6/8/2009
02:12 PM
John H. Sawyer
John H. Sawyer
Commentary

Hacking Challenge Shows XSS Still King

Last week, another company got egg on its face by running a "we're-so-secure-you-can't-hack-our-stuff contest." When are companies going to learn claims like that always backfire?



Last week, another company got egg on its face by running a "we're-so-secure-you-can't-hack-our-stuff contest." When are companies going to learn claims like that always backfire?The latest "victim" is StrongWebMail, a company that said its Webmail solution was unhackable because it required two-factor authentication using the customer's phone. Of course, it was wrong. It published details of a contest that said it would award $10,000 to the person who successfully hacked into the Webmail of the company's CEO and retrieved the details of a task that was due on June 26. Mike Bailey, Lance James, and Aviv Raff stepped up and delivered the required information, which was then confirmed by the CEO.

Several different sources are currently reporting that the exploit was carried out through cross site scripting (XSS), but the company has yet to confirm the details, and the possible winners are not allowed to disclose their methods. (See PC World and Skeptikal.org for more information.)

Do PR stunts like this one make sense when trying to get your company's name or new product out there? How does someone sell the rest of the company after putting a sign on your own back that reads, "HACK ME!"? Especially to the legal team?

There's a saying that bad publicity is better than no publicity, and maybe that's what StrongWebMail is banking on here since the authentication mechanism isn't what was exploited. Exploiting an XSS vulnerability is an exploitation of the Website itself, the Web browser, and user behavior of either opening the e-mail or clicking on the link from an attacker. It was not a compromise of two-factor authentication. That said, does it matter? Not if the attacker can get to the data. Who cares how he got to it?

Maybe StrongWebMail's intentions were not so much PR. As I mentioned, it wanted to tout the greatness of its two-factor authentication and how it couldn't be circumvented. That in itself is putting a target on its back for any hacker and security researcher to take a whack at them. It's the kind of challenge, and money, that will bring all levels of hackers out of the woodwork. With a reward of $10,000, this challenge had to be one of the cheapest pen-tests ever, considering how much manpower was probably focused on it.

Whatever its goal, XSS has again proved to be more than a simple parlor trick for causing pop-up messages on affected sites. And just because you have multifactor authentication, encryption, and more, social engineering a user into opening an e-mail or clicking on a link is quite effective at bypassing all of those layers.

When are they going to learn?

John H. Sawyer is a senior security engineer on the IT Security Team at the University of Florida. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are his own and do not represent the views and opinions of the UF IT Security Team or the University of Florida. When John's not fighting flaming, malware-infested machines or performing autopsies on blitzed boxes, he can usually be found hanging with his family, bouncing a baby on one knee and balancing a laptop on the other. Special to Dark Reading.

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