Thursday, February 14, 2008

Path of Least Resistance == Most Rails Apps Send Your Password In the Clear

The bulk of developers will follow the gradient down hill, even many of the ones who think they're rebels (I'm pretty sure this scene from Life of Brian was about Steve Jobs and the cult of iConform).

Too bad for them, right? Well, no. Too bad for us as a software industry with a reputation for troubled delivery. And too bad for us as citizens and consumers, who suffer from bad software not only in dramatic ways but in having our private data (passwords, SSNs, etc.) sprayed all over.

Elegant and minimalist principles are great; still, if you give most software developers a knife without a sheath, it's only a matter of time before the blood starts flowing from somewhere.

I was surprised when I realized that Rails has no built-in authentication module; more surprised when AWDR "teaches" you to roll your own authentication; and most surprised when I realized that acts_as_authenticated (nice, but intentionally not sophisticated) is de facto standard for auth in Rails.

Hmmm... I wonder how many of those Rails sites I use all the time actually bother to protect my credentials? If the originating or following page isn't kept in SSL, you can't tell by looking for the little "lock icon," but you can tell be having a look at where those login forms are posting to.

I looked at the first two pages (24 apps) on, a site that claims to be "the unambiguous showcase for sites designed with Ruby on Rails," and which is linked directly off of the Apps page at

Eight of these sites are content-only and don't offer logins. Of the remaining 16, fully 12 send their passwords in the clear. Two of the four which don't are AOL properties, required by AOL to use a combination of AOL SNS or OpenID, and SSL.

Of the 14 Rails sites built by non-AOL companies and taking a password, 12 (85%) just send all their users' passwords in the clear.

Some of these organizations think that because their services may not contain sensitive data, it doesn't matter. But most people use a very limited set of passwords (or just one!) for all online sites. When someone keys a password into a site I build, I protect it because I assume that is also their online banking password, or their email password, etc.

To be fair, it is no secret that HTML forms are vulnerable in transmission, and many Rails resources point out that the easiest solution to this is to employ SSL. But clearly the message is falling on deaf ears.

And these developers aren't even trying to cleverly roll-their-own system. They're not hashing the username/password on the client (vulnerable to MITM, replay, impersonation, and other problems but better than nothing); they're not using a nonce and hashing (still broken but better). They may not even realize there's a problem.

To be fair to Rails, it's not the only platform in this fix. I was stunned when Microsoft rolled out a nice set of prebuilt User/Role/Profile/Login components in ASP.Net 2.0, without building any security in. I figured these widgets would get dropped into a lot of sites without a second thought.

It's a little "wider" issue for Rails, though, because, Microsoft has been strong in enterprise development where there are IT departments and policies that may wedge SSL in there before an app makes it to production. Whereas Rails is used more widely in smaller organizations where there is not likely to be anyone with the authority to impose security on a development team.

For ASP.Net, where many developers never look under the hood of the components, and both the client-side script and server-side post-back handling is accessible inside the ASP.Net stack, I would recommend loading the login widget with the best possible pseudo-security using JavaScript crypto for non-SSL scenarios, and then still requiring the developer to actively add a web.config setting to allow running in non-SSL mode. This has the added benefit that, when the app is moved to a production environment for the first time, with a new web.config, the error will pop up again as a reminder right at deployment time.

For Rails, things are a little more complicated. It's going to come down to better educating, and perhaps a little more structured thinking about what I call the "application model" (not platform nor architecture). Which I will write about next time.

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