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Secure code review: Part 7 - Well-known attacks

Code reviews are hard to do well. Particularly when you’re not entirely sure about the errors you should be looking for! The DevSecOps approach pushes security testing left so that vulnerabilities can be found and fixed earlier, in the design, development, or CI/CD stages of the workflow. It’s always a good idea to check for security issues in code that you review. In case you don’t know what to look for, check out this series to give you pointers for your next code reviews!

Protect against well-known attacks

We can safely assume that attackers will continue to hack our applications using predictable, well-known and recognized attack vectors. The general lack of knowledge about common vulnerabilities and how they can be exploited, often leads to duplicating the same security mistakes over and over in future code. Take a look at the OWASP Top 10 vulnerabilities and understand how these common exploits work. Here are some tips to look out for when trying to avoid some of the most common vulnerability types.


The core premise behind a Cross-site Scripting (XSS) attack is when a user injects malicious data to your application which ends up in a context β€” such as an HTML document β€” that can be executed to share sensitive information or other malicious activity. If you’re planning to allow your users to submit data within your site that is displayed on your page, you need to learn how to defensively prevent XSS from happening. There are a number of ways to reduce the chances of XSS attacks, for example, HTML encoding dangerous characters. Such characters include &, <, >, β€œ and β€˜. Disallowing such characters, or sanitizing them, will prevent an attacker from breaking out from the HTML tag and execute malicious code. To make this harder, we can HTML encode any HTML characters that are passed to us, so that they are not represented in the form that can break out of an HTML tag, as follows:

HTML entity HTML encoding
& &amp;
< &lt;
> &gt;
β€œ &quot;
β€˜ &#x27;

Similarly, we can achieve that with tag attributes, event handlers, or even style properties. It’s common to use sanitization libraries to help us whitelist what characters that we should allow. Using existing sanitization libraries also means that we don’t have to be security gurus to make sure we pick up every eventuality. This is particularly good for more junior developers.

SQL and NoSQL injection

One of the reasons why SQL injection is most attractive to an attacker is because it provides them with direct access to the data they inevitably want to gain access to. All too often, a hack is merely just a way for an attacker to learn or gain knowledge about the system that they are trying to breach. This often means that an attacker has to do more work to find out where the data lives and how they can gain access to that data. SQL injection, on the other hand, is a mechanism that, if successfully hacked, can provide an attacker with direct access to sensitive information stored in a database. This does not only hold for SQL database β€” many NoSQL databases can be compromised in a similar way.

Both XSS and SQL injection are very common attacks. You should know how they work and how to spot them in your code. The lack of sanitization of input anywhere in the system is a big red flag for XSS. For SQL injection you should check if query parameterization is implemented. You need to make a distinction between the query and the parameters. Binding the parameters to a particular type before making them part of the query (and do proper sanitization), will prevent these kinds of attacks.

There are many other vulnerability types that your application might be susceptible to, some more than others. You should take the time to learn about which ones affect your application most, from the code your teams directly produce through, to the types of libraries your application depends upon.

Want to know more

Check the complete Secure code review cheat sheet

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