Things you (probably) didn’t know about your webserver

Today’s webservers are incredibly complex beasts. I don’t know how many of the people operating Apache have read the full specifications. I sure didn’t. So it should come as no surprise that there are hidden features in our servers (and some of them turned on by default), which can weaken our defenses. There are two that I want to talk about today, both turned on by default:

  • The first (and the more important one, although in security every item is important) was only recently publicized and involves sending an invalid header to Apache, which responds with an error page. I’ve got this one from the SecuriTeam blog. If the default error pages were not changed, they will include the invalid header, so a cross-site scripting attack is possible. To test if your site is vulnerable, you can use curl like this: curl http://localhost/asdf -H "Expect: <script>alert('Vulnerable');</script>" -v -i. If the output contains the alert, your server is vulnerable. To worsen the situation, you can use Flash or XMLHttpRequest to create these types of requests (although not with Firefox, which disallows the transmission of this header). Now don’t start filtering on Mozilla browsers, because user agents can also be spoofed. The two possible workarounds are: create custom error pages (harder if you host multiple sites) or enable mod_headers and use the following global rule: RequestHeader unset Expect early (tested with Apache 2.2.3 on WinXP). This might slow your webserver a little down as described in the documentation, but at least you’re not vulnerable until you update Apache.
  • The second is a lesser problem, and involves the possibility of stealing cookies if the site has a XSS vulnerability even if the cookies are marked HttpOnly: It involves sending a TRACE request to the webserver. This request is usually used for debugging, and echoes everything back, including the cookie headers. Again Flash or XMLHttpRequest can be used to craft these special queries. A more detailed description of them can be found here: To test if your vulnerable, telnet to your webserver and enter the following commands:
    TRACE / HTTP/1.1
    Host: localhost (replace it with your host)
    X-Header: test
    (two enters)

    and you should see everything echoed back to you. As described here, you can use mod_rewrite to filter this attack, by adding the following rules:

    RewriteEngine On
    RewriteCond %{REQUEST_METHOD} ^TRACE
    RewriteRule .* - [F]

    And it is also a good idea to make sure that your sites are not vulnerable to XSS 😉

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