Understanding the Rails Authenticity Token – Dev

The best answers to the question “Understanding the Rails Authenticity Token” in the category Dev.

QUESTION:

I am running into some issues regarding the Authenticity Token in Rails, as I have many times now.

But I really don’t want to just solve this problem and go on. I would really like to understand the Authenticity token.
Well, my question is, do you have some complete source of information on this subject or would you spend your time to explain in details here?

ANSWER:

The authenticity token is designed so that you know your form is being submitted from your website. It is generated from the machine on which it runs with a unique identifier that only your machine can know, thus helping prevent cross-site request forgery attacks.

If you are simply having difficulty with rails denying your AJAX script access, you can use

<%= form_authenticity_token %>

to generate the correct token when you are creating your form.

You can read more about it in the documentation.

ANSWER:

What happens

When the user views a form to create, update, or destroy a resource, the Rails app creates a random authenticity_token, stores this token in the session, and places it in a hidden field in the form. When the user submits the form, Rails looks for the authenticity_token, compares it to the one stored in the session, and if they match the request is allowed to continue.

Why it happens

Since the authenticity token is stored in the session, the client cannot know its value. This prevents people from submitting forms to a Rails app without viewing the form within that app itself.
Imagine that you are using service A, you logged into the service and everything is ok. Now imagine that you went to use service B, and you saw a picture you like, and pressed on the picture to view a larger size of it. Now, if some evil code was there at service B, it might send a request to service A (which you are logged into), and ask to delete your account, by sending a request to http://serviceA.com/close_account. This is what is known as CSRF (Cross Site Request Forgery).

If service A is using authenticity tokens, this attack vector is no longer applicable, since the request from service B would not contain the correct authenticity token, and will not be allowed to continue.

API docs describes details about meta tag:

CSRF protection is turned on with the protect_from_forgery method,
which checks the token and resets the session if it doesn’t match what
was expected. A call to this method is generated for new Rails
applications by default.
The token parameter is named authenticity_token by default. The name
and value of this token must be added to every layout that renders
forms by including csrf_meta_tags in the HTML head.

Notes

Keep in mind, Rails only verifies not idempotent methods (POST, PUT/PATCH and DELETE). GET request are not checked for authenticity token. Why? because the HTTP specification states that GET requests is idempotent and should not create, alter, or destroy resources at the server, and the request should be idempotent (if you run the same command multiple times, you should get the same result every time).

Also the real implementation is a bit more complicated as defined in the beginning, ensuring better security. Rails does not issue the same stored token with every form. Neither does it generate and store a different token every time. It generates and stores a cryptographic hash in a session and issues new cryptographic tokens, which can be matched against the stored one, every time a page is rendered. See request_forgery_protection.rb.

Lessons

Use authenticity_token to protect your not idempotent methods (POST, PUT/PATCH, and DELETE). Also make sure not to allow any GET requests that could potentially modify resources on the server.


EDIT: Check the comment by @erturne regarding GET requests being idempotent. He explains it in a better way than I have done here.

ANSWER:

The authenticity token is used to prevent Cross-Site Request Forgery attacks (CSRF). To understand the authenticity token, you must first understand CSRF attacks.

CSRF

Suppose that you are the author of bank.com. You have a form on your site that is used to transfer money to a different account with a GET request:

enter image description here

A hacker could just send an HTTP request to the server saying GET /transfer?amount=$1000000&account-to=999999, right?

enter image description here

Wrong. The hackers attack won’t work. The server will basically think?

Huh? Who is this guy trying to initiate a transfer. It’s not the owner of the account, that’s for sure.

How does the server know this? Because there’s no session_id cookie authenticating the requester.

When you sign in with your username and password, the server sets a session_id cookie on your browser. That way, you don’t have to authenticate each request with your username and password. When your browser sends the session_id cookie, the server knows:

Oh, that’s John Doe. He signed in successfully 2.5 minutes ago. He’s good to go.

A hacker might think:

Hmm. A normal HTTP request won’t work, but if I could get my hand on that session_id cookie, I’d be golden.

The users browser has a bunch of cookies set for the bank.com domain. Every time the user makes a request to the bank.com domain, all of the cookies get sent along. Including the session_id cookie.

So if a hacker could get you to make the GET request that transfers money into his account, he’d be successful. How could he trick you into doing so?
With Cross Site Request Forgery.

It’s pretty simply, actually. The hacker could just get you to visit his website. On his website, he could have the following image tag:

<img src="http://bank.com/transfer?amount=$1000000&account-to=999999">

When the users browser comes across that image tag, it’ll be making a GET request to that url. And since the request comes from his browser, it’ll send with it all of the cookies associated with bank.com. If the user had recently signed in to bank.com… the session_id cookie will be set, and the server will think that the user meant to transfer $1,000,000 to account 999999!

enter image description here

Well, just don’t visit dangerous sites and you’ll be fine.

That isn’t enough. What if someone posts that image to Facebook and it appears on your wall? What if it’s injected into a site you’re visiting with a XSS attack?

It’s not so bad. Only GET requests are vulnerable.

Not true. A form that sends a POST request can be dynamically generated. Here’s the example from the Rails Guide on Security:

<a href="http://www.harmless.com/" onclick="
  var f = document.createElement('form');
  f.style.display = 'none';
  this.parentNode.appendChild(f);
  f.method = 'POST';
  f.action = 'http://www.example.com/account/destroy';
  f.submit();
  return false;">To the harmless survey</a>

Authenticity Token

When your ApplicationController has this:

protect_from_forgery with: :exception

This:

<%= form_tag do %>
  Form contents
<% end %>

Is compiled into this:

<form accept-charset="UTF-8" action="https://stackoverflow.com/" method="post">
  <input name="utf8" type="hidden" value="&#x2713;" />
  <input name="authenticity_token" type="hidden" value="J7CBxfHalt49OSHp27hblqK20c9PgwJ108nDHX/8Cts=" />
  Form contents
</form>

In particular, the following is generated:

<input name="authenticity_token" type="hidden" value="J7CBxfHalt49OSHp27hblqK20c9PgwJ108nDHX/8Cts=" />

To protect against CSRF attacks, if Rails doesn’t see the authenticity token sent along with a request, it won’t consider the request safe.

How is an attacker supposed to know what this token is? A different value is generated randomly each time the form is generated:

enter image description here

A Cross Site Scripting (XSS) attack – that’s how. But that’s a different vulnerability for a different day.

ANSWER:

What is CSRF?

The Authenticity Token is a countermeasure to Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF). What is CSRF, you ask?

It’s a way that an attacker can potentially hijack sessions without even knowing session tokens.

Scenario:

  • Visit your bank’s site, log in.
  • Then visit the attacker’s site (e.g. sponsored ad from an untrusted organization).
  • Attacker’s page includes form with same fields as the bank’s “Transfer Funds” form.
  • Attacker knows your account info, and has pre-filled form fields to transfer money from your account to attacker’s account.
  • Attacker’s page includes Javascript that submits form to your bank.
  • When form gets submitted, browser includes your cookies for the bank site, including the session token.
  • Bank transfers money to attacker’s account.
  • The form can be in an iframe that is invisible, so you never know the attack occurred.
  • This is called Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF).

CSRF solution:

  • Server can mark forms that came from the server itself
  • Every form must contain an additional authentication token as a hidden field.
  • Token must be unpredictable (attacker can’t guess it).
  • Server provides valid token in forms in its pages.
  • Server checks token when form posted, rejects forms without proper token.
  • Example token: session identifier encrypted with server secret key.
  • Rails automatically generates such tokens: see the authenticity_token input field in every form.