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HTTP Message Splitting,

Smuggling and Other


Amit Klein, OWASP-Israel steering

committee member/leader
Board member, WASC
Copyright © 2006 - The OWASP Foundation
Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this
document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation
Europ License.

May 2006
Introduction ([1])

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Peripheral Web Attacks

“Classic” web attacks – focus on server

(web) and its backend (app, DB). Acknowledge
the existence of a browser…
Server attacks (Nimda, CodeRed)
Application attacks
Back-end/DB attacks (SQL injection, *-injection)
Session hijacking, XSS
Peripheral web attacks (2004-) – focus on
what’s between the server and the client – how
introducing HTTP enabled intermediaries
makes the system less secure. [A note about
virtual hosting]

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(HTTP-enabled) Intermediary – an HTTP enabled

device/filter/thingy that processes the traffic
between the browser and the web server at the
HTTP level.
Peripheral web attack – an attack against a
system that contains at least one HTTP-enabled
intermediary, which is made possible due to the
introduction of this intermediary. The attack
makes use of the data stream (not the control

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HTTP Enabled Intermediaries

Cache server (on-site)

Cache server (client side)
SSL accelerator (SSL termination)
Load balancer
Reverse proxy server (on-site)
Forward/transparent proxy server (client side)
IDS/HTTP-aware firewall
Web Application Firewall (WAF)
(the browser’s cache)

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Root problems

Application (insecure code)

Liberal HTTP Parsing
HTTP connection sharing – breaks some
inherent assumptions, “inherent trust”
Acting upon HTTP messages at large
Caching – less control over the site content as
seen by the browser, no “reset”/”versioning”.
Serious amplification (time, clients)

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The HRS Quartet

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The HRS Quartet

Adagio: HTTP Response Splitting

Web cache poisoning
Larghetto: HTTP Request Smuggling
Allegro: HTTP Request Splitting
Vivace: HTTP Response Smuggling

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HTTP … Splitting – forcing an originator of

HTTP messages to emit 2 (or more) valid
(RFC-compliant) messages instead of one.
HTTP … Smuggling – [forcing] an
originator of HTTP messages to emit a
stream of data that can be interpreted in
more than one way, usually due to non-
compliancy to the RFC.

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The HRS Quartet:
Part I – Adagio: HTTP Response Splitting ([2])

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The basic idea

The security hole – an application that:

Embeds user data in HTTP response headers
(e.g. Location, Set-Cookie)
Does so without sanitizing data

This enables the attacker to force the

server into sending (on the wire) data that
is interpreted as 2 HTTP response

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 ASP page (say

Response.Redirect "
lang=" & Request.QueryString("lang")

 Normal request:

 Normal Response:

HTTP/1.0 302 Redirect

Connection: Keep-Alive
Content-Length: 0

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Example (contd.)
 Attack request

 Response (actually, 2 responses and some change):

HTTP/1.0 302 Redirect

Connection: Keep-Alive
Content-Length: 0

HTTP/1.0 200 OK
Content-Type: text/html
Content-Length: 20

<html>Gotcha</html>Connection: Keep-Alive
Content-Length: 0

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Web Cache Poisoning

 Let’s change into a “Gotcha!”


 Participants:
 Web site (with the vulnerability)
 Cache proxy server
 Attacker

 Attack idea:
 The attacker sends two requests:
1. HTTP response splitter
2. An innocent request for
 The proxy server will match the first request to the first response,
and the second (“innocent”) request to the second response (the
“Gotcha!” page), thus caching the attacker’s contents.

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Web Cache Poisoning -> Attack Flow
Attacker 1st attacker request Cache-Proxy Web Server
(response splitter) 1st attacker request
(response splitter)



2nd attacker request

(innocent /index.html)
2nd attacker request
(innocent /index.html)
(Gotcha!) 200

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Crossing Wires

Response Hijacking, temporary defacement -

Slide 15 revisited (see next slide)

Doesn’t require caching

Requires “connection sharing” (two clients to

one server) in the proxy server

Theoretic results

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Crossing Wires -> Attack Flow Sequence

Victim Attacker 1st attacker request Proxy Web Server

(response splitter) 1st attacker request
(response splitter)


200 request request

(Gotcha!) /index.html /index.html

(Victim’s account data)
(Victim’s account data)
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Attacks round-up

We have seen:
Web cache poisoning
Response hijacking
Temporary defacement (server side XSS++)

Additionally, there are (check the paper - [2])

XSS for IE in 3xx scenario
(attacks related to virtual hosting)

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Application level – do not pass “bad” data to the

framework (i.e., sanitize CRs and LFs).
Framework (ASP, JSP, PHP, …) level – do not
embed “bad” data into HTTP response headers.
Intermediaries (proxy servers, etc.):
Enforce causality (request before response)
PSH bit? (see [7])
Avoid connection sharing
Site owners
SSL only site (still leaves browser cache and post SSL
termination uncovered)

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The HRS Quartet:
Part II – Larghetto: HTTP Request Smuggling

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Basic Idea + Example

POST request with double Content-Length

RFC says “thou shalt not”.
Liberalism says “let’s try to understand
SunONE server (6.1 SP1) takes the first
SunONE proxy (3.6 SP4) takes the last

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Web cache poisoning (example)

Goal: cache server will cache the content of /poison.html for

the resource /welcome.html

POST http://SITE/foobar.html HTTP/1.1

... 1. /foobar.html
Content-Length: 0 2. /welcome.html

Content-Length: 44 Server:
1. /foobar.html
2. /poison.html
GET /poison.html HTTP/1.1
Host: SITE
Bla: GET http://SITE/welcome.html HTTP/1.1

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Example result

Proxy sees a second request to

/welcome.html, and will cache the second
Web server sees a second request to
/poison.html, so the second response would
be the contents of /poison.html.
The proxy will cache the contents of
/poison.html for the URL /welcome.html
Net result – the cache is (partially) poisoned

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Partial poisoning

Unlike “HTTP Response splitting”, there’s

no full control over the poisonous payload:
Poison must already exist on the server
Poison must be cacheable
But think blogs, forums, talkbacks,
guestbooks, personal pages, ….

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And it’s not just double Content-Length…

 Many (battle proven) anomalies

 Double Content-Length
 Transfer-Encoding and Content-Length
 GET with Content-Length
 IIS 48KB body bug/feature ([4])
 Many more…
 Many pairs of vulnerable devices
 Apache with everything…
 IIS with everything…
 Many more…

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Attack vectors

We have seen
Partial cache poisoning

Additionally, there are (check the paper -

IPS/IDS/Firewall/WAF bypassing
Other tricks similar to HTTP Response

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HTTP-enabled intermediary vendors

Be strict in what you accept ;-)
 Ideally: do not “fix” bad data – kill it… (feasible?)
 Otherwise: “fix” bad data
Avoid connection sharing
SSL only site

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The HRS Quartet:
Part III – Allegro: HTTP Request Splitting
([9], [12])

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 Goal:
 (part I) Forging “difficult” headers (e.g. Referer)
 Importance: subverts “defenses” that rely on Referer, e.g.
suggestions for CSRF protection, anti-leaching, etc.
 (part I) Scanning (e.g. internal networks)
 Importance: ability to access content of “off site” pages
 (part II) General XSS
 (part II) “local defacement” (browser cache poisoning)
 Usual suspect: XmlHttpRequest
 Restricted by same origin security policy (enforced by
the browser).
 Now if there’s a proxy (or virtual server)…

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Attack (Referer spoofing, scanning)
 Using XmlHttpRequest
 Sending more 2+ requests instead of one
 “Under the radar” of the browser
 Example
 IE’s XmlHttpRequest object doesn’t allow SP in the method. But HT (\t) is
allowed, and so are CR (\r) and LF (\n)
 The following JS code crafts 2 requests (to the proxy) where IE thinks it’s
sending only one
 Code resides in, yet accesses

var x = new ActiveXObject("Microsoft.XMLHTTP");"GET\t\tHTTP

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Attack (XSS, browser cache poisoning)

 Example (IE+Squid forward proxy)

var x = new


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Browser vendors
Strict sanitation/validation of the various
XmlHttpRequest fields (method, URL, headers)
SSL only site

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The HRS Quartet:
Part IV – Vivace: HTTP Response Smuggling

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Quick tour

Basic setup: HTTP Response Splitting

Goal: bypass “anti HTTP Response
Splitting” restrictions by crafting non-
standard responses
Will only work on a portion of the HTTP-
enabled entities – those that parse those non-
standard responses in a “friendly” manner.

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Example – bypassing PHP 5.1.2 (and 4.4.2)
anti HTTP Response Splitting defense
 Newest PHP releases impose heavy restrictions
on LF-infested data sent to header()
 LF is only allowed when followed by a SP/HT (HTTP
header continuation syntax)
 No more …%0d%0a%0d%0a… exploits
 Enters HTTP Response Smuggling
 Using CR only (not CRLF).
 Non compliance with the RFCs.
 Still, SunONE 4.0 proxy/cache server happily accepts
this and normalizes it.
 Net effect: HTTP Response Splitting (with all its
impact) is still possible, provided that the
cache/proxy server accepts CR.
 See other tricks in the paper ([11])
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Application programmers
Sanitize data going to HTTP headers against CR and LF.
Web server/framework vendors
Stricter filtering (no CRs, no LFs)
HTTP-enabled intermediaries
Reject non RFC-compliant responses
Site owners
SSL only site

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Domain Contamination ([10])

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Basic scenario

 You’re hacked
 Defacement
 Web cache poisoning
 Domain hijacking
 Cyber-squatting (no hacking really)
 Goal: effectively extending the defacement condition
“forever”, esp. after the attack is “reversed”.
 By carefully designing the attack, the attacker can cause
defaced pages to be cached for very long time.
 Cached pages can
Interact with real content (same domain!)
Interact with (and direct the victim to ) the attacker’s site

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Don’t get hacked ;-)

Use SSL only (addresses some vectors, not
No simple solution:
Need to extend the cache “protocol”/headers?
Other suggestions in [10]

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Cross Site Tracing in proxy servers ([6])

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Cross-Site Tracing (XST) Strikes Back

 Original XST ([5]) uses TRACE response from the

web server. Since 2003, TRACE is usually turned
off in web servers.
 Goal: given XSS condition, extend it to cover
HttpOnly cookies and HTTP basic authentication
credentials (a-la the original XST)

 TRACE is also supported by proxy servers.

 Used with Max-Forwards to “debug” proxy paths.
 Max-Forwards: 0
 The proxy response is just as good…
 Better yet: the server never sees what (doesn’t) hit
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HTTP-enabled intermediaries
Disallow TRACE
Browser vendors
Disallow TRACE as a method in
Disallow any non-alphanumeric method in

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NTLM HTTP Authentication
and proxies don’t mix ([8])

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NTLM HTTP Authentication and connection

NTLM HTTP authentication is connection oriented – the

first HTTP request on the TCP connection is
authenticated, and the rest don’t need authentication.
Goal: piggyback an authenticated connection of a
legitimate user.
Connection sharing scenario = big problem
Microsoft silently added “via” detection, killing the
But Via is not sent by all proxy servers.
Chain of proxies

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Site owners
Abandon NTLM HTTP Auth
Proxy vendors
Don’t share connections
Send VIA by default

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Root problems revisited

Application (insecure code)

HTTP Response Splitting, HTTP Response Smuggling
Browser “bugs”: XST++, HTTP Request Splitting
Liberal HTTP Parsing
HTTP Request Smuggling, HTTP Response Smuggling
HTTP connection sharing
HTTP Response Splitting, NTLM HTTP Auth problem
Acting upon HTTP messages at large
HRS (all four), Domain Contamination

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Common solutions

Application level (programmers, browser

Programmers: Sanitation
Browser vendors: Browser “bugs” – trivial
Liberal HTTP Parsing (vendors)
Drop (or fix) non-RFC-compliant requests
HTTP connection sharing (vendors)
Use SSL (site owners)
SSL only websites are transparent to outside-the-
perimeter intermediaries, except the browser cache

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 HTTP-enabled intermediaries enable new classes of attacks

 Previously “safe” features are now root causes
 Writing to HTTP headers
 Connection sharing
 Liberal HTTP parsing
 Some HTTP features in intermediaries (e.g. TRACE)
 Caching
 Site owners have less control
 HTTP intermediaries outside the perimeter
 Non-trivial analysis: interaction between intermediaries, server and
 Vulnerability assessment is never comprehensive
 Mitigation
 Tip of the iceberg?

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[1] “Meanwhile, on the other side of the web server” (Amit Klein, June 2005)
[2] “Divide and Conquer - HTTP Response Splitting, Web Cache Poisoning Attacks, and Other
Topics” (Amit Klein, March 2004)
[3] “HTTP Request Smuggling” (Chaim Linhart, Amit Klein, Ronen Heled, Steve Orrin, June
[4] “HTTP Request Smuggling - ERRATA (the IIS 48K buffer phenomenon)” (Amit Klein,
September 2005)
[5] “Cross-Site Tracing (XST)” (Jeremiah Grossman, January 2003)
[6] “XST Strikes Back” (Amit Klein, January 2006)
[7] “Detecting and Preventing HTTP Response Splitting and HTTP Request Smuggling Attacks
at the TCP Level” (Amit Klein, August 2005)
[8] “NTLM HTTP Authentication is Insecure by Design” (Amit Klein, July 2005)
[9] “Exploiting the XmlHttpRequest object in IE - Referrer spoofing, and a lot more...” (Amit
Klein, September 2005)
[10] “Domain Contamination” (Amit Klein, January 2006)
[11] “HTTP Response Smuggling” (Amit Klein, March 2006)
[12] “IE + some popular forward proxy servers = XSS, defacement (browser cache
poisoning)” (Amit Klein, May 2006)

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