Remember the time, security awareness was a topic?

Setting up this blog remembered me on an old security issue I stumbled upon some years ago. At that time I was simply lazy to investigate in more detail, but this time I took a closer look.

Let's do the time warp...

Before getting into this security thing, let's do a little time travel: Do you remember telnet and the so called rtools like rlogin/rsh/rcp/...? As ethernet hardware became cheaper and available for private use, these commands quickly disappeared from the TCP/IP dance floor and were quickly replaced by SSH counterparts. Do you also remember why did this happen? Yes, because these tools allowed an IP-based authentication and/or sent the user's password plain text over the network. They have done so since many years, but now because of the cheap network hardware it became easy for "everyone" to spy on a network and fetch all the passwords walking by.

SSH stopped this. For a while...

The presence

Today, with Web 2.0, security awareness seems to be a lost ideal from the past. No one cares about the privacy of private data or the security of their communication. So many of those fancy and stylish social network services use plain text password authentication over HTTP. Or if you take a look at the incredible popular and narcissistic blogosphere, where XML-RPC based APIs were used by blogging clients to talk to their online publishing system, you'll find this:

An additional downside of XML-RPC based APIs is their lack of security. Although security can be introduced by other means such HTTPS, in their basic operation these transports deliver user credentials as plain text. This leaves an open door to password interception.
("Beginning RSS and Atom programming" by Danny Ayers and Andrew Watt, 2005, page 525)

Or before that in 2003 Mark Pilgrim stated in »The Atom API« about the MetaWeblog API:

Passwords are sent in the clear, as plain text.

That was 6 years ago. At least 6 years of plain text passwords. 6 years of free and unencrypted WLAN access at Starbucks or whatever other public place. You don't need to be a genius to smell a rat there.

Who to blame?

And you can't actually blame MetaWeblog or other XML-RPC APIs. Why should the API concern about encryption, if it's so easy to implement in a lower layer? Like in HTTPS as mentioned above. It's so easy to set up HTTPS and use it for the XML-RPC API. Sure, big and popular blog hosting services already do it this way, but myriads of self-maintained, self-hosted blogs don't. Doesn't matter if it's a private or a corporate blog.

Can you blame the user? No. The user should be able to turn the computer on and off, and USE it. He's there to use the computer and not to think about it. I don't want to think about how an ATM secures my financial transactions.

Can you blame the system administrators? Yes, a big yes. Whoever is responsible for the IT infrastructure should be aware of this issue and should take appropriate actions.

Who else? Of course the software developers! Another big yes. Why do they make it so easy for the people to set up insecure systems? They can easily implement something to force the use HTTPS or at least, inform the users and ask them to actively do something to enable unencrypted XML-RPC over HTTP.

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About

Kai 'Oswald' Seidler writes about his life as co-founder of Apache Friends, creator of XAMPP, and technology evangelist for web tier products at Sun Microsystems.

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