[chris-allen-lane.com] Programming | Security | DIY

Static Code Analysis Using Watchtower

The following article was published in 2600 magazine (Volume 30, Number 2) in Summer of 2013. It is republished here with permission.


2600 Readers,

I'm writing to introduce watchtower - a Static Code Analysis Tool that I recently published under the GPL license. It's a simple tool - in this age of automated fuzzers, scanners, and frameworks, I consider watchtower to be a "dumb" tool for a smart auditor. It is used to locate potentially hazardous code within a project, and is thus useful for security audits and webapp incident response.

Watchtower is language-agnostic, written in Ruby, and depends on RubyGems.

It's a what now?

Watchtower is used for performing Static Code Analysis. If you're not familiar with the term, Static Code Analysis (commonly "SCA") is the analysis of source code in its written form. (The practice of scanning an application's source can be contrasted against other types of scans, such a scan against a running application, for example.) At its core, watchtower simply searches for the presence of user-specified strings within an application's source, much as would grep or the "Find" tool that inevitably exists in your preferred word-processor.

Why would I do that?

There are principally two occasions on which you'd want to grep for strings within an application, within the security context:

When performing a security audit on an application's source code

Many security vulnerabilities are introduced into applications through very regular and recognizable programming anti-patterns. For example, when auditing a PHP application's source, I find that one of the most fruitful strings to search for is "$_GET". It's both shocking and depressing to see how often you'll encounter code like this:

Readers of 2600 will spot the obvious SQL injections, but it seems that many programmers - remarkably - will not.

When performing incident response on a compromised web application

As another example, compromised web applications frequently contain easily-recognized signatures as well. One of the most common payloads out there looks like this:

(Regular readers may remember eval(base64_decode( from StarckTruth's article A PHP Rootkit Case Study in 29-1.)

Both of these examples demonstrate how, if you know what you're looking for, a bit of tactical grep-ing can get you a long way while auditing or cleaning up after a hack.

If grep is so great, what's the point of watchtower?

My problem with grep isn't one of functionality. In fact, if you examine its source, watchtower is ultimately just a fancy wrapper around grep. My problem with grep is one of usability. I find it to be a bit of a pain to use when auditing for a few reasons:

  1. I struggle to remember its options sometimes, which can be distracting when I'm focused on an audit

  2. It can be a pain to scan for batches of signatures at once, yet scanning ad-hoc makes it easy to overlook important signatures

  3. grep can generate a lot of unstructured output (especially when scanning a large project), which can be difficult to sift through

Watchtower exists to solve some of these usability problems with grep.

Watchtower, unlike grep, provides several output formats, currently including plain text, CSV, XML, Markdown, and - most importantly, in my opinion - HTML. CSV exists primarily to make it possible to import watchtower's data into a spreadsheet. XML is useful for importing watchtower's output into your own application. Markdown exists as an intermediary step to compile watchtower's output into a PDF. (I plan to make it possible for watchtower to output a PDF directly through pandoc in a future release.)

The HTML output format is the most interesting, and is watchtower's primary feature and use-case.

So how do I use it?

The first thing you need to do (obviously) is download the project from github, cd into the watchtower directory, and then install the requisite RubyGems. (You can do this either "the old-fashioned way" or by running a bundle install.) After that's done, run ./watchtower -h to get a feel for the program options.

Using watchtower is actually pretty simple: just scan your application, and then manually review the generated report. For each signature that was detected, a "Point of Interest" will be outputted to the report. Each Point of Interest may be marked with one of a few tags: "OK", "Dubious", and "Bad". Points of Interest may also be "hidden", which moves them out of your way. (The HTML report uses some clever HTML 5 to save your tags in real-time, thus making it possible to close your browser without losing any of your work.)

Broadly speaking, the workflow for auditing with watchtower looks something like this:

  1. Specify your signatures (some sensible signatures are loaded by default)

  2. Scan your application and output an HTML report

  3. Review the report, marking suspicious Points of Interest as "Dubious" or "Bad"

  4. After you've made your first pass through the report, filter it to display only the "Dubious" and "Bad" Points of Interest

  5. Open your preferred editor, and use watchtower to guide you through the Points of Interest in more detail

The overarching goal of watchtower is to help you review a large amount of code quickly. It will identify the potentially problematic parts of your application to spare you from having to audit the whole thing line-by-line in an editor.

Is it extensible?

Absolutely. Watchtower allows you to create signature files for any language, and signatures may be specified as either literal strings or regular expressions. You may choose which configuration and signature files to load at run-time, which makes it easy to work on multiple different projects simultaneously. It's even possible to compile user-defined stylesheets into your reports, allowing you to override the default styling with your own branding if you intend to share your reports with clients.

It sounds great! What do I do now?

Start by checking out the example report that ships with watchtower. (Just download that file and open it in a browser.) If you like what you see, download the full project, and then twit about it on your Face-blags and tell your friends! Also remember to email me with bug reports and feature requests as you have them.

Beyond that, know that watchtower needs a few good contributors. My experience is principally on the LAMP stack, but there's no reason why watchtower's utility should be confined to that platform. (There's no reason why its utility should even be constrained to the web, in fact.) With that said, if you have specialized knowledge of other programming languages or frameworks - or if you would like to contribute to the languages and frameworks already accounted for - I encourage you to contact me.

Thanks for reading, and happy hacking.