Input Validation Cheat Sheet

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Contents

Introduction

This article is focused on providing clear, simple, actionable guidance for providing Input Validation security functionality in your applications.

White List Input Validation

It is always recommended to prevent attacks as early as possible in the processing of the user’s (attacker's) request. Input validation can be used to detect unauthorized input before it is processed by the application. Developers frequently perform black list validation in order to try to detect attack characters and patterns like the ' character, the string 1=1, or the <script> tag, but this is a massively flawed approach as it is typically trivial for an attacker to avoid getting caught by such filters. Plus, such filters frequently prevent authorized input, like O'Brian, when the ' character is being filtered out.

White list validation is appropriate for all input fields provided by the user. White list validation involves defining exactly what IS authorized, and by definition, everything else is not authorized. If it's well structured data, like dates, social security numbers, zip codes, e-mail addresses, etc. then the developer should be able to define a very strong validation pattern, usually based on regular expressions, for validating such input. If the input field comes from a fixed set of options, like a drop down list or radio buttons, then the input needs to match exactly one of the values offered to the user in the first place. The most difficult fields to validate are so called 'free text' fields, like blog entries. However, even those types of fields can be validated to some degree, you can at least exclude all non-printable characters, and define a maximum size for the input field.

Developing regular expressions can be complicated, and is well beyond the scope of this cheat sheet. There are lots of resources on the internet about how to write regular expressions, including: http://www.regular-expressions.info/ and the OWASP Validation Regex Repository. The following provides a few examples of ‘white list’ style regular expressions:

White List Regular Expression

Validating a Zip Code (5 digits plus optional -4)

^\d{5}(-\d{4})?$
 

Validating U.S. State Selection From a Drop-Down Menu

^(AA|AE|AP|AL|AK|AS|AZ|AR|CA|CO|CT|DE|DC|FM|FL|GA|GU|
HI|ID|IL|IN|IA|KS|KY|LA|ME|MH|MD|MA|MI|MN|MS|MO|MT|NE| 
NV|NH|NJ|NM|NY|NC|ND|MP|OH|OK|OR|PW|PA|PR|RI|SC|SD|TN|
TX|UT|VT|VI|VA|WA|WV|WI|WY)$


Java Regex Usage Example

 Example validating the parameter “zip” using a regular expression.
 
 private static final Pattern zipPattern = Pattern.compile("^\d{5}(-\d{4})?$");
 public void doPost( HttpServletRequest request, HttpServletResponse response) {
 	try {
 		String zipCode = request.getParameter( "zip" );
 		if ( !zipPattern.matcher( zipCode ).matches()  {
 			throw new YourValidationException( "Improper zipcode format." );
 		}
 		.. do what you want here, after its been validated ..
 	} catch(YourValidationException e ) {
 		response.sendError( response.SC_BAD_REQUEST, e.getMessage() );
 	}
 }

Some white list validators have also been predefined in various open source packages that you can leverage. For example:

Authors and Primary Editors

Dave Wichers - dave.wichers [at] aspectsecurity.com

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