When Features Trump Security: Twitter’s Ongoing Security Concerns.

There were so many times when I was coding up early versions of Lobaco that I didn’t give any thought to security. Mostly it was because the features I was developing weren’t really capable of divulging anything that wasn’t already public so I happily kept on coding leaving the tightening up of the security for another day. Afterwards I started using some of the built in authentication services available with the Windows Communication Framework but I realised that whilst it was easy to use with the Silverlight client it wasn’t really designed for anything that wasn’t Windows based. After spending a good month off from programming what would be the last version of Geon I decided that I would have to build my own services from the ground up and with that my own security model.

You’d think with security being such a big aspect of any service that contains personal information about users that there would be dozens of articles about. Well there are but none of them were particularly helpful and I spent a good couple days researching into various authentication schemes. Finally I stumbled upon this post by Tim Greenfield who laid out the basics of what has now become the authentication system for Lobaco. Additionally he made the obvious (but oh so often missed) point that when you’re sending any kind of user name and password over the Internet you should make sure it’s done securely using encryption. Whilst that was a pain in the ass to implement it did mean that I could feel confident about my system’s security and could focus on developing more features.

However when it comes down to the crunch new features will often beat security in terms of priority. There were so many times I wanted to just go and build a couple new features without adding any security into them. The end result was that whilst I got them done they had to be fully reworked later to ensure that they were secure. Since I wasn’t really working under any deadline this wasn’t too much of a problem, but when new features trump security all the way to release you run the risk of releasing code into the wild that could prove devastating to your users.

No example of this has been more prolific than the recent security issues that have plagued the popular micro-blogging service Twitter. Both of them come hot on the heels of the release of the new Twitter website released recently that enables quite a bit more functionality and with it the potential to open up holes for exploitation. The first was intriguing as it basically allowed someone to force the user’s browser to execute arbitrary Java script. Due to the character length limit of Twitter the impact this could have was minimised, but it didn’t take long before malicious attackers got a hold of it and used it for various nefarious purposes. This was a classic example of something that could have easily been avoided if they sanitised user input rather than checking for malicious behaviour and coding against it.

The second one was a bit more ugly as it had the potential to do some quite nasty things to a user’s account. It used the session details that Twitter stores in your browser to send messages via your account. Like the other Twitter exploit it relied on the user’s typical behaviour of following links posted by the people they follow. This exploit can not be squarely blamed at Twitter either as the use of link shortening services that hide the actual link behind a short URL make it that much harder for normal users to distinguish the malicious from the mundane. Still Twitter should have expected such session jacking (I know I have) and built in counter measures to stop them from doing it.

Any large public system will attract those looking to exploit it for nefarious means, that’s part and parcel of doing business on the web. The key then is to build your systems with the expectation that they will be exploited rather than waiting for an incident to arise. As a developer I can empathise that developing code that’s resistance to every kind of attack is next to impossible but there are so many things that can be done to ensure that the casual hackers steer clear. Twitter is undergoing a significant amount of change with a vision to scale themselves up for the big time, right up there with Google and Facebook. Inevitably this will mean they’ll continue to have security concerns as they work to scale themselves out and hopefully these last two exploits have shown them that security is something they should consider more closely than they have in the past.

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