General Blog

Let’s Talk Basics About Cross Site Request Forgery (CSRF)

It became apparent to me that my understanding of CSRF was lacking, or uh, basically non-existent. This post aims to fix that! Come learn about it along with me.

Note: This particular post is NOT a hacking tutorial on abusing CSRF, though I’m sure I will post one in the near future (make sure to subscribe or hit up my Twitter feed so you’ll know when that comes out).


What is Cross Site Request Forgery?

Well we know that it is consistently in the OWASP Top 10 for web application vulnerabilities, but what does it actually do?

CSRF is when another website is able to make a request, as a victim user, to the target website. What does that mean? Well, it means that an attacker may trick the users of a web application into performing unwanted tasks, such as transferring funds, changing their email address, deleting their account, posting a comment, etc.

Let’s say there is a web application running on vulnerable.com (please don’t try to actually visit this site, I have no idea what is there and whether or not its a valid webpage). In our fake scenario, vulnerable.com hosts a simple web application where you can create an account and post a comment on a text board. There is also a page for you to be able to delete your account. Normally, if an end-user wanted to actually delete their account, they would browse to this page, click the confirmation button, and then a request would be made to the webserver that looks something like this:

POST /delete_my_account HTTP/1.1
Host: vulnerable.com
Content-Type: application/x-www-form-urlencoded
Cookie: SessionID=d42be1j5

delete = 1

The key items to note about this is that there is a POST request to vulnerable.com/delete_my_account for a specific SessionID. Now in a perfect world, the only person who would initate this request would be the actual end-user behind that SessionID, but what if us — evil hackers — wanted to delete the account for them without their consent?

This is where CSRF comes in. Let’s, as attackers, spin up a malicious webpage at evil.com (same disclaimer as before) and add code so that we initiate that same request mentioned above once a user accesses our webpage. If vulnerable.com doesn’t have protections in place, we could leverage CSRF to send the same POST request and delete user accounts on a completely separate website without the users consent.


So how do we mitigate this?

There are a number of mitigation techniques.

Add a hash (session id, function name, service-side secret) to all forms.
This method involves including a random, unique identifier to webforms when a user accesses the page. The idea behind this technique is that attack webservers will not possibly be able to know what unique identifier is being used for the victim user on the target website. This means that even if they attempt a CSRF attack, the target website will notice that the unique identifier is missing and reject the POST request.

Checking the Referrer header in the client’s HTTP request.
When a web request is submitted, there is typically a referrer header added that specifies where that web request originated. Ensuring that the request has come from the original site means that attacks from other sites will not function.

Note: This method may not always be reliable for web-developers if the user utilizes ad-blocker or additional privacy protection methods, as the referrer header on a valid web request may indicate the request came from one of these third parties.

Signing off of webpages when not in use.
While CSRF is really a problem with the web application, and not the end user utilizing the webpage, users can protect themselves by signing out or killing any active sessions for their sensitive webapps BEFORE browsing the web or accessing a different page.

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