Thursday, February 04, 2010

Web 2.0 Pivot Attacks

Any penetration tester would agree that pivot attacks, designed to compromise a secondary host to more effectively attack primary targets, are incredibly powerful. Organizations tend to have difficulty protecting all hosts at all times, which is why proper network segmentation is vital should loss of control occur on any one node. Often it’s easier to compromise a host from behind rather than head on. Case in point, a hacker used a pivot attack to break into Heartland Payment Systems and pilfer 130 million CC#s. A SQL injection exploit was used to get a foothold in a non-payment-network-host leading to the eventual data compromise. Recently I had a thought that pivot attacks exist in a Web 2.0 world as well, they are just not typically viewed that way.

Many websites automatically load in content from remote resources (JavaScript, Flash, more HTML, images, etc.), which are hosted by third-party providers. These resources normally embed advertisements (DoubleClick), traffic counters (StatCounter), user trackers (, games (Pogo), videos (YouTube), and thousands of other forms of dynamic content. These are often generically called “Web page Widgets,” things Web page might want to include in their pages for their visitors. There are thousands, maybe tens of thousands of these types of providers. Let’s look at some top mainstream media websites to see what widget hostname they include:


NY Times

Wall Street Journal


USA Today

Washington Post

In a Web security context, these websites essentially allow arbitrary executable code, supplied by the third-party, complete access to the browser DOM and the user’s session information. *Exception being IMG SRC loads* That means they can hijack accounts by stealing authentication cookies; change the news or ask for passwords by altering what the user sees on the screen; redirect users to malware laden websites; force browsers to attack other systems, and more. By including Web widgets from an uncontrolled source on your pages, the third-party’s entire infrastructure must be included as part of the implicit trust model. These dangers have been previously discussed by Tom Stripling where the third-party service provider was assumed to be the potential nefarious source. I think the concern lies a bit deeper, where a malicious Web 2.0 pivot attack comes in.

If a bad guy, APT or a less-skilled adversary, wants to surreptitiously compromise a (relatively) hardened Web presence (or its users), they don’t necessarily need go after the target directly, they could instead go after the aforementioned third-party providers. How many of these third-parties take security as seriously as their customers do? Assumed few, but we really don’t know for certain. Please comment below is you have experiences here to share? How many organizations really check up on the third-party’s security posture or even know enough take this risk into consideration? Again, some do, but very few in my personal experience. The organization might dismiss the concern by saying something like:

"If X gets hacked we'll have bigger problems on our hands."

Important to add is that during a Web 2.0 pivot attack no traffic is directly seen by the primary target, which basically makes it impossible for them to detect/thwart the attack before a compromise. Post third-party compromise, it might be nearly as hard to detect a Web widget code update unless you can somehow monitor the content changes in unexpected ways. This of course assumes the primary target knows how, when, or if the third-party changes the code (rare). Not to mention the inclusion of Web page widgets is almost always beyond the visibility of a security team, because this process is largely managed through marketing / product management (not so much application development) and can easily happen at any time with zero notice.

Pen-testers to my knowledge can’t/don’t use this type of pivot attack because the third-party is usually another organization, unwilling to grant security testing authority, and therefore out of the scope of the engagement. Also important is that in a network pivot attack you may still be limited in what you can do on a host due to network secregation, ACLs etc. but in JavaScript space, you are basically God.

Yes, the HTML 5 sandbox would be really nice to have.


Unknown said...

ee what happened to the MLB site a year a two ago, that hosted malware.

Me said...

Also, speaking of Web Pivot, you can consider reduh, which upload a web page (jsp, php or asp) to use it as a reverse proxy/pivot

Wladimir Palant said...

Yes, that's what happened to some high-profile German websites only two days ago, they started serving out malware through their ad provider ( I wrote about this issue a year ago ( Unfortunately, using the filter I recommend there is unrealistic - there are so many websites depending on third-party JavaScript that browsing the web with such a filter is really no fun.

Christian "@xntrik" Frichot said...

You know where I stand on the "sandbox" feature :P (Curious, but patient to see how it all pans out). It feels like all the browser manufacturers and spec authors are offering us all these teeny, tiny silver bullets - but it's just never enough.