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Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF) is an attack that tricks the victim into loading a page that contains a malicious request. It is malicious in the sense that it inherits the identity and privileges of the victim to perform an undesired function on the victim's behalf, like change the victim's e-mail address, home address, or password, or purchase something. CSRF attacks generally target functions that cause a state change on the server but can also be used to access sensitive data. For most sites, browsers will automatically include with such requests any credentials associated with the site, such as the user's session cookie, basic auth credentials, IP address, Windows domain credentials, etc. Therefore, if the user is currently authenticated to the site, the site will have no way to distinguish this from a legitimate user request

In short, a successful CSRF attack uses a valid http request, but often with malicious data to cause unwanted and unintended results, which assumes a valid identity of end user by using above mentioned browser's way of handling of user related information.

ZK and CSRF attack limitations

According OWASP mentioned CSRF Limitations, in order to mount a successful CSRF attack several things have to happen:

1. The attacker must target either a site that doesn't check the referrer header (which is common) or a victim with a browser or plug-in that allows referer spoofing (which is rare).

This can be avoided by adding a servlet filter that checks if all request referrer and origin headers contain the appropriate values.

2. The attacker must find a form submission at the target site, or a URL that has side effects, that does something (e.g., transfers money, or changes the victim's e-mail address or password).

By design ZK is an Ajax solution. Because of this design generally no form submit nor specific URL request can cause side effects.

3. The attacker must determine the right values for all the form's or URL's inputs; if any of them are required to be secret authentication values or IDs that the attacker can't guess, the attack will fail.

ZK generates unique ids for html elements that represent ZK components on client side and these unique ids are checked on server side when data containing them is passed via ZK's Ajax mechanism. For successful CSRF attack, the attacker will have to guess all unique ids for those html elements while submitting the malicious request. If the html element ids are not the same as they were when page rendered then the data is considered invalid by ZK and request is rejected at server side automatically.

Also note that ZK will regenerate these ids if the components are re-rendered via page refresh or component are re-created again.

4. The attacker must lure the victim to a Web page with malicious code while the victim is logged into the target site.

This is more of a humane issue and depends on the end user. Application developers should raise the awareness about CSRF by documenting this in their application documentation which end users can refer to.

ZK Desktop ID as CSRF token

General recommendation to prevent CSRF is to use Synchronizer Token Pattern. Generally this is done by inserting a unique token usually referred as csrf token in the generated html and check it on server side on form submission. ZK employs similar technique in the form of desktop id. Each url in ZK web application when requested gets associated a Desktop instance on server side. Please refer to [Desktop and Pages] for more details on the concept of Desktop in ZK.

ZK desktop is discarded and re-created each time a new page is loaded in browser or even the current page is refreshed. On each re-rendering of page a new automatically generated unique id is assigned to desktop.

Once the page is loaded this desktop id is carried via ZK Ajax mechanism and on each interaction this unique desktop id will be passed as Ajax request POST data.

ZK CSRF Protection Notes:

  1. There is no One-to-One relation between Desktop id and http Session id
  2. Desktop ID is unique per page per url. Even same url across different browser tabs in same browser instance will be assigned unique desktop ID.
  3. For successful CSRF attack against, the attacker not only has to guess unique desktop ID but also each and every unique ids assigned to the html element for corresponding ZK widgets on client side. If even one is not correct then the entire request is rejected at server side without executing any application level code containing business logic

Version History

Last Update : 2014/9/16

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Copyright © Potix Corporation. This article is licensed under GNU Free Documentation License.

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