If you've taken the time to read over the "Top 25 Most Dangerous Programming Errors" published by SANS recently, you may (or may not) have noticed that CWE-319 is an anomaly, and should be easily picked out by developers and security professionals in a game called "which one of these is not like the other".


If your software sends sensitive information across a network, such as private data or authentication credentials, that information crosses many different nodes in transit to its final destination. Attackers can sniff this data right off the wire, and it doesn't require a lot of effort. All they need to do is control one node along the path to the final destination, control any node within the same networks of those transit nodes, or plug into an available interface. Trying to obfuscate traffic using schemes like Base64 and URL encoding doesn't offer any protection, either; those encodings are for normalizing communications, not scrambling data to make it unreadable.

Prevention and Mitigations

Architecture and Design
Secret information should not be transmitted in cleartext. Encrypt the data with a reliable encryption scheme before transmitting.

When using web applications with SSL, use SSL for the entire session from login to logout, not just for the initial login page.

Configure servers to use encrypted channels for communication, which may include SSL or other secure protocols.

1. This is not a "programming error"

The first problem with the inclusion of this "error" on the list is that it is not a programming error. It may be a poor design, architectural, or deployment decision, but it is not an "error".   While not necessarily a problem with the actual weakness described, the misnomer is frustrating and undermines the rest of the list, most of which are actual errors in coding practices that need to be addressed.

SSL can be easily enabled by any customer, regardless of how the web application is written. Using SSL has always been suggested as part of a secure architecture, and it is organizations not using SSL that bear the burden of failure to implement this simple security scheme, not necessarily developers.

Trying to force software vendors to force SSL on its customers is an end-run around the sad fact that most organizations fail to implement proper encryption when necessary.

2. Mitigation through encryption can disrupt security systems internally

SSL enabled servers require that the organization obtain and manage the appropriate server-side certificates. SSL usage is the responsibility of the organization deploying the software, not the software vendor. Ensuring the web application works correctly when deployed using SSL may be the vendor's responsibility, but configuring it that way is clearly a matter of architectural choice on the part of the organization deploying the software.

It is likely that this remediation solution was intended to direct developers to always use HTTPS instead of HTTP when loading URLs, rather than using relative paths. This likely requires rework on the part of the developers of web applications to obtain the host name dynamically before constructing the proper URL rather than using relative paths. This would also require organizations to ensure an environment that supports SSL, which puts the onus of a secure implementation squarely back on the organization, not the vendor.

The ramifications of implementation of SSL from client all the way to server can include the inadvertent elimination of the ability of other security systems - IDS, IPS, WAF - to perform their tasks unless specifically configured to decrypt, then examine the requests and responses, and then re-encrypt the session before sending it on to the appropriate server. This requires re-architecture on the part of the organization, and careful consideration of the security of systems on which such keys and/or certificates are will be stored. This is important as the compromise of any system storing the keys and/or certificates may lead to the "bad guys" obtaining these important pieces of security architecture, thus rendering any application or system relying upon that data insecure.

3. Encrypted malicious data is still malicious

A very wise man told me once that malicious data encrypted is still malicious. Using SSL encryption certainly keeps the "bad guys" from looking at and capturing sensitive data, but as noted in issue number 3 it also keeps security devices from inspecting the exchange in its goal of detecting and preventing malicious data from getting near the web application or web server, where it is likely to do harm.

The "bad guys" have the same level of access to those means as do the normal users; this does nothing to prevent the insertion of malicious data but does make it more difficult to detect and prevent, unless the application is requiring client-side certificates, which opens yet another can of worms and can seriously degrade the flexibility of the application in supporting a wide variety of end-user devices.

The result, no matter how it is implemented, is security theater at its finest. 


CWE-319 should not have been included on a list of top "programming errors", and the remediation solutions offered fail to recognize that the majority of the burden of implementation is on the organization, not the software vendor. It fails to recognize the impact of the suggested implementations on the application and the supporting infrastructure, and it is likely to cause more problems than it will solve. 

The blind adoption of this list as a requirement for procurement by the state of New York, and likely others soon to follow, is little more than a grand gesture designed to send a message not to vendors, but to its customers and, likely, the courts. Certainly requiring software be certified against this list could be considered due-diligence in any lawsuit resulting from the inadvertent leak of sensitive information, thereby proving no negligence on the part of the organization and therefore no liability.

While enabling SSL communications is certainly a good idea, it is important to remember that it - like other encryption schemes - is merely obfuscation. It will blindly transport malicious data as easily as it does legitimate data, and failure to adjust internal architectures to deal with SSL across all required security and application delivery devices does little to enhance security in any real meaningful way.


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