The Top 5 Most Common Security Issues I Discover When Reviewing Code

The Top 5 Most Common Security Issues I Discover When Reviewing Code


About the author

Will Barrett is a Software Engineer, Technical Lead, and Engineering Manager from the San Francisco Bay Area with over 14 years of experience. He’s a Superset PMC Member of The Apache Software Foundation. He’s held staff software engineer and senior engineer roles at Change.org, Entelo, Sqwiggle and Preset.

Will is the author of On Learning to Program, a blog for new Software Engineers entering the industry. Will is also a certified reviewer on PullRequest where he’s caught hundreds of bugs, security issues, and other critical issues for over 40 teams.


images/security-vulnerabilities-issues-caught-in-pull-request-code-review.jpg

The most important part of my job as a code reviewer is helping other developers keep their systems secure. It’s something I don’t take lightly, and there are many ways that an application can fail to pass muster from a security standpoint. Here are the things I find most often - hopefully there will be a few items here that stick out to you the next time you see them in a PR.

NOTE: The following code examples have been contrived to provide detailed, illustrative representations of real security issues I’ve found while reviewing code. They have not been pulled from actual codebases or commits. They are written in Python and Ruby, but the concepts apply broadly.

1. Sensitive Information in Log Files

Personally Identifiable Information (PII) is governed by a few different laws - GDPR in Europe and CCPA in California being the two most relevant examples at time of publication, though more legislation will arrive on this topic over the next few years. These laws govern the ways that companies can store and use personally identifying information, such as names, physical addresses, email addresses, ID numbers and the like. Generally this legislation requires that such information is stored securely. Logging is one of the biggest violators of this requirement. Take the following example:

logger.info("The send operation failed when attempting to deliver to %s" % user.email)

This is ostensibly reasonable and safe, but it’s actually leaking email addresses for users into log files. What makes logging this information a security issue? Logging systems tend to not have the same protections as a database. Attackers know this and can exploit it. The email address in the above code should be replaced by an obfuscated or encrypted User ID number.

Secrets can also find their way into log files. As the name implies “secret” keys are credentials that should not be exposed, whereas some API keys are safe to expose. I find that many of the chief offenders are database drivers that will print out the entire connection string on a connection failure. Typically connection attempts for some of these sadly misguided drivers should be wrapped in an exception handler that will swallow the error rather than printing it to logs. Lesser offenders include logging added by programmers for debugging purposes which then sneaks into a pull request, or logging code that is intended for the development environment that is set with the wrong log level.

# Log level set to `warn`
connection_args = { 
   :adapter => 'mysql2',
   :database => 'some_database',
   :host => 'localhost',
   :username => 'root',
   :password => "ohno" 
}
begin
   ActiveRecord::Base.establish_connection(connection_args)
rescue StandardError => e
   logger.warn("ActiveRecord connection failed with arguments #{connection_args}") # Database connection info is now in log files
end

2. Poor Cryptography Choices

Typically this involves systems that use a one-time key or other token. I’ve seen times when folks tried to take the easy way out by doing a Base64 encoding of a timestamp (highly guessable and not at all pseudo-random) or choosing a high-collision hash for a unique key (like md5) without a unique constraint on the table. Other failures include using encryption algorithms known to be insufficiently complex for security.

class PasswordResetRequest < ActiveRecord::Base
  def generate_reset_token
	  # This is too guessable.
	  self.reset_token = Base64.encode(Time.now)
  end
end

3. Insufficient Access Controls

Also known as Broken Access Control by OWASP. In 2021, Broken Access Control moved to #1 of the OWASP Top 10 list of the most critical web application security risks.

Broken Access Control moves up from the fifth position to the category with the most serious web application security risk; the contributed data indicates that on average, 3.81% of applications tested had one or more Common Weakness Enumerations (CWEs) with more than 318k occurrences of CWEs in this risk category. The 34 CWEs mapped to Broken Access Control had more occurrences in applications than any other category.

The most common example of this is related to row-level security where a user can access a subset of the information in a table. It’s easy to forget to add a filter to a query or a check to an endpoint, and it can be tricky to see the mistake in the UI of a program if the filtering is happening appropriately elsewhere in the code. This is most easily discovered by checking that the query filters on index actions are also present on all of the other actions that operate on individual rows.

class Admin::ArticleController < Admin::BaseController
	def index
		# Here the list is scoped to only articles related to the current user
		@articles = current_user.articles
	end
	
	def show
	  # Here the query is un-scoped, and there's no other access control check.
		@article = Article.find(params[:id])
	end
end

The other common access control failure that I see is missing session checks on endpoints - when, say, every endpoint requires a Python decorator to check the session, it’s easy to leave that off. The best strategy here is to default everything to closed, and then use decorators to open up access instead.

# This endpoint requires a session for the article list
@verify_session
@app.route('/articles')
def article_list(...):
	...
# But you can see any article you want here without a session
@app.route('/articles/<id>')
def articles_show(id):
  ...

More about this here.

4. Unsecured Caches

A pattern that I’m seeing more and more as single page applications become more complex and common are cache layers exposed to the front-end, where any cache member is available to load if you know the cache key. This can leak sensitive information across sessions and may result in escalation of privilege attacks, particularly if the session is used to store access keys. When implementing front-end cache access, it’s important to provide a system for limiting cache access to only those items written by the current user, or if it’s a shared cache ensuring that the writes are verified server-side to avoid injection attacks based on bad behavior from users.

class CacheController < ApplicationController
	def show(cache_key)
		redis.get(cache_key, data)
	end
	
	def create(cache_key, data)
		redis.set(cache_key, data)
	end
end

5. Trusting the Client Too Much

If you’re new to development, you can think of the client as the “front-end” that users interact with and the “back-end” as the systems that power the front-end.

One of the first security lessons that I was taught was never to trust client-side input; always validate that the client is doing what we expect it to do. I am seeing more and more instances of fewer server-side controls and more reliance on the JavaScript front-end to provide data validation and control on user flow.

For example, say an application has a feature where users can upload images. The front-end client may have validation to make sure a selected file is formatted to contain the expected file type (e.g., the file name ends in “.png”, “.jpg”), but this validation can be easily circumvented by an attacker looking for ways to insert an executable file into a system. Putting too much trust in the client for this validation opens a security hole and opportunity for the attacker to do this. The application’s back-end should also perform validation that the file is the correct and expected type.

While I don’t have evidence for this beyond personal experience, PullRequest provides engineers in the reviewer network like me a unique lens and perspective in reviewing code for a multitude of engineering teams. And from what I’ve observed, this is a visible and growing trend.

I believe the increase in this behavior is a result, at least in part, of the increasing specialization in the industry - web development has become increasingly fragmented into front-end and back-end specialists, and requires more collaboration between the two groups to produce functional software. When this collaboration isn’t going well, there can be a tendency for back-end concerns to migrate to the front-end, which can create security vulnerabilities.

Conclusion

These 5 security issues are especially important to catch in pull request code review as they’re generally very unlikely to be caught in QA. They may be surfaced in a routine penetration test (or pen test) if your organization participates in these, but pen testing is usually done in longer duration intervals while pull request code review is highly regular, ongoing, and proactive - pen testing will usually uncover security issues that already exist. In short, it’s much safer to catch security issues in code review before you, or an attacker, discovers them in production.

If I had only one bit of advice that I could beam into every programmer’s mind, it would be to check every single thing you write to logs for PII and secrets, as well as every error you throw for the same. This is the most common recurring issue that I catch time and time again.


Find this useful? Be sure to check out these additional articles by Will Barrett:

More from PullRequest on catching security issues in pull request code review:


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by Will Barrett

December 16, 2021