The Cookie Problem
The issue with web mail session management is centered around how session cookies are managed. Session cookies are files containing information about the state of the session. The web mail server records this information in a text file and stores this file on the web mail user's hard drive (web browser). The session cookie sometimes contains authentication information along with the usual information about such things as the last URL (page) that the user viewed. By design this makes it easier for the user to move from one page of mail to the next without having to re-authenticate for page change.
The problem comes though when the user "logs off". If the web mail system does not erase the session cookie stored on the users computer and if the user does not close their browser, an attacker can easily re-log in to the web mail system while impersonating the authorized user. Why does this happen? Because the session cookie, which contains in some cases the authentication information, is still cached in the browser. This is a major security flaw in the design of several web mail systems. How does this happen? 1. The attacker presses the "back" browser button, 2. The attacker is presented with the web mail logon dialog screen (if using standard HTTP authentication) 3. Attacker simply presses the "OK" button - Voila! The attacker is now logged in as the authorized user.
This vulnerability alone is enough for many security conscious organization to not allow web mail access unless some countermeasure to the "log off" problem is deployed. Small wonder why web mail access requests are greeted with suspicion. Fortunately, there are countermeasures that are available to reduce risk of such attacks on web mail systems.
Web Mail Security Approaches
There are three ways that web mail security can be done:
1. Development In-house
2. Deploy a web mail Security technology/product
3. Outsource to 3rd party
Many businesses refuse to deploy web mail due to concerns over security issues inherent to web based access to mail. Figure 1 highlights some of the issues that are, in fact, valid concerns. However, there are countermeasures that can be applied to mitigate most of the security issues. One such countermeasure is application knowledge. Having security minded development staffs who are properly trained in secure software development principles could minimize poor programming habits that introduce vulnerabilities into the web mail application. A resource to organization who are establishing secure programming standards include: Foundstone, or online training available from the International Webmasters Association IWA-HWG. Also, a well-written guide in secure application development can be found here. These resources can be used to establish a baseline of secure programming ideas within an organization.
Reading our newsletter every Monday will keep you up-to-date with security news.
Receive a daily digest of the latest security news.