Announcing VerifyOrigin

By: Dan McClain

In web applications, if you are using cookies for storing authentication state, you should be worrying about Cross Site Request Forgery (CSRF). In short, when using cookies, other sites can create an HTML form that submits to your backend. When your browser submits that form, it will attach any cookies it has that are associated with the URL that the form is submitted to. Without any steps taken to mitigate this, a malicious third party could create a form on their site that performs an action on application, maybe as harmless as following them on a site, or as malicious as deleting your account or transferring funds. OWASP has more details on CSRF attacks as well.

Typical CSRF prevention

The way that most applications mitigate CSRF attacks is by utilizing a synchronizer CSRF token that is stored in a hidden HTML input in the form which matches a token in the current user’s session. In short, malicious forms will be lacking this token and will be rejected. More details on token based mitigation are covered in this OWASP page.

What about Single Page applications? Is a JSON only API vulnerable?

CSRF tokens work well for server side rendered applications (SSR), since the HTML generated on the server can securely include the token that is in the session cookie. But what about single page application like Ember? Can you craft an HTML form to submit a valid request to a JSON based API? The answer is yes it is possible.

Ok, so how can we secure this API backend without a CSRF token?

Enter Referer/Origin header verification

With the exception of GET requests, when your browser submits a request, it attaches both a Referer (that typo is historical) and Origin header. The Origin header is a bit newer, it was originally introduced for Cross Origin Resource Sharing (CORS), but has been repurposed for CSRF mitigation as well. We can use the Referer or Origin header to verify that the request originated from the domain we expect. In this case, I prefer the Origin header. When a request originates at an HTTPS page and is made against an HTTP page, the Referer header is dropped, while the Origin header will continue to be sent. Both OWASP and Mozilla talk about the validity of using the Origin header as a way to mitigate CSRF attacks.

Places where CSRF prevention fails

No matter how good your CSRF prevention is, there are other vectors that will open your application to malicious requests. If your session cookie is not HTTPOnly (details), and/or you accidentally allow malicious JavaScript to execute on your site, you have a couple of problems. When not using HTTPOnly cookies, your cookies can be retrieved via JavaScript, and if you have malicious JavaScript on your site, someone could siphon off all your session cookies. At that point, this third party could forge any header it needs to, and then include the session cookie to automate requests against your server, so it could bypass the Origin check. They could also replace the cookie in their browser with another person’s cookie that they stole, and use your site as that user, bypassing CSRF Tokens. If your cookie is marked as HTTPOnly, they can still use malicious JavaScript via a Cross Site Scripting (XSS) attack, since any users’ browser that executes this malicious JavaScript will make the request with either the necessary CSRF token or Origin header.

Ok, so why all this information about CSRF mitigation?

At DockYard, we produce Ember applications for our clients. Since Ember is a single page application, Origin header checking is the best way we can protect any backends we produce. To the end, I recently published VerifyOrigin to VerifyOrigin provides a Plug you can add to your applications pipeline to only allow requests from Origins you expect:

plug VerifyOrigin, [""]

The plug expects a list of valid Origin URLs. If the request does not have an Origin header that matches your list, then it returns a 400 Bad Request response to the client. Simple CSRF mitigation for your Phoenix app is at your fingertips!

A special thanks to Craig Ingram, who I consulted with multiple times when coming up with this plug!