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Core Concepts: Attack Surface

If you've ever looked at your application and wondered what kind of attacks it could be vulnerable to or what kind of resources exposed, you're already familiar with this "core concept" term and may not know it. The "Attack Surface" of your application is just this. It's the part of the application that an user, malicious or not, could access directly or through an exploit in your system. This includes things like:

  • Public resources or endpoints
  • Any open services on the hardware your application runs on (ports, other software, etc)
  • Protected resources with minimal security (or, heaven help you, security through obscurity)
  • Publicly exposed database connections
  • Open sourced code from a third party tool you're using

All of these, and more, are things that need to be taken into consideration when you're thinking about what's vulnerable in your application. That's the definition:

Figuring out the Attack Surface of your application is the mapping of its parts that need to be tested for security vulnerabilities, regardless of if they're public or not. It involved estimating risk and evaluating countermeasures put in place to see if they're good enough prevention against possible attacks.

There's a key point in there to remember - not all of your attack surface is going to be a publicly facing part of your application. Remember, while a large percentage of what you'll need to worry about is external, there's still always the risk of internal security issues caused - inadvertently or on purpose - from people inside your company or organization.

Aspects of The Surface

There's a lot of things that can contribute to the Attack Surface of your application, but for the purposes of this article I'm only going to focus on the software security side. As developers, there's a lot that can be done to ensure that the services and functionality of your application are protected, without having to worry too much about the other pieces of the puzzle.

I've talked some about the things that could make up the attack surface of your application in more abstract terms, but let's get a bit more specific with some more real-world examples. For our purposes, lets use a REST API based on something like the Slim microframework.

Here's a super basic example of an endpoint, with authentication, that displays some user data back to the visitor (we're assuming they've already logged in at this point):

$app = new \Slim\Slim();
$auth = new Auth();
$db = new Db();

$app->get('/user/:username', function($username) use ($app, $auth, $db) {
    if (!$auth->user->allowed()) {

    $user = $db->find(array('username' => $username));
    if ($user !== null) {
        $app->render('user.php', $user);


It's a pretty simple example, but there's a lot of things to consider about it that could contribute to the overall integrity of your application, things like:

  • Does the allowed method check evaluate that the user is logged in correctly?
  • Is the database connection valid? (not checked before use)
  • There's no filtering being done on the value for "username", leaving it open to SQL injection
  • The data bing passed to the view (the second call to render) isn't being filtered at all

Now, there's a whole science to determining the severity of what's open to attack in your application (want more? check this out) but one of the easiest ways to record the current issues is in terms of the vulnerabilities they're related to. Some of the easiest ones to spot are those dealing with the OWASP Top Ten. In the case of our example above, we fit into a few of them:

  1. A1: SQL injections (not filtering input)
  2. A2: Cross-site scripting (not filtering output)
  3. A3: Broken session management (possible, but hard to tell here)
  4. A5: Cross-site Request Forgery

There's also another set of issues called the "SANS 25" that's a set of the most commonly found issues from SANS. Some of them are similar to the OWASP items above, but there's a few additional ones to consider:

  1. CWE-807: Reliance on Untrusted Inputs in a Security Decision (due to unfiltered data)
  2. CWE-723: Incorrect Permission Assignment for Critical Resource

Remember, when determining the attack surface of your application, you're not just looking at the current code and finding the issues and describing those. You're describing the overall risks associated with the application.

Also, it's easy to look at your application and assume that the risks are going to be the same across most of the application. You use the same authentication across the entire site, right? So if you assess that risk in one area, why bother with it in another? There's an easy answer here - while the app may share an authentication mechanism, the authorization for the sections of the site will most likely be different.

Minimizing the Surface

So, I've looked at some of the things to consider and how to evaluate your application's current attack surface. Now lets look at some practical things you can do to help remove some of this risk and make sure you've limited the amount of potential surface attackers could abuse.

First off, if you have the luxury of doing so, it's much easier to evaluate the surface during planning. This gives you the extra benefit of making good choices about implementations that will both best suit the application and introduce the least amount of risk. This isn't just for new features, either. This kind of planning should also take place when refactoring the application - especially for when critical components (like authorization or resource permissioning) are being reworked.

Secondly, if your application is pre-exisiting and you don't already have one, you should create a security policy that your group's developers can look at and find the standard answer for given situations. It should contain things both general to web application development and more specific to your application, things like:

  • Risks associated with functional pieces of the application
  • Practices regarding input validation and output escaping (down to the specific library if need be)
  • Authentication practices and authorization processes
  • Common structures of data outputted (and/or messaging)
  • Logging requirements (type, contents, destination)
  • Encryption requirements

Optionally, the policy can also contain how it will be enforced and by whom.

Thirdly (and this was just touched on), implement good logging and monitoring of your applications. Without good logging of what's going on in your application and checking to ensure it's not being abused, you can't know for certain that the measures you've put in place are effective. Testing them is great, but ensuring their working as expected in a real-world setup is invaluable. There's things that attackers can think of that may not be covered by your tests, so seeing where they're abusing the system and what kind of attacks they're using real time can help you more effectively protect the app.

CLASP and Software Development

One last thing I wanted to mention before finishing out this article was the CLASP project that the OWASP group has put together. By definition it is:

CLASP (Comprehensive, Lightweight Application Security Process) provides a well-organized and structured approach for moving security concerns into the early stages of the software development lifecycle, whenever possible. CLASP is actually a set of process pieces that can be integrated into any software development process. It is designed to be both easy to adopt and effective.

One of the early steps in this process is determining the attack surface and the planning around the risks it introduces. Note: this kind of planning can happen before even a single line of code has been written (and probably should). While the CLASP project seeks to define the security of a system as it relates to the overall picture of security withing an organization or project, a big part of it is assessing risks (current and future), planning the mitigation of them, describing the types of problems that could come up and the consequences of the exploitation of the issues - all things that can be discovered in the research for the attack surface of your application.


by Chris Cornutt

With over 12 years of experience in development and a focus on application security Chris is on a quest to bring his knowledge to the masses, making application security accessible to everyone. He also is an avodcate for security in the PHP community and provides application security training and consulting services.

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