The top 10 reasons Web sites get hacked

Web developers ignore security flaws at customers' peril

8. Insecure cryptographic storage

The problem: Many Web developers fail to encrypt sensitive data in storage, even though cryptography is a key part of most Web applications. Even when encryption is present, it's often poorly designed, using inappropriate ciphers.

"These flaws can lead to disclosure of sensitive data and compliance violations," OWASP writes.

Real-world example: The TJX data breach that exposed 45.7 million credit and debit card numbers. A Canadian government investigation faulted TJX for failing to upgrade its data encryption system before it was targeted by electronic eavesdropping starting in July 2005. How to protect users: Don't invent your own cryptographic algorithms. "Only use approved public algorithms such as AES, RSA public key cryptography, and SHA-256 or better for hashing," OWASP advises.

Furthermore, generate keys offline, and never transmit private keys over insecure channels.

It's pretty common to store credit card numbers these days, but with a Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard compliance deadline coming next year, OWASP says it's easier to stop storing the numbers altogether.

9. Insecure communications

The problem: Similar to No. 8, this is a failure to encrypt network traffic when it's necessary to protect sensitive communications. Attackers can access unprotected conversations, including transmissions of credentials and sensitive information. For this reason, PCI standards require encryption of credit card information transmitted over the Internet.

Real-world example: TJX again. Investigators believe hackers used a telescope-shaped antenna and laptop computer to steal data exchanged wirelessly between portable price-checking devices, cash registers and store computers, the Wall Street Journal reported.

"The $17.4-billion retailer's wireless network had less security than many people have on their home networks," the Journal wrote. TJX was using the WEP encoding system, rather than the more robust WPA.

How to protect users: Use SSL on any authenticated connection or during the transmission of sensitive data, such as user credentials, credit card details, health records and other private information. SSL or a similar encryption protocol should also be applied to client, partner, staff and administrative access to online systems. Use transport layer security or protocol level encryption to protect communications between parts of your infrastructure, such as Web servers and database systems.

10. Failure to restrict URL access

The problem: Some Web pages are supposed to be restricted to a small subset of privileged users, such as administrators. Yet often there's no real protection of these pages, and hackers can find the URLs by making educated guesses. Say a URL refers to an ID number such as "123456." A hacker might say 'I wonder what's in 123457?' Williams says.

The attacks targeting this vulnerability are called forced browsing, "which encompasses guessing links and brute force techniques to find unprotected pages," OWASP says.

Real-world example: A hole on the Macworld Conference & Expo Web site this year let users get "Platinum" passes worth nearly $1,700 and special access to a Steve Jobs keynote speech, all for free. The flaw was code that evaluated privileges on the client but not on the server, letting people grab free passes via JavaScript on the browser, rather than the server.

How to protect users: Don't assume users will be unaware of hidden URLs. All URLs and business functions should be protected by an effective access control mechanism that verifies the user's role and privileges. "Make sure this is done ... every step of the way, not just once towards the beginning of any multi-step process,' OWASP advises.

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Jon Brodkin

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