Buffer Overflows

One of the most common exploits used to hack into software is the buffer overflow. The buffer overflow is a result of poor coding practices on the part of software programmers-when any program reads input into a buffer (an area of memory) and does not validate the input for correct length, the potential for a buffer overflow exists. The buffer overflow vulnerability occurs when an application can accept more input than it has assigned storage space and the input data overwrites other program areas. The exploit concept is simple: A cracker writes an executable program that performs some action on the target machine and appends this code fragment to a legitimate response to a program on the target machine. When the target machine reads through the too long response, a buffer overflow condition causes the original program to fail. The extra malicious code fragment is now in the machine's memory, awaiting execution. If the cracker executed it correctly, the program will skip into the cracker's code, running it instead of crashing.

Java and JavaScript

Java is a computer language invented by Sun Microsystems as an alternative to Microsoft's development languages. Designed to be platform-independent and based on C, Java offered a low learning curve and a way of implementing programs across an enterprise, independent of platform. Although platform independence never fully materialized, and the pace of Java language development was slowed by Sun, Java has found itself to be a leader in object-oriented programming languages. Java, and its close cousin JavaScript, operates through an interpreter called a Java Virtual Machine (JVM) on each platform that interprets the Java code, and this JVM enables the program's functionality for the specific platform. This reliance on an interpretive step has led to performance issues, and Java is still plagued by poor performance when compared to most other languages. Security was one of the touted advantages of Java, but in reality, security is not a built-in function but an afterthought and is implemented independent of the language core. This all being said, properly coded Java can operate at reasonable rates, and when properly designed can act in a secure fashion.

These facts have led to the wide dependence on Java for much of the server-side coding for e-commerce and other web-enabled functionality. Servers can add CPUs to address speed concerns, and the low learning curve has proven cost efficient for enterprises. Java was initially designed to be used in trusted environments, and when it moved to the Internet for general use, safety became one of its much-hyped benefits. Java has many safety features, such as type checking and garbage collection, that actually improve a program's ability to run safely on a machine and not cause operating system-level failures. This isolates the user from many common forms of operating system faults that can end in the "blue screen of death" in a Windows environment, where the operating system crashes and forces a reboot of the system. Safety is not security, however, and although safe, a malicious Java program can still cause significant damage to a system.

JavaScript is a form of Java designed to be operated within a browser instance. The primary purpose of JavaScript is to enable features such as validation of forms before they are submitted to the server. Enterprising programmers found many other uses for

JavaScript, such as manipulating the browser history files, now prohibited by design. JavaScript actually runs within the browser and the code is executed by the browser itself. This has led to compatibility problems, and not just between vendors, such as Microsoft and Mozilla, but between browser versions. Security settings in Internet Explorer are done by a series of zones, allowing differing level of control over .Net functionality, ActiveX functionality, and Java functionality. Unfortunately, these settings can be changed by a Trojan program, altering the browser without alerting the user and lowering the security settings. In Firefox, using the NoScript add-in is a solution to this, but the reduced functionality leads to other issues, and requires more diligent user intervention.


ActiveX is the name given to a broad collection of APIs, protocols, and programs developed by Microsoft to download and execute code automatically over an Internet-based channel. The code is bundled together into an ActiveX control with an .ocx extension.

These controls are referenced in HTML using the <object> tag. ActiveX is a tool for the Windows environment and can be extremely powerful. It can do simple things, such as enable a browser to display a custom type of information in a particular way, and it can also perform complex tasks, such as update the operating system and application programs. This range of abilities gives ActiveX a lot of power, but this power can be abused as well as used for good purposes.


The Common Gateway Interface (CGI) was the original method for having a web server execute a program outside the web server process, yet on the same server. The intent was to pass information via environment variables to an independent program, execute the program, and return the results to the web server for display. Web servers are presentation and display engines, and they provide less than stellar results when used for other purposes. For example, a web server instance can have numerous independent connections, and a program failure that results in a process bounce can affect multiple users if it is run within the web server process. Separating any time-consuming and more risky programming cores, such as database lookups and manipulation, complex calculations, and other tasks, into separate processes was and still is a prudent idea.

Server-Side Scripts

CGI has been replaced in many web sites through newer server-side scripting technologies such as Java, Active Server Pages (ASP), ASP.Net, and PHP. All these technologies operate in much the same fashion as CGI: they allow programs to be run outside the web server and to return data to the web server to be served to end users via a web page. Each of these newer technologies has advantages and disadvantages, but all of them have stronger security models than CGI. With these security models comes reduced functionality and, as each is based on a different language, the learning curves are steeper.

Still, the need for adherence to programming fundamentals exists in these technologies code must be well designed and well written to avoid the same vulnerabilities that exist in all forms of code. Buffer overflows are still an issue. Changing languages or technologies does not eliminate the basic security problems associated with incorporating open-ended user input into code. Understanding and qualifying user responses before blindly using them programmatically is essential to the security of a system.


Cookies are small chunks of ASCII text passed within an HTTP stream to store data temporarily in a web browser instance. Invented by Netscape, cookies pass back and forth between web server and browser and act as a mechanism to maintain state in a stateless world. State is a term that describes the dependence on previous actions. By definition, HTTP traffic served by a web server is stateless-each request is completely independent of all previous requests, and the server has no memory of previous requests. This dramatically simplifies the function of a web server, but it also significantly complicates the task of providing anything but the most basic functionality in a site. Cookies were developed to bridge this gap. Cookies are passed along with HTTP data through a Set Cookie message in the header portion of an HTTP message.

Signed Applets

Code signing was an attempt to bring the security of shrink-wrapped software to software downloaded from the Internet. Code signing works by adding a digital signature and a digital certificate to a program file to demonstrate file integrity and authenticity. The certificate identifies the author, and the digital signature contains a hash value that covers code, certificate, and signature to prove integrity, and this establishes the integrity of the code and publisher via a standard browser certificate check. The purpose of a company signing the code is to state that it considers the code it created to be safe, and it is stating that the code will not do any harm to the system (to the company's knowledge). The digital signature also tells the user that the stated company is, indeed, the creator of the code.

Browser Plug-ins

The addition of browser scripting and ActiveX components allows a browser to change how it handles data, tremendously increasing its functionality as a user interface. But all data types and all desired functionality cannot be offered through these programming technologies. Plug-ins are used to fill these gaps.

Plug-ins are small application programs that increase a browser's ability to handle new data types and add new functionality. Sometimes these plug-ins are in the form of ActiveX components, which is the form Microsoft chose for its Office plug-in, which enables a browser to manipulate various Office files, such as pivot tables from Excel, over the web. Adobe has developed Acrobat Reader, a plug-in that enables a browser to read and display Portable Document Format (PDF) files directly in a browser. PDF files offer platform independence for printed documents and are usable across a wide array of platforms-they are a compact way to provide printed information.