CGI programming offers you something amazing: as soon as your script is online, it is immediately available to the entire world. Anyone from almost anywhere can run the application you created on your web server. This may make you excited, but it should also make you scared. Not everyone using the Internet has honest intentions. Crackers may attempt to vandalize your web pages in order to show off to friends. Competitors or investors may try to access internal information about your organization and its products.
A cracker is someone who attempts to break into computers, snoop network transmissions, and get into other forms of online mischief. This is quite different from a hacker, a clever programmer who can find creative, simple solutions to problems. Many programmers (most of whom consider themselves hackers) draw a sharp distinction between the two terms, even though the mainstream media often does not.
Not all security issues involve malevolent users. The worldwide availability of your CGI script means that someone may run your script under circumstances you never imagined and certainly never tested. Your web script should not wipe out files because someone happened to enter an apostrophe in a form field, but this is possible, and issues like these also represent security concerns.
On the Internet, your web site represents your public image. If your web pages are unavailable or have been vandalized, that affects others' impressions of your organization, even if the focus of your organization has nothing to do with web technology.
You may have valuable information on your web server. You may have sensitive or valuable information available in a restricted area that you may wish to keep unauthorized people from accessing. For example, you may have content or services available to paying members, which you would not want non-paying customers or non-members to access. Even files that are not part of your web server's document tree and are thus not available online to anyone (e.g., credit card numbers) could be compromised.
Someone who has cracked your web server has easier access to the rest of your network. If you have no valuable information on your web server, you probably cannot say that about your entire network. If someone breaks into your web server, it becomes much easier for them to break into another system on your network, especially if your web server is inside your organization's firewall (which, for this reason, is generally a bad idea).
You sacrifice potential income when your system is down. If your organization generates revenue directly from your web site, you certainly lose income when your system is unavailable. However, even if you do not fall into this group, you likely offer marketing literature or contact information online. Potential customers who are unable to access this information may look elsewhere when making their decision.
You waste time and resources fixing problems. You must perform many tasks when your systems are compromised. First, you must determine the extent of the damage. Then you probably need to restore from backups. You must also determine what went wrong. If a cracker gained access to your web server, then you must determine how the cracker managed this in order to prevent future break-ins. If a CGI script damaged files, then you must locate and fix the bug to prevent future problems.
You expose yourself to liability. If you develop CGI scripts for other companies, and one of those CGI scripts is responsible for a large security problem, then you may understandably be liable. However, even if it is your company for whom you're developing CGI scripts, you may be liable to other parties. For example, if someone cracks your web server, they could use it as a base to stage attacks on other companies. Likewise, if your company stores information that others consider sensitive (e.g., your customers' credit card numbers), you may be liable to them if that information is leaked.
These are only some of the many reasons why web security is so important. You may be able to come up with other reasons yourself. So now that you recognize the importance of creating secure CGI scripts, you may be wondering what makes a CGI script secure. It can be summed up in one simple maxim: never trust any data coming from the user. This sounds quite simple, but in practice it's not. In the remainder of this chapter, we'll explore how to do this.
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