Friday, December 13, 2013

Reflections on Password Complexity

Michael Coates started an interesting thread on the OWASP Leaders list about password policy complexity guidance.

I think that password policy overall is a failure and we indeed need to update our guidance on this topic.

Password length is the most important mathematical aspect to password policy, so passphrases seem like a good idea. But if your passphrase is a known sentence from a book, or just a collection of dictionary words - then the benefit decreases significantly. Here are some interesting articles that discuss this problem to some degree from the perspective of offline password cracking.;wap2

Jeffrey Walton suggested to me that one of the most important aspects to a good password policy is to not allow users to use commonly used passwords; even passwords that fit your corporate password policy. For example, the password Password1! probably would be accepted by most corporate password policies, but it's a dangerously bad and commonly used password. Hackers conduct "reverse brute force attacks" where they take a commonly used but supposedly strong password, and make one attempt against a large list of accounts. This and other reasons have prompted some banks to enforce strong policies on usernames!

I feel like the use of Password Managers is one of the key aspects to secure user password management. I know of several mid-size companies who have or are starting to enforce their use. Bob Lord, the Director of Security at Twitter, has led the charge of enforcing this on the entire Twitter staff. I think this move is a big win for Twitters internal security.

Last, any password advice needs to push multi-factor. Poorly misquoting John Steven (as well as taking his quote out of context), "Using passwords to protect your account will help you as much as motorcycle helmets will protect you at high speed."

Monday, January 14, 2013

SecAppDev 2013, 4-8 March, Leuven, Belgium

Dear all,

We are pleased to announce SecAppDev Leuven 2013, an intensive one-week course in secure application development. The course is organized by, a non-profit organization that aims to broaden security awareness in the development community and advance secure software engineering practices. The course is a joint initiative with KU Leuven and Solvay Brussels School of Economics and Management.

SecAppDev 2013 is the 9th edition of our widely acclaimed course, attended by an international audience from a broad range of industries including financial services, telecom, consumer electronics and media and taught by leading software security experts including
  • Prof. dr. ir. Bart Preneel who heads COSIC, the renowned crypto lab. 
  • Ken van Wyk, co-founder of the CERT Coordination Center and widely acclaimed author and lecturer. 
  • Dr. Steven Murdoch of the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory's security group, well known for his research in anonymity and banking system security. 
  • Jim Manico, an OWASP board member. 
  • John Steven, a sought-after architect for high-performance, scalable JEE systems. 
When we ran our first annual course in 2005, emphasis was on awareness and security basics, but as the field matured and a thriving security training market developed, we felt it was not appropriate to compete as a non-profit organization. Our focus has hence shifted to providing a platform for leading-edge and experimental material from thought leaders in academia and industry. We look toward academics to provide research results that are ready to break into the mainstream and attract people with an industrial background to try out new content and formats.

The course takes place from March 4th to 8th in the Faculty Club, Leuven, Belgium.

For more information visit the web site:

  • Places are limited, so do not delay registering to avoid disappointment.
  • Registration is on a first-come, first-served basis.
  • A 25% discount is available for Early Bird registration until January 15th.
  • Alumni, public servants and independents receive a 50% discount.

I hope that we will be able to welcome you or your colleagues to our course.

Kind regards,

-- Lieven Desmet

Friday, January 4, 2013

Handling Untrusted JSON Safely

JSON (JavaScript Object Notation) is quickly becoming the de-facto way to transport structured text data over the Web, a job also performed by XML. JSON is a limited subset of the object literal notation inherent to JavaScript, so you can think of JSON as just a part of the JavaScript language. As a limited subset of JavaScript object notation, JSON objects can represent simple name-value pairs as well as lists of values.

BUT with JSON comes JavaScript and with JavaScript comes the potential for JavaScript Injection, the most critical type of Cross Site Scripting (XSS).

Just like XML, JSON data needs to be parsed to be utilized in software. The two major locations within a Web application architecture where JSON needs to be parsed are in the browser client-side and in application code on the server.

Parsing JSON can be a dangerous procedure if the JSON text contains untrusted data. For example, if you parse untrusted JSON in a browser using the JavaScript "eval" function, and the untrusted JSON text itself contains JavaScript code itself, the code will execute during parse time.

"To convert a JSON text into an object, you can use the eval() function. eval() invokes the JavaScript compiler. Since JSON is a proper subset of JavaScript, the compiler will correctly parse the text and produce an object structure. The text must be wrapped in parens to avoid tripping on an ambiguity in JavaScript's syntax.
var myObject = eval('(' + myJSONtext + ')'); 
The eval function is very fast. However, it can compile and execute any JavaScript program, so there can be security issues."
So, the essential question is: How can programmers and applications parse untrusted JSON safely?

Parsing JSON safely, Client Side

The most common safe way to parse JSON safely in a modern browser is to utilize the JSON.parse method inherent to JavaScript. Here is a good reference that describes the state of JSON.parse browser support. And for legacy browsers that do not support native JSON parsing, there is always Douglas Crockfords JSON parsing library for legacy browsers.

Parsing JSON in the browser is often the result of an asynchronous request returning JSON to the browser. Another technique that is becoming more common is to embed JSON directly in a Web page server side, and then to parse and render that JSON in the browser. The mechanism of embedding JSON safely in a Web page is described here:

Step 1 includes embedded JSON on a web page safely through HTML Entity Encoding:

<span style="display:none" id="init_data">
    <%= data.to_json %>  <-- data is HTML escaped -->

Step 2 and 3 includes decoding the JSON data and then parsing it safely.

    // unescapes the content of the span
    var jsonText = document.getElementById('init_data').innerHTML;
    // parse untrusted JSON safely
    var initData = JSON.parse(jsonText);

Parsing JSON safely, Server Side

It's important to use a formal JSON parser when handling untrusted JSON on the server. For example, Java Programmers can utilize the OWASP JSON Sanitizer for Java. The OWASP JSON Sanitizer project aspires to accomplish the following goals.
"Given JSON-like content, converts it to valid JSON. 
This can be attached at either end of a data-pipeline to help satisfy Postel's principle: 
Be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others            
Applied to JSON-like content from others, it will produce well-formed JSON that should satisfy any parser you use. 
Applied to your output before you send, it will coerce minor mistakes in encoding and make it easier to embed your JSON in HTML and XML."
The OWASP JSON Sanitizer project was created by and is maintained by Mike Samuel, an esteemed member of the Google Application Security Team. For more information on the OWASP JSON Sanitizer, please visit the OWASP JSON Sanitizer Google Code page.

I hope this article helps you on your way to safer parsing of JSON in your applications. Please drop me a line if you have any questions at

Jim Manico is the VP of Security Architecture for WhiteHat Security, a web security firm. Jim is also a board member for the OWASP foundation where he manages and participates in several projects.