My blog has moved and can now be found at

No action is needed on your part if you are already subscribed to this blog via e-mail or its syndication feed.

Sunday, September 21, 2008
« Digital Identity World 2008 Recap | Main | Reality of XACML PEP-PDP Interoperabilit... »

In the physical world, when an attacker is preparing to assassinate someone or bomb a target, the first thing that they will do is to determine how best to set up that attack. The phrase used to describe the initial phase of the set-up is called 'pre-operational surveillance'. 

Unfortunately, the default configuration of most web services allow a potential attacker to do the digital equivalent of pre-operational surveillance very easily. In the digital world, these type of threats are often classified under the category of 'Information Disclosure Threats'. There are two in particular (there are more) that I would like to call attention to:

  1. SOAP Fault Error Messages
  2. WSDL Scanning/Foot-Printing/Enumeration

1. SOAP Fault Error Messages

All too often, detailed fault messages can provide information about the web service or the back-end resources used by that web service. In fact, one of the favorite tactic of attackers is to try to deliberately cause an exception or fault in a web service in the hope that sensitive information such as connection strings, stack traces and other information may end up in the SOAP fault. Mark O'Neill has a recent blog entry 'SOAP Faults - Too much information' in which he points to a vulnerability assessment that his company did of a bank that provided information that enabled an attacker to understand the infrastructure the bank was running and presumably allowed them to further tailor the attack.

The typical mitigation for this type of information disclosure is the implementation of the 'Exception Shielding Pattern' as noted in the Patterns & Practices Book 'Web Service Security' [Free PDF Version] which can be used to "Return only those exceptions to the client that have been sanitized or exceptions that are safe by design. Exceptions that are safe by design do not contain sensitive information in the exception message, and they do not contain a detailed stack trace, either of which might reveal sensitive information about the Web service's inner workings." (FULL DISCLOSURE:  I was an external, unpaid, technical reviewer of this book).

You can either implement this pattern in software or use a hardware device like a XML Security Gateway to implement this pattern. Mark utilized a Vordel Security GW, but this is something that can be implemented by all devices in this category. I have direct experience with Layer 7 as well as Cisco/Reactivity Gateways and happen to know that they support this functionality and I don't doubt that IBM/DataPower and others in this space support it as well.

Note that this does not imply that the error's that happen are not caught or addressed but simply that they are not propagated to an end-user.

2. WSDL Scanning/Foot-Printing/Enumeration

Appendix A of 'NIST 800-95: Guide to Secure Web Services' provides a listing of common attacks against web services, and you will note that there are many references to the information that can be found in a WSDL that can lend itself to a variety of attacks including Reconnaissance Attacks, WSDL Scanning, Schema Poisoning and more.

And in the 'Security Concepts, Challenges, and Design Considerations for Web Services Integration' article at the "Build Security In" web site sponsored by the DHS National Cyber Security Division, it notes that "An attacker may footprint a system’s data types and operations based on information stored in WSDL, since the WSDL may be published without a high degree of security. For example, in a world-readable registry, the method’s interface is exposed. WSDL is the interface to the web services. WSDL contains the message exchange pattern, types, values, methods, and parameters that are available to the service requester. An attacker may use this information to gain knowledge about the system and to craft attacks against the service directly and the system in general.

The type of information found in a WSDL, and which can be obtained simply by appending a ?WSDL to the end of a service endpoint URL, can be an extremely useful source of info for an attacker seeking to exploit a weakness in a service, and as such should not be provided or simply turned off.

There are multiple ways of mitigating this type of an attack which include turning off the automatic ?WSDL generation at the SOAP stack application level or by the configuring the intermediary that is protecting the service end-point. For example, most XML Security Gateway's by default turn off the ability to query the ?WSDL on a service end-point.

I consider this to be a very good default.

When this option is implemented, there are often a variety of questions that come up that I would like a take a quick moment to address.

Q. If you turn off the automatic WSDL generation capabilities (i.e. ?WSDL) how are developers supposed to implement a client that invokes the web service?

There are two ways. (1) Publish the WSDL and the associates XML Schema and Policy files in an Enterprise Registry/Repository that has the appropriate Access Control Mechanisms on it so that a developer can obtain a copy of the WSDL/Schema/Policy Documents at design time. (2) Provide the WSDL/Schema/Policy files out of band (e.g. Zip File, At a protected web site) to the developer. 

Oh yes, there is always the run-time binding question that comes up here as well. What I will say is that run-time binding does not mean "run time proxy generation + dynamic UI code generation + glue code" but simply that the client side proxy and the associated UI and glue code are generated at design time, but that the end-point that the client points to may be a dynamic lookup from a UDDI compliant Registry. I've done this before and this does not require any run-time lookup of a web service's WSDL.

There is an additional benefit to this method as well. Have you ever gone through the process of defining a WSDL and Schema using best practices for web services interoperability, implemented a service using that WSDL and Schema, and then looked at the auto-generated WSDL? You may be surprised to find that the automatic generated WSDL may be in a majority of cases is not as clean or easy to follow and in some cases may indeed be wrong. The best practice for developing interoperable web services recommends following a contract-first approach. This requires that the "contract" i.e. the WSDL and the Schema to be something that is developed with a great deal of care given to interoperability. Since the automatic generation of WSDL is platform-specific, there is always the possibility of some platform-specific artifacts ending up in the contract documents, which is not what you intended to happen.

Q. What about those existing/legacy services that do a run time lookup? Won't those break?

The question that needs to be asked at this point is why these services are doing a run time lookup, is there value being added by this capability in this client, and are there alternatives that will enable the client to provide the same functionality without compromising security? 

As an example take the case of a BEA Weblogic client.  If you will look at the documentation that BEA provides on building a Dynamic client you will note that they provide two different approaches, one that uses a dynamic WSDL lookup and another that does not. The interesting thing about this is that the approach that uses the WSDL makes a run-time lookup of a Web Service's WSDL which will end up breaking if the ?WSDL functionality is turned off. But the alternative approach of building a dynamic client provides the same functionality without the run-time WSDL lookup.

From what I can see, from a functional perspective there is no difference between the two approaches and given that one of the things that you want to do when developing web services, or any software for that matter, is to minimize the number of external dependencies, I would choose the second option of NOT doing a run-time WSDL lookup in this particular case. What is regrettable in this case is that it appears that the default configuration in BEA's tooling is to use the run-time WSDL option (Or so I have been informed), which leads to issues when folks who choose the default options with their tools develop the clients. 

Mitigating these information disclosure threats requires both developers and operational support folks to understand their shared responsibility for security. Developer's need to understand that security should be part of the software development lifecycle and is not something that is bolted on at the end or is 'thrown over the wall' for someone else to take care of. Operational folks need to understand that a layered defense in depth strategy is needed and that secure coding practices of developers are an essential component of any operational environment. In particular the mentality of "Firewalls and SSL will save us all" needs to change for all parties concerned.

9/21/2008 3:09 PM Eastern Daylight Time  |  Comments [1]  |  Disclaimer  |  Permalink   
Monday, September 22, 2008 4:32:55 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)
Apache Axis defaults to not sending full stack traces over the wire; WSDL generation can also be turned off. You don't need to by extra XML security hardware just to lock down the basics of an endpoint. There may be other reasons to do so, but a fear of WSDL or SOAPFAult is not them. Now, if you are really devious, you could set you SOAP endpoints to return false WSDL that triggered failures in the recipient.

Se also the Axis security guide:

Steve Loughran (formerly of the Axis team)
Comments are closed.