Session Fixation: Insufficiently safeguarded session tokens can be intercepted by attackers, enabling them to impersonate authenticated users. This could even lead to attackers compelling users to adopt a particular session (session fixation) and subsequently exploiting the associated privileges.
  • Session Prediction: Should session tokens be generated predictably, malicious actors can deduce or anticipate valid tokens, thereby obtaining unauthorized entry to user accounts.
  • Session Sniffing: In the event that session tokens are transmitted without encryption, attackers have the opportunity to intercept network traffic and abscond with these tokens. This can result in them obtaining unauthorized access to user accounts.
  • Cross-Site Scripting (XSS): If an application is vulnerable to XSS attacks, attackers can inject malicious scripts that steal session tokens from users’ browsers, leading to unauthorized access.
  • Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF): Attackers can trick authenticated users into unknowingly making unwanted requests, potentially leading to unintended actions being performed within their active session.
  • Session Timeout/Browser Closure Issues: When a user’s session doesn’t terminate after a period of inactivity or persists even after the browser is closed, there’s a potential for attackers to exploit unattended active sessions and gain unauthorized access.
  • Weak Session Token Generation: When session tokens lack randomness or possess inadequate length, attackers can readily guess or employ brute-force techniques to determine valid tokens. This can lead to unauthorized access.
  • Token Leakage through URLs or Referer Headers: If session tokens are included in URLs or sent through HTTP headers, they can be exposed in browser history or referer logs, increasing the risk of unauthorized access.
  • Insecure Token Storage: When session tokens are stored in cookies without the necessary security configurations, attackers can potentially gain access to or manipulate these tokens.
  • Insecure Token Transmission: In the absence of transmission over secure channels (HTTPS), session tokens are vulnerable to interception during their transfer.

To counter these risks, it’s essential to establish robust security protocols while managing sessions. This entails adopting practices such as generating session tokens with a strong element of randomness, strictly employing HTTPS for token transmission, setting up appropriate session expiration rules, fortifying defenses against cross-site scripting (XSS) and cross-site request forgery (CSRF) attacks, and ensuring the secure storage of session data. Consistent security audits and comprehensive testing play a pivotal role in detecting and rectifying vulnerabilities preemptively, thwarting potential exploitation by malicious entities.

Access Control

The final phase of managing user access involves making and enforcing accurate decisions regarding whether each individual request should be granted or denied. If the mechanisms described above are operating effectively, the application can identify the user sending each request. Based on this, it must determine if the user has the authorization to perform the requested action or access the desired data.

This process of access control typically requires nuanced handling, with distinct considerations being relevant to different sections of the application and various functionalities. Many applications support multiple user roles, each associated with specific privileges. Individual users may have permission to access only a subset of the overall application data. Certain functions might impose transaction limits and other validation checks, all of which must be correctly enforced according to the user’s identity.

When it comes to making and enforcing access decisions, the process itself can inadvertently become a vulnerable area if not managed securely. In such cases, attackers could potentially capitalize on weaknesses within the access control mechanisms to attain unauthorized entry or even tamper with their own permissions. Here’s a breakdown of how this process could evolve into an attack surface:

  • Insufficient Authorization Checks: If the application doesn’t rigorously check a user’s authorization before granting access, attackers could potentially access functionalities or data they shouldn’t be able to.
  • Privilege Escalation: Attackers might find ways to escalate their privileges beyond what they are supposed to have, gaining access to sensitive features or data.
  • Inadequate Role-Based Access Control (RBAC): Poorly implemented RBAC might allow users to assume roles with higher privileges than intended, providing access to unauthorized resources.
  • Broken Access Control: Misconfigurations or coding errors could lead to access control bypass, enabling attackers to reach restricted areas.
  • Horizontal Privilege Escalation: Attackers could try to access another user’s resources by exploiting insufficient checks between users.
  • Vertical Privilege Escalation: If proper validation is not in place, attackers might try to gain higher privileges within the same user account.
  • Insecure Defaults: If default access settings are too permissive, attackers could exploit them to gain access to sensitive areas.
  • Insecure Direct Object References (IDOR): Poorly protected references to internal resources could allow attackers to directly access unauthorized resources.
  • Parameter Manipulation: Attackers might manipulate input parameters to access unauthorized data or functionalities.
  • Brute Force Attacks: Attackers might attempt to guess resource identifiers or use iterative methods to access resources they shouldn’t have access to.

To address these potential risks, it’s crucial to establish access control mechanisms with a strong foundation. This involves implementing stringent authorization checks, conducting comprehensive vulnerability testing, ensuring the continuous application of Role-Based Access Control (RBAC), handling errors effectively, and adhering to the principle of granting minimal privilege. Consistent security audits and vigilant monitoring play a vital role in pinpointing and rectifying potential vulnerabilities proactively, before attackers can take advantage of them.

I will be discussing the remaining two fundamental defensive mechanisms in the upcoming articles.

Reference:

The web application hacker’s handbook- Finding and exploiting security flaws.

Let’s connect?

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/ravitejmbandlekar

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