Rails provides many great security features. It’s design can also create significant security holes. In the case of ActiveRecord’s mass assignment vulnerability, the security issues are more servere and widespread than many of us recognize.
Nearly every open source Rails application I’ve seen is vulnerable, and most closed source ones as well. There’s some great solutions for protecting your application from attack, but first, the problem:
By default ActiveRecord allows visitors access to any writer method, that is, any method ending with an equal sign. This comes courtesy of the
ActiveRecord::Base#attributes= method, which is used internally by the main methods that handle creating and updating records, including
The way most applications are designed means that whatever data a visitor sends to the server will likely find its way through the
attributes=() method, and if not protected, ActiveRecord will happily update the records based on what was sent. In less technical terms: ActiveRecord is insecure by default.
As an example, let’s look at a request against vulnerable code:
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# The request $ curl -X PUT -d "order[price_in_cents]=0" example.com/orders/225
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class Order < ActiveRecord::Base # Table name: orders # id :integer(11) not null, primary key # price_in_cents :integer(11) # user_id :integer(11) # state :string(255) has_many :line_items acts_as_state_machine :initial => :pending state :pending state :paid def name ... end def shipped_on=(shipping_date) ... end end
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class OrdersController < ApplicationController ... def update @order.update_attributes(params[:order]) end end
- Attributes generated from its table:
price_in_cents=, user_id=, state=
- Attributes generated by association macros:
- Other defined writer methods:
Ruby’s dynamic nature and ActiveRecord’s changing API make this excercise more of a guess than anything else. Does Rails 2.1 dynamicly generate different writer methods? Will Rails 2.2? How about the plugins and libraries the application relies on?
Theoritically, this isn’t a problem since ActiveRecord provides a solution out of the box:
“Sensitive attributes can be protected from this form of mass-assignment by using the
attr_protected macro. Or you can alternatively specify which attributes can be accessed with the
Naturally, profesional developers experienced with the framework use
attr_accessible/attr_protected and don’t suffer from these problems. As a quick poll, here’s a few of the more popular open source code bases:
- Insoshi is second only to Rails as a top forked project on github. It’s a social networking app developed by a seed funded startup whose team includes the author of a very well-reviewed book on developing social applications in Rails.
- Mephisto, the Rails-based blogging application, which Railspikes runs on.
- Anonymous App is a large Rails project with seasoned developers. I’m withholding its details since it has security issues that are still being addressed.
- Rubyflow, the codebase of Peter Cooper’s very useful Ruby news aggregation site.
- Spree is a rapidly-maturing ecommerce project and powers RailsEnvy’s new screencast store.
Good projects. Professional developers. Every project except Mephisto is vulnerable. Any forum thread in Insoshi will raise exceptions and be unusable after the user_id is changed to a non-existent user. A similiar approach worked on Anonymous and Rubyflow. Since these projects lacked any strategy for handling this kind of problem, it’s highly probable that much more damaging attacks exist. One example: Spree’s public exposure of the
'state' attribute allowed me to make my order appear as though it was paid for when I hadn’t even entered my payment information. While these projects vary in terms of risk, in each case the cost of solving this issue is cheap when compared to the cost of cleaning up after an attack.
I’m singling out these applications because they’re popular and open source, but every project I’ve developed has experienced the same security issues. The only thing that seems to change is how much data is vulnerable and how important it is. It’s a difficult problem to manage. Retrofitting security on existing code is a very unpleasant experience. It’s easy to forget when developing new applications. Educating other developers on the problem has proved unreliable.
As an aside, I’m impressed by the response of the developers on these projects. Insoshi, Rubyflow, and Spree addressed the issue almost instantly after being informed. It was a reminder to me of how lucky I am to be involved in such a passionate, professional community. Michael Hartl of Insoshi went so far as to write a mass assignment auditing plugin and offers some great advice on how he ended up tackling the problem.
- Don’t use attr_protected. I haven’t seen a compelling use case for it. It’s functionality is confusing. It should probably be removed from ActiveRecord.
- Do use attr_accessible. Its white list approach forces an explicit decision on the mass assignablity of attributes. A rule of thumb: if an attribute shouldn’t be in a user submitable form, it shouldn’t be accessible.
- Review and audit. Even with
attr_accessible, a developer can still shoot themselves in the foot without code audits and reviews. Even if the application is secure today, holes will eventually be introduced into the code. In addition to peer review, automated auditing tools are a great, inexpensive way to find such security problems.
- Make it automatic. Disable mass assignment by default, requiring
attr_accessibleto be specified for each attribute. I’ve taken this approach on maybe 5 projects now. Here’s how to do it:
It’s worked quite well, with the exception of two cases where I had to retrofit it on larger applications. That was a nightmare. I’ve been tinkering with a plugin that aims to reduce some of the problems caused by
attr_accessible, and make retrofitting a more pleasant experience. It’s not production ready, but I think there’s some small improvements in it worth stealing.
The downside: it’s pretty much a guarantee that you’ll run into confusing bugs during development. This is a major problem for developers new to the framework, and is annoying for the more experienced. ActiveRecord used to raise exceptions in development when mass assignment was attempted with an inaccessible attribute. This was great, but there were a few complaints, and conflicts with ActiveResource, so the change was pulled.
A better solution?
An alternative approach worth exploring is the route taken by Merb, which decided this is the controller’s problem, and has a plugin providing
params_accessible functionality. There’s a similar plugin for Rails . This approach may be especially appreciated by developers who want to add some level of protection to an existing application, since less code needs to change.
I’ve hesitated to use this on applications that use ActiveRecord, which has a bad habit of making methods part of the public api when they should be privately scoped (those ending in _id, _ids, _count, most enumerables, etc) Because of this,
attr_accessible serves double duty by discouraging public use of writer methods that should be private. Not really the best excuse, and I’d like to give the
params_protected approach a try on my next Rails project.
Regardless of the solution, the cost of designing applications to handle potential mass assignment abuse from the beginning is so much cheaper than attempting to retroactively address the issue. Rails should step up and encourage such design decisions. Whether it’s something as extreme as disabling mass assignment from the start, or an unobtrusive change like adding a commented out
attr_accessible line in generated models, the risk shouldn’t be ignored.
Security ToolsThere’s a few other related tools that look promising for developing securer code:
- Tarantula: A fuzzing plugin that spiders your application looking for problems. Via Stuart Halloway’s post on Revelance’s blog: “It crawls your rails app, fuzzing inputs and analyzing what comes back. We have pointed Tarantula at about 20 Rails applications, both commercial and open source, and have never failed to uncover flaws.” Aaron Bedrak’s Rails Security Audit PDF on Peepcode devotes significant space to getting this up and running. It also covers a few of the common mistakes developers can make when using a framework like Rails, and that alone may make it a worthwhile read.
- ratproxy: Happened upon this on Google’s excellent security blog . From their announcement post: “[ratproxy] is designed to transparently analyze legitimate, browser-driven interactions with a tested web property and automatically pinpoint, annotate, and prioritize potential flaws or areas of concern.”
- Audit Mass Assignment: Scans ActiveRecord models looking for potential mass assignment mistakes.
- Find Mass Assignment: Searches controller actions for likely mass assignment, and then find the corresponding models that don’t have attr_accessible defined.
- Railscasts: Hackers Love Mass Assignment
- Quark Ruby: Rails Security Guide
- Eric Chapweske: attr_inaccessible plugin
- Merb’s param protection plugin
- Christopher J. Bottaro’s params protected for Rails
- Peepcode: Rails Security Audit PDF
- Relevance: Tarantula vs. your Rails app
- Google: Meet ratproxy our passive web security
- Ryan Lowe: Audit Mass Assignment Rake Task
- Michael Hartl: Find Mass Assignment Rake Task