Insecure Deserialization Attacks – OWASP A8 2017

HTML5 and Web 2.0 applications are using modern architecture and modelling for web programming. It has opened up relatively different ways of attacking and exploiting. One of the issues, which are easy to detect and exploit by manual analysis, is called insecure deserialization. This is not new attack category but OWASP Top 10 came up with this vulnerability into their current list and started to get noticed.

Web programming language uses objects extensively and at some point in time, it is required to store these objects or transfer them over network. Hence, simple mechanism is developed; it is called serialization and deserialization.

Serialization – Converting an object instance into simpler form like XML, JSON, text or binary.
Deserialization – Converting XML, JSON, text or binary back into Object for consumption.

In web applications, these converted streams go back and forth between browser and servers. It goes over HTTP(S) and can be dissected at client end. It opens up opportunities for attacker to understand and tamper these object streams to exploit programming weaknesses. Here is a quick look at possible attacks and exploit scenarios.

1. Command Injections
- Object streams get handled at two layers – framework and programming (developers). At framework layer, in some cases, it gets parsed by using underlying operating systems resources to make some modifications. This opens up an opportunity to inject OS commands.

2. Privilege escalation
- Object stream may contain tokens or reference about ACLs (Access Control List). In some cases, an attacker can decode the information and manipulate it to gain higher level of access.

3. Reverse engineering
- In modern day applications, developers are using these objects on the fly and in some cases, they store very sensitive information. Data contained in these objects become a rich source of information for reverse engineering. By dissecting and decoding these objects, one can build a set of possible attack vectors. Hence, these streams coming to browser opens up bundle of opportunities for reverse engineering.

4. Authorization bypass -
Objects coming to the browser ends are having some tokens to access information time to time. These tokens can be guessed, reverse engineered or tampered, it can be sent back to server with mutation. It certainly opens up opportunities for authorization bypass and access to other user’s information.

5. Object stealing from browser space
- Objects are serialized and get stored in browser memory space. Libraries and developers are using HTML5 features like localStorage and file APIs to store these objects. If application is having XSS or DOM Injections then it can lead to information extraction from the browser. Also, developers build object maps via JavaScript within browser, one can enumerate entire object map and extract information from it via XSS. Hence, it is imperative not to have XSS across application to avoid this type of exploitation.


In this article, we have a brief overview of this attack vector (A8), which is newly added to OWASP. Top 10. There is more research going on in the area and we may end up seeing innovative way of both detecting and exploiting this mechanism. You can read more about it over here.

OWASP top 10 (A8) -

Untrusted streams -

Cheatsheet -