Hacking Resource: The HTTP Protocol

Hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) is the core communications protocol used to access the World Wide Web and is used by all of today’s web applications. It is a simple protocol that was originally developed for retrieving static text-based resources. It has since been extended and leveraged in various ways to enable it to support the complex distributed applications that are now commonplace.


HTTP uses a message-based model in which a client sends a request message and the server returns a response message. The protocol is essentially connectionless: although HTTP uses the stateful TCP protocol as its transport mechanism, each exchange of request and response is an autonomous transaction and may use a different TCP connection.

HTTP Requests

All HTTP messages (requests and responses) consist of one or more headers, each on a separate line, followed by a mandatory blank line, followed by an optional message body. A typical HTTP request is as follows:

GET /auth/488/YourDetails.ashx?uid=129 HTTP/1.1
Accept: application/x-ms-application, image/jpeg, application/xaml+xml,
image/gif, image/pjpeg, application/x-ms-xbap, application/x-shockwave-
flash, */*
Referer: https://mdsec.net/auth/488/Home.ashx
Accept-Language: en-GB
User-Agent: Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 8.0; Windows NT 6.1; WOW64;
Trident/4.0; SLCC2; .NET CLR 2.0.50727; .NET CLR 3.5.30729; .NET CLR
3.0.30729; .NET4.0C; InfoPath.3; .NET4.0E; FDM; .NET CLR 1.1.4322)
Accept-Encoding: gzip, deflate
Host: mdsec.net
Connection: Keep-Alive
Cookie: SessionId=5B70C71F3FD4968935CDB6682E545476

The first line of every HTTP request consists of three items, separated by spaces:

  • A verb indicating the HTTP method. The most commonly used method is GET , whose function is to retrieve a resource from the web server. GET requests do not have a message body, so no further data follows the blank line after the message headers.
  • The requested URL. The URL typically functions as a name for the resource being requested, together with an optional query string containing parameters that the client is passing to that resource. The query string is indicated by the ? character in the URL. The example contains a single parameter with the name uid and the value 129.
  • The HTTP version being used. The only HTTP versions in common use on the Internet are 1.0 and 1.1, and most browsers use version 1.1 by default. There are a few differences between the specifications of these two versions; however, the only difference you are likely to encounter when attacking web applications is that in version 1.1 the Host request header is mandatory.

Here are some other points of interest in the sample request:

  • The Referer header is used to indicate the URL from which the request originated (for example, because the user clicked a link on that page). Note that this header was misspelled in the original HTTP specification, and the misspelled version has been retained ever since.
  • The User-Agent header is used to provide information about the browser or other client software that generated the request. Note that most browsers include the Mozilla prefix for historical reasons. This was the User- Agent string used by the originally dominant Netscape browser, and other browsers wanted to assert to websites that they were compatible with this standard. As with many quirks from computing history, it has become so established that it is still retained, even on the current version of Internet Explorer, which made the request shown in the example.
  • The Host header specifies the hostname that appeared in the full URL being accessed. This is necessary when multiple websites are hosted on the same server, because the URL sent in the first line of the request usually does not contain a hostname.
  • The Cookie header is used to submit additional parameters that the server has issued to the client (described in more detail later in this chapter).

HTTP Responses

A typical HTTP response is as follows:

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Date: Tue, 19 Apr 2011 09:23:32 GMT
Server: Microsoft-IIS/6.0
X-Powered-By: ASP.NET
Set-Cookie: tracking=tI8rk7joMx44S2Uu85nSWc
X-AspNet-Version: 2.0.50727
Cache-Control: no-cache
Pragma: no-cache
Expires: Thu, 01 Jan 1970 00:00:00 GMT
Content-Type: text/html; charset=utf-8
Content-Length: 1067
<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC “-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Transitional//EN” “http://
www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-transitional.dtd”><html xmlns=”http://
www.w3.org/1999/xhtml” ><head><title>Your details</title>

The first line of every HTTP response consists of three items, separated by

  • The HTTP version being used.
  • A numeric status code indicating the result of the request. 200 is the most common status code; it means that the request was successful and that the requested resource is being returned.
  • A textual “reason phrase” further describing the status of the response. This can have any value and is not used for any purpose by current browsers.

Here are some other points of interest in the response:

  • The Server header contains a banner indicating the web server software being used, and sometimes other details such as installed modules and the server operating system. The information contained may or may not be accurate.
  • The Set-Cookie header issues the browser a further cookie; this is submitted back in the Cookie header of subsequent requests to this server.
  • The Pragma header instructs the browser not to store the response in its cache. The Expires header indicates that the response content expired in the past and therefore should not be cached. These instructions are frequently issued when dynamic content is being returned to ensure that browsers obtain a fresh version of this content on subsequent occasions.
  • Almost all HTTP responses contain a message body following the blank line after the headers. The Content-Type header indicates that the body of this message contains an HTML document.
  • The Content-Length header indicates the length of the message body in bytes.

HTTP Methods

When you are attacking web applications, you will be dealing almost exclusively with the most commonly used methods: GET and POST . You need to be aware of some important differences between these methods, as they can affect an application’s security if overlooked.

The GET method is designed to retrieve resources. It can be used to send parameters to the requested resource in the URL query string. This enables users to bookmark a URL for a dynamic resource that they can reuse. Or other users can retrieve the equivalent resource on a subsequent occasion (as in a bookmarked search query). URLs are displayed on-screen and are logged in various places, such as the browser history and the web server’s access logs. They are also transmitted in the Referer header to other sites when external links are followed. For these reasons, the query string should not be used to transmit any sensitive information.

The POST method is designed to perform actions. With this method, request parameters can be sent both in the URL query string and in the body of the message. Although the URL can still be bookmarked, any parameters sent in the message body will be excluded from the bookmark. These parameters will also be excluded from the various locations in which logs of URLs are maintained and from the Referer header. Because the POST method is designed for performing actions, if a user clicks the browser’s Back button to return to a page that was accessed using this method, the browser does not automatically reissue the request. Instead, it warns the user of what it is about to do, as shown below. This prevents users from unwittingly performing an action more than once. For this reason, POST requests should always be used when an action is being performed.


Browsers do not automatically reissue POST requests made by users, because these might cause an action to be performed more than once.

In addition to the GET and POST methods, the HTTP protocol supports numerous other methods that have been created for specific purposes. Here are the other ones you are most likely to require knowledge of:

HEAD functions in the same way as a GET request, except that the server should not return a message body in its response. The server should return the same headers that it would have returned to the corresponding GET request. Hence, this method can be used to check whether a resource is present before making a GET request for it.
TRACE is designed for diagnostic purposes. The server should return in the response body the exact contents of the request message it received. This can be used to detect the effect of any proxy servers between the client and server that may manipulate the request.
OPTIONS asks the server to report the HTTP methods that are available for a particular resource. The server typically returns a response containing an Allow header that lists the available methods.
PUT attempts to upload the specified resource to the server, using the content contained in the body of the request. If this method is enabled, you may be able to leverage it to attack the application, such as by uploading an arbitrary script and executing it on the server.

Many other HTTP methods exist that are not directly relevant to attacking web applications. However, a web server may expose itself to attack if certain dangerous methods are available. See Chapter 18 for further details on these methods and examples of using them in an attack.


A uniform resource locator (URL) is a unique identifier for a web resource through which that resource can be retrieved. The format of most URLs is as follows:


Several components in this scheme are optional. The port number usually is included only if it differs from the default used by the relevant protocol. The URL used to generate the HTTP request shown earlier is as follows:


In addition to this absolute form, URLs may be specified relative to a particular host, or relative to a particular path on that host. For example:


These relative forms are often used in web pages to describe navigation within the website or application itself.

NOTE: You may encounter the term URI (or uniform resource identifier) being used instead of URL, but it is really only used in formal specifications and by those who want to exhibit their pedantry.


beginners-guide-to-http-and-restRepresentational state transfer (REST) is a style of architecture for distributed systems in which requests and responses contain representations of the current state of the system’s resources. The core technologies employed in the World Wide Web, including the HTTP protocol and the format of URLs, conform to the REST architectural style.

Although URLs containing parameters within the query string do themselves conform to REST constraints, the term “REST-style URL” is often used to signify a URL that contains its parameters within the URL file path, rather than the query string. For example, the following URL containing a query string:


corresponds to the following URL containing “REST-style” parameters:


HTTP Headers

HTTP supports a large number of headers, some of which are designed for specific unusual purposes. Some headers can be used for both requests and responses, and others are specific to one of these message types. The following sections describe the headers you are likely to encounter when attacking web applications.


General Headers

  • Connection tells the other end of the communication whether it should close the TCP connection after the HTTP transmission has completed or keep it open for further messages.
  • Content-Encoding specifies what kind of encoding is being used for the content contained in the message body, such as gzip , which is used by some applications to compress responses for faster transmission.
  • Content-Length specifies the length of the message body, in bytes (except in the case of responses to HEAD requests, when it indicates the length of the body in the response to the corresponding GET request).
  • Content-Type specifies the type of content contained in the message body, such as text/html for HTML documents.
  • Transfer-Encoding specifies any encoding that was performed on the message body to facilitate its transfer over HTTP. It is normally used to specify chunked encoding when this is employed.

Request Headers

  • Accept tells the server what kinds of content the client is willing to accept, such as image types, office document formats, and so on.
  • Accept-Encoding tells the server what kinds of content encoding the client is willing to accept.
  • Authorization submits credentials to the server for one of the built-in HTTP authentication types.
  • Cookie submits cookies to the server that the server previously issued.
  • Host specifies the hostname that appeared in the full URL being requested.
  • If-Modified-Since specifies when the browser last received the requested resource. If the resource has not changed since that time, the server may instruct the client to use its cached copy, using a response with status code 304.
  • If-None-Match specifies an entity tag, which is an identifier denoting the contents of the message body. The browser submits the entity tag that the server issued with the requested resource when it was last received. The server can use the entity tag to determine whether the browser may use its cached copy of the resource.
  • Origin is used in cross-domain Ajax requests to indicate the domain from which the request originated.
  • Referer specifies the URL from which the current request originated.
  • User-Agent provides information about the browser or other client software that generated the request.

Response Headers

  • Access-Control-Allow-Origin indicates whether the resource can be retrieved via cross-domain Ajax requests.
  • Cache-Control passes caching directives to the browser (for example, no-cache ).
  • ETag specifies an entity tag. Clients can submit this identifier in future requests for the same resource in the If-None-Match header to notify the server which version of the resource the browser currently holds in its cache.
  • Expires tells the browser for how long the contents of the message body are valid. The browser may use the cached copy of this resource until this time.
  • Location is used in redirection responses (those that have a status code starting with 3) to specify the target of the redirect.
  • Pragma passes caching directives to the browser (for example, no-cache ).
  • Server provides information about the web server software being used.
  • Set-Cookie issues cookies to the browser that it will submit back to the server in subsequent requests.
  • WWW-Authenticate is used in responses that have a 401 status code to provide details on the type(s) of authentication that the server supports.
  • X-Frame-Options indicates whether and how the current response may be loaded within a browser frame.


cookiesCookies are a key part of the HTTP protocol that most web applications rely on. Frequently they can be used as a vehicle for exploiting vulnerabilities. The cookie mechanism enables the server to send items of data to the client, which the client stores and resubmits to the server. Unlike the other types of request parameters (those within the URL query string or the message body), cookies continue to be resubmitted in each subsequent request without any particular action required by the application or the user.

A server issues a cookie using the Set-Cookie response header, as you have seen:

Set-Cookie: tracking=tI8rk7joMx44S2Uu85nSWc

The user’s browser then automatically adds the following header to subsequent requests back to the same server:

Cookie: tracking=tI8rk7joMx44S2Uu85nSWc

Cookies normally consist of a name/value pair, as shown, but they may consist of any string that does not contain a space. Multiple cookies can be issued by using multiple Set-Cookie headers in the server’s response. These are submitted back to the server in the same Cookie header, with a semicolon separating different individual cookies.

In addition to the cookie’s actual value, the Set-Cookie header can include any of the following optional attributes, which can be used to control how the browser handles the cookie:

  • expires sets a date until which the cookie is valid. This causes the browser to save the cookie to persistent storage, and it is reused in subsequent browser sessions until the expiration date is reached. If this attribute is not set, the cookie is used only in the current browser session.
  • domain specifies the domain for which the cookie is valid. This must be the same or a parent of the domain from which the cookie is received.
  • path specifies the URL path for which the cookie is valid.
  • secure — If this attribute is set, the cookie will be submitted only in HTTPS requests.
  • HttpOnly — If this attribute is set, the cookie cannot be directly accessed
  • via client-side JavaScript.

Each of these cookie attributes can impact the application’s security. The primary impact is on the attacker’s ability to directly target other users of the application. See Chapters 12 and 13 for more details.

Status Codes

Each HTTP response message must contain a status code in its first line, indicating the result of the request. The status codes fall into five groups, according to the code’s first digit:

  • 1xx — Informational.
  • 2xx — The request was successful.
  • 3xx — The client is redirected to a different resource.
  • 4xx — The request contains an error of some kind.
  • 5xx — The server encountered an error fulfilling the request.

There are numerous specific status codes, many of which are used only in specialized circumstances. Here are the status codes you are most likely to encounter when attacking a web application, along with the usual reason phrase associated with them:

  • 100 Continue is sent in some circumstances when a client submits a request containing a body. The response indicates that the request headers were received and that the client should continue sending the body. The server returns a second response when the request has been completed.
  • 200 OK indicates that the request was successful and that the response body contains the result of the request.
  • 201 Created is returned in response to a PUT request to indicate that the request was successful.
  • 301 Moved Permanently redirects the browser permanently to a different URL, which is specified in the Location header. The client should use the new URL in the future rather than the original.
  • 302 Found redirects the browser temporarily to a different URL, which is specified in the Location header. The client should revert to the original URL in subsequent requests.
  • 304 Not Modified instructs the browser to use its cached copy of the requested resource. The server uses the If-Modified-Since and If-None-Match request headers to determine whether the client has the latest version of the resource.
  • 400 Bad Request indicates that the client submitted an invalid HTTP request. You will probably encounter this when you have modified a request in certain invalid ways, such as by placing a space character into the URL.
  • 401 Unauthorized indicates that the server requires HTTP authentication before the request will be granted. The WWW-Authenticate header contains details on the type(s) of authentication supported.
  • 403 Forbidden indicates that no one is allowed to access the requested resource, regardless of authentication.
  • 404 Not Found indicates that the requested resource does not exist.
  • 405 Method Not Allowed indicates that the method used in the request is not supported for the specified URL. For example, you may receive this status code if you attempt to use the PUT method where it is not supported.
  • 413 Request Entity Too Large — If you are probing for buffer overflow vulnerabilities in native code, and therefore are submitting long strings of data, this indicates that the body of your request is too large for the server to handle.
  • 414 Request URI Too Long is similar to the 413 response. It indicates that the URL used in the request is too large for the server to handle.
  • 500 Internal Server Error indicates that the server encountered an error fulfilling the request. This normally occurs when you have submitted unexpected input that caused an unhandled error somewhere within the application’s processing. You should closely review the full contents of the server’s response for any details indicating the nature of the error.
  • 503 Service Unavailable normally indicates that, although the web server itself is functioning and can respond to requests, the application accessed via the server is not responding. You should verify whether this is the result of any action you have performed.


The HTTP protocol uses plain TCP as its transport mechanism, which is unencrypted and therefore can be intercepted by an attacker who is suitably positioned on the network. HTTPS is essentially the same application-layer protocol as HTTP but is tunneled over the secure transport mechanism, Secure Sockets Layer (SSL). This protects the privacy and integrity of data passing over the network, reducing the possibilities for noninvasive interception attacks. HTTP requests and responses function in exactly the same way regardless of whether SSL is used for transport.

NOTE: SSL has strictly been superseded by transport layer security (TLS), but the latter usually still is referred to using the older name.

HTTP Proxies

An HTTP proxy is a server that mediates access between the client browser and the destination web server. When a browser has been configured to use a proxy server, it makes all its requests to that server. The proxy relays the requests to the relevant web servers and forwards their responses back to the browser. Most proxies also provide additional services, including caching, authentication, and access control.

You should be aware of two differences in how HTTP works when a proxy server is being used:

  • When a browser issues an unencrypted HTTP request to a proxy server, it places the full URL into the request, including the protocol prefi x http:// , the server’s hostname, and the port number if this is nonstandard. The proxy server extracts the hostname and port and uses these to direct the request to the correct destination web server.
  • When HTTPS is being used, the browser cannot perform the SSL hand-shake with the proxy server, because this would break the secure tunnel and leave the communications vulnerable to interception attacks. Hence, the browser must use the proxy as a pure TCP-level relay, which passes all network data in both directions between the browser and the destination web server, with which the browser performs an SSL handshake as normal. To establish this relay, the browser makes an HTTP request to the proxy server using the CONNECT method and specifying the destination hostname and port number as the URL. If the proxy allows the request, it returns an HTTP response with a 200 status, keeps the TCP connection open, and from that point onward acts as a pure TCP-level relay to the destination web server.

By some measure, the most useful item in your toolkit when attacking web applications is a specialized kind of proxy server that sits between your browser and the target website and allows you to intercept and modify all requests and responses, even those using HTTPS. We will begin examining how you can use this kind of tool in the next chapter.

HTTP Authentication

The HTTP protocol includes its own mechanisms for authenticating users using
various authentication schemes, including the following:

  • Basic is a simple authentication mechanism that sends user credentials as a Base64-encoded string in a request header with each message.
  • NTLM is a challenge-response mechanism and uses a version of the Windows NTLM protocol.
  • Digest is a challenge-response mechanism and uses MD5 checksums of a nonce with the user’s credentials. It is relatively rare to encounter these authentication protocols being used by web applications deployed on the Internet. They are more commonly used within organizations to access intranet-based services.


“Basic authentication is insecure.”

Because basic authentication places credentials in unencrypted form within the HTTP request, it is frequently stated that the protocol is insecure and should not be used. But forms-based authentication, as used by numerous banks, also places credentials in unencrypted form within the HTTP request.
Any HTTP message can be protected from eavesdropping attacks by using HTTPS as a transport mechanism, which should be done by every security-conscious application. In relation to eavesdropping, at least, basic authentication in itself is no worse than the methods used by the majority of today’s web applications.

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