Error messages and information leakage

Did you know that your application may be giving valuable clues to an attacker if an error occurs?

3 min read


By Tia Firing


December 7, 2018

It is always easier and less time consuming to attack or exploit an application that you know something about. If you know which application server it runs on or what kind of database server is being used, this information narrows down the number of relevant attacks considerably. If you are in luck (as an attacker, that is!), you may find that this version of the application server has some vulnerability that you can take advantage of.

Gathering information

One of the most common ways to gather information about an application and the surrounding infrastructure is by provoking errors. For instance, if you have some text input field, an attacker may try to input characters like ', ; or other characters that means something to a database to see if the application will return an error message. If the application is poorly secured, the attacker may even get the complete SQL query in the error message, which can be extremely useful.

How can we fix this?

So, how can we avoid helping the attacker and stop providing internal information through error messages? NEVER show stacktraces or internal error messages to the user (or to the frontend application, which is basically the same thing). You should always show the user a generic error message when something unexpected happens. In addition to not leaking information, this will also provide a better user experience. The generic error message can say something like "Something went wrong", and should not contain any information about what actually went wrong. This is also important to remember for the login page: If the user types the wrong password, the error message should not say that "The password is incorrect" as that gives away that the user id was in fact a valid user id.

To make sure that all errors are replaced with the generic error message you can have a filter that takes care of this at the outer boundary of the application, one that all responses passes through.

The devil is in the comments..

Another thing that is easy to forget is to remove comments from the frontend code. As the frontend code may be visible to the user, the comment about the API usage that was nice to have during development is not something that you want an attacker to see.

Keep an eye on the application logs

As probing for errors is a common way to gather information prior to an attack, you should always pay attention to your application logs with regards to any suspicious activity.

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