Most web-based database applications make use of email to allow users to change their passwords. Completing securing this operation can be tricky business, and one of the best ways to do it is to user database server abilities.
Disclaimer 1: Only As Secure as Email
We tend to take it for granted today that password reset systems work through email. We reason that if a user can access an email sent by us then they are who they say they are. Obviously this will not be true if a user's email account has been compromised.
Dealing with the possibility of compromised email accounts is outside the scope of this week's essay. There are other strategies available to reduce that risk, but they will be treated in some future essay.
Disclaimer 2: Only SSL (HTTPS) of Course!
It is not much use giving yourself a super-secure email system if you transmit sensitive information over unencrypted connections. Secure Socket Layers (SSL) should always be used when high security is required. For the end-user this means they are going to a site through HTTPS instead of HTTP.
Password Resets vs. Sending Passwords
On some low-security systems it is acceptable to send a user his password in an email. This approach is very ill-advised in higher security contexts because we have no control over the user's storage of that email. It could end up anywhere, and anybody might read it.
When security requirements are higher, it is better to force the user to reset their password. There are several reasons for this, but the important one here is that we do not want to send the actual password in an email. Therefore we must send a link that sends them to a page where they can provide a new password.
If we spell out the requirements for a secure password reset system, they are at the very least these:
- We must generate some hash and send it to the user, this is how she will identify herself so we can let her change her password.
- The hash must expire at some point, since we cannot be sure the user will completely purge out the email (or that he even can, depending on the policy of the email host).
- It must be completely impossible for anybody to read the hash, otherwise they could intercept the reset process and set a password for themselves.
- Despite requirement 3 just listed, we must somehow verify the hash when the user presents it.
- We must be able to change the user's password, which is a priveleged operation, even though the user is not even logged in.
It is not actually possible to implement these requirements in application code alone (or perhaps I should say is not possible to do it and meet minimum acceptable risk). There are two problems if you try it:
- Requirements 3 and 4 cannot be reconciled. If the application is able to read the hash to verify it, then a vulnerability in the application code could lead to compromise. If we implement in application code we have the burden of ensuring practically zero vulnerabilities, while if we go server-side we have no such burden (at least for this feature).
- Requirement five requires the application code to connect at a very high privelege level, which could lead to completely unrelated vulnerabilities.
Implementing In The Database
The system I will now describe meets all 5 of the requirements listed above while never requiring a priveleged connection to the database. The feature is implemented in an isolated system that cannot touch other systems, and it has no burden to be particularly careful in writing the application code.
Since a picture is worth a thousand words, here it is:
The process begins at the top left. The user (Yellow circle) clicks on some "Forgot Password" link and provides an email or account id. This goes to web server which generates an INSERT to the insert-only table of hashes. This insert contains only the user's id, nothing else is needed. There is a trigger on the table that fires on the INSERT. This trigger generates the hash and sends the email to the user.
The salient features here are that the table is insert-only, which is explained below, and that the trigger operates at super-user level, which is also explained below.
Once the user receives the link and clicks on it, our process goes over to the right. The user lands on a page and provides a new password (and probably of course must type it in twice). The web server does basic things like making sure the two values match, that the password is long enough, and like that, and then generates an INSERT into a second table. The insert contains the email or account ID, the hash, and the desired new password.
The magic begins on the INSERT into the second table. An INSERT trigger running at superuser level is allowed to look at the first table and verify the hash and its expiration. If these match, it sets the user's password.
Simple, really, IMHO.
Feature 1: Insert Only Tables
This system depends on creating tables that any unpriveleged user can insert into, but which nobody can SELECT from or UPDATE to or DELETE from.
This may sound like a joke: "Insert Only Table", something like "Write only memory". But the idea is very simple, if nobody can SELECT from the table then nobody can discover active hashes. If nobody can UPDATE the table then nobody can forge hashes. Finally, if nobody can DELETE from the table then nobody can cause mischief.
The code for the tables looks like this:
-- FIRST TABLE CREATE TABLE users_pwrequests ( recnum_pwr integer, user_id character varying(40), md5 character(32), ts_ins timestamp without time zone, ) -- NOTE! This syntax is PostgreSQL, there may be -- slight variations on other platforms. REVOKE ALL ON TABLE users_pwrequests FROM PUBLIC; GRANT INSERT ON TABLE users_pwrequests FROM PUBLIC; -- SECOND TABLE CREATE TABLE users_pwverifies ( recnum_pwv integer, user_id character varying(40), md5 character(32), member_password character varying(20), ) REVOKE ALL ON TABLE users_pwverifies FROM PUBLIC; GRANT INSERT ON TABLE users_pwverifies FROM PUBLIC;
Feature 2: Trigger Security Priveleges
It is possible on most servers to severely limit a user's allowed actions on a table, but then to provide trigger code that fires on those actions and executes a super-user level. Today's technique depends upon this ability. Trigger code operating at superuser level can look at the insert-only table to verify a hash, and it can also set the user's password.
This basic ability is what makes triggers so amazing and cool for implementing business logic (see also Triggers and Encapsulation), because there is no way for a user to directly invoke a trigger for his own nefarious purposes, and there is no way for a cracker to avoid the firing of the trigger if he performs an action on a table. Triggers are truly the most powerful example of encapsulation of data and code that is available to today's programmer.
The first trigger looks something like this ( this is PostgreSQL code, your server will likely require variations) (I have also stripped it down for brevity, it may not work exactly without modification):
CREATE OR REPLACE FUNCTION users_pwrequests_ins_bef_r_f() RETURNS trigger AS $BODY$ DECLARE NotifyList text = ''; ErrorList text = ''; ErrorCount int = 0; AnyInt int; AnyRow RECORD; AnyChar varchar; AnyChar2 varchar; AnyChar3 varchar; AnyChar4 varchar; BEGIN -- necessary for an old glitch in pg security SET search_path TO public; -- Only execute if the user's id is valid SELECT INTO AnyInt Count(*) FROM users WHERE user_id = new.user_id; IF AnyInt > 0 THEN SELECT INTO AnyChar email FROM users WHERE user_id = new.user_id; -- This lets you put the email itself into -- a table for admin control SELECT INTO AnyChar2 variable_value FROM variables WHERE variable = 'PW_EMAILCONTENT'; -- Also the server is stored in a table SELECT INTO AnyChar3 variable_value FROM variables WHERE variable = 'SMTP_SERVER'; -- This becomes the email FROM Address SELECT INTO AnyChar4 variable_value FROM variables WHERE variable = 'EMAIL_FROM'; IF AnyChar4 IS NULL THEN AnyChar4 = ''; END IF; -- Very important! Set the md5 hash! new.md5 := md5(now()::varchar); -- Call out to a stored procedure that sends emails PERFORM pwmail(AnyChar ,'Password Reset Request' ,AnyChar2 || new.md5 ,AnyChar3 ,AnyChar4); EXECUTE ' ALTER ROLE ' || new.user_id || ' NOLOGIN '; END IF; -- 3000 PK/UNIQUE Insert Validation END; $BODY$ -- The "SECURITY DEFINER" is crucial, it allows -- the trigger to run as the super-user who -- created it LANGUAGE 'plpgsql' VOLATILE SECURITY DEFINER
The second trigger looks like this:
CREATE OR REPLACE FUNCTION users_pwverifies_ins_bef_r_f() RETURNS trigger AS $BODY$ DECLARE NotifyList text = ''; ErrorList text = ''; ErrorCount int = 0; AnyInt int; AnyRow RECORD; AnyChar varchar; AnyChar2 varchar; AnyChar3 varchar; AnyChar4 varchar; BEGIN SET search_path TO public; -- Read the first table to see if the -- link is valid and has not expired SELECT INTO AnyInt Count(*) FROM users_pwrequests WHERE user_id = new.user_id AND md5 = new.md5 AND age(now(),ts_ins) < '20 min'; IF AnyInt = 0 THEN ErrorCount = ErrorCount + 1; ErrorList = ErrorList || 'user_id,9005,Invalid Link;'; ELSE -- Magic! The user's password is set EXECUTE 'ALTER ROLE ' || new.user_id || ' LOGIN PASSWORD ' || quote_literal(new.member_password); -- Very important! Now that we have set it, -- erase it so it is not saved to the table new.member_password := ''; END IF; -- 3000 PK/UNIQUE Insert Validation IF ErrorCount > 0 THEN RAISE EXCEPTION '%',ErrorList; RETURN null; ELSE RETURN new; END IF; END; $BODY$ LANGUAGE 'plpgsql' VOLATILE SECURITY DEFINER;
Feature 3: Sending Email From Database Server
The technique present above requires that your database server be able to send emails. This is not always possible. Postgresql (www.postgresql.org) can do it, and I have to believe the other big guys can as well, but I have not tried it yet personally.
To send emails through a PostgreSQL server, you must install Perl as an untrusted language, and then install the Perl MAIL package. If anybody wants to know more about that then please leave a comment and I will expand the essay to include that.
Feature 4: The Empty Column
There is one more note that should be made. To use this system, you must tell the server the user's desired new password. To do that, you must actually make it part of the INSERT command and therefore you must have a column for it in the 2nd read-only table. However, you certainly do not want to actually save it, so you have the trigger set the password first and then blank out the value, so the final row saved to the table does not actually contain anything. This is noted in the code comments on the second trigger, which is included above.
The technique presented today makes full use of database server abilities to create a password reset system that is highly resistant to forgery, interception, and evil-admin meddling. It makes use of a combination of restrictive table security, priveleged trigger code, and sending emails from the database server.