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Securing Go web applications - StableLib Blog

There are lots of security-related things to keep in mind when writing a web application, as the Web is a place full of danger: cross-site scripting (XSS), cross-site request forgery (CSRF), clickjacking, brute forcing, spam and so on.

Go gets many things right by default: for example, templates from the standard library make it hard to accidentally introduce XSS vulnerabilities. But what about other attacks? Fortunately, there are a few open source Go packages that can help us.

Security headers

Let’s start with easy things: sending HTTP headers that tell modern browsers to protect themselves from some of their bad-by-default behaviors. Package secure (upstream, written by Cory Jacobsen) implements middleware that provides an HTTP handler wrapper for this.

import "stablelib.com/v1/net/secure"

You tell it which headers to set:

sec := secure.New(secure.Options{
    FrameDeny:             true,
    ContentTypeNosniff:    true,
    BrowserXssFilter:      true,
    ContentSecurityPolicy: "default-src 'self'",
    // ...
})

and then wrap your http.Handler, for example:

wrappedHandler := sec.Handler(myHandler)
http.ListenAndServe("localhost:8080", wrappedHandler)

Here are some of the useful options:

You can also automatically redirect plain text connections to TLS by setting SSLRedirect (or SSLTemporaryRedirect), and configure HTTP Strict Transport Security headers, which tell browsers to always connect to your server via HTTPS during the specified period (STSSeconds).

Secure also provides a way to automatically check for allowed host names to protect against DNS rebinding attacks: set AllowedHosts option to the slice of domain names of your website.

See secure.Options documentation for more information.

You can what security headers a website is using with this online service: securityheaders.io.

Rate limiting

Rate limiting is useful to prevent resource exhaustion on your server or to prevent malicious clients from doing things repeatedly, such as submitting many comments too quickly.

Package throttled (upstream, written by Martin Angers) is a Go middleware that throttles requests to your HTTP handlers.

Throttled has different strategies for throttling; for the described use we need RateLimit. The default one adds these HTTP headers:

X-RateLimit-Limit: quota
X-RateLimit-Remaining: no. of requests remaining in the current window
X-RateLimit-Reset: seconds before a new window

which is useful if you want to rate limit an API, so that clients can figure out their limits by reading headers. However for normal use, we’d rather avoid adding such headers. This is why StableLib provides throttled-webrate package, which implements the same rate limiter, but doesn’t add X-RateLimit headers. It also has helper functions that simplifies rate limiting by IP if your Go program runs behind a reverse proxy, such as nginx.

Here’s how to use those two packages if your web app runs behind nginx (it provides the client IP in X-Real-IP header). Import packages:

import (
    "stablelib.com/v1/net/throttled"
    "stablelib.com/v1/net/throttled-webrate"
    "stablelib.com/v1/net/throttled/store"
)

Then create a new rate limiter:

lim := webrate.RateLimit(
  throttled.PerMin(30), // allow max 30 request per minute
  []string{"POST"},     // protect only POST requests
  webrate.VaryByIP("X-Real-IP"), // header with client's IP address
  store.NewMemStore(1000)) // memory store for the last 1000 items

and wrap your handler with it:

wrappedHandler := lim.Throttle(myHandler)

All POST requests coming to wrappedHandler will be throttled at 30 request per minute by IP.

You can learn about other throttling strategies provided by the throttled package from its documentation.

CSRF protection

If you’re using cookies for user authentication, you should protect your requests from cross-site request forgery (CSRF or XSRF) attacks. These attacks perform requests on your behalf to a target site while you’re browsing some other website. For example, if you’re logged in to an online banking web app that doesn’t have CSRF protection, other websites may trick you into clicking a button that sends a POST request to your banking website, sending money to the attacker’s account; since the browser sends your authorization cookies, the banking server thinks it was you who sent the request.

To protect against this, websites generate a random number and set it both as a cookie in your browser and as a hidden form field. Then, when you submit the form, the web server checks that both values from the cookie and from the form are equal. A malicious website won’t be able to make both of these values the same or learn them, because it can neither set cookies for the target domain nor read them.

Package nosurf (upstream, written by Justinas Stankevicius) makes implementing this protection very easy in Go web apps:

import "stablelib.com/v1/net/nosurf"

You just wrap your HTTP handlers with it:

wrappedHandler := nosurf.NewPure(myHandler)

and then provide a CSRF token to your forms. To get the token for the current request, call nosurf.Token, giving the request as an argument. Your form should send it back as a csrf_token form value:

func myHandler(w http.ResponseWriter, req *http.Request) {
  token := nosurf.Token(req)
  // ...
  template := `<!doctype html>
    <html><body>
    <form action="/" method="POST">
      <input type="hidden" name="csrf_token" value="{{.CSRFToken}}">
      ...
    </form>
    </body></html>`
  // ...
  // render template, setting CSRFToken to token value
  // ..
}

Nosurf will automatically block any POST request sent to wrappedHandler that doesn’t contain a valid csrf_token. (It won’t touch GET requests). That’s it!

There are other CSRF protection packages for Go, but most of them require doing all the blocking and cookie setting manually, and some authenticate tokens with HMAC, which provides additional protection, but requires managing secret keys. We decided to include nosurf in StableLib, because it is very easy to use and provides adequate protection.

Secure cookies

If you want to prevent users from modifying or even reading your webapp’s cookies, use securecookie package (upstream, written by Gorilla Web Tookit contributors).

Securecookie uses strong cryptography to authenticate (HMAC) and, optionally, encrypt (AES-CTR) cookies.

import "stablelib.com/v1/net/gorilla/securecookie"

First of all, make sure you use strong randomly generated secret keys. Authentication and encryption require two separate keys.

The package contains a helper function to securely generate keys:

authKey := securecookie.GenerateRandomKey(32)
encKey := securecookie.GenerateRandomKey(32)

Save these keys somewhere safe and reuse them: you don’t want to generate them every time your app launches, otherwise it won’t be able to authenticate and decrypt secure cookies from the previous launch.

Alternatively, on *NIX systems you can generate keys by reading from /dev/urandom:

$ head -c32 /dev/urandom | openssl base64
q2lgfhTCnSXglBsimGq8QelMljpdDyKvQmd137/FFa0=
$ head -c32 /dev/urandom | openssl base64
MX6XPTinRmufw1+jew+gUEcNfhmVsgmwzkS7Dg/+2Lw=

and decoding the result like this:

var (
    authKey, _ = base64.StdEncoding.DecodeString("q2lgfhTCnSXglBsimGq8QelMljpdDyKvQmd137/FFa0=")
    encKey, _ = base64.StdEncoding.DecodeString("MX6XPTinRmufw1+jew+gUEcNfhmVsgmwzkS7Dg/+2Lw=")
)

It is recommended to use 32-byte keys for authentication, and 16- or 32-byte keys for encryption (selecting AES-128 or AES-256); in our examples, we use 32-byte keys for both HMAC-SHA-256 and AES-256-CTR.

Finally, create a global SecureCookie instance with your keys:

var bakery = securecookie.New(authKey, encKey)

and use it to encode and decode cookie values:

func SetCookieHandler(w http.ResponseWriter, r *http.Request) {
    values := map[string]string{
        "foo": "bar",
    }
    if val, err := bakery.Encode("cookie-name", values); err == nil {
        cookie := &http.Cookie{
            Name:  "cookie-name",
            Value: val,
            Path:  "/",
            Secure: true,
            HttpOnly: true,
        }
        http.SetCookie(w, cookie)
    }
}
func ReadCookieHandler(w http.ResponseWriter, r *http.Request) {
    if cookie, err := r.Cookie("cookie-name"); err == nil {
        values := make(map[string]string)
        err := bakery.Decode("cookie-name", cookie.Value, &values)
        if err != nil {
            // report error
            return
        }
        // values["foo"] is now "bar"
    }
}

Securecookie package is pretty low level: if you just want sessions, implemented with cryptographically signed and encrypted cookies, use sessions package, which uses securecookie internally to implement CookieStore.

import "stablelib.com/v1/net/gorilla/sessions"
var store = sessions.NewCookieStore(authKey, encKey)

Read its documentation for more details.

That’s all for now, but we have more to say about Go web server security. If you’d like to be notified about future blog posts, subscribe to our feed or follow us on Twitter.

All packages mentioned in this blog post are open source. They are included in StableLib, a long-term support distribution of curated Go packages with professional commercial support. Learn more about StableLib »

Tags: golang, security, web.

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