Understanding Rails' Forgery Protection Strategies

Datetime:2016-08-23 03:22:06         Topic: Ruby on Rails          Share        Original >>
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Cross-site request forgery or CSRF is a well known attack that has been vastly documented .

To deal with this, Rails has the RequestForgeryProtection module that gives access to protect_from_forgery . It’s now set by default when you create a new Rails project and takes the form of a single line of code in the application controller:

class ApplicationController < ActionController::Base
  protect_from_forgery with: :exception

This with parameter is actually the forgery_protection_strategy parameter, it tells Rails how to behave when a CSRF attack is identified.

The Different Forgery Protection Strategies

There are 3 strategies currently built into the RequestForgeryProtection ::ProtectionMethods module of ActionController : exception , null_session and reset_session .

The null_session strategy is the default one. The gotcha here is that by default Rails 5 generates the ApplicationController file with the exception strategy, but the default strategy inside ActionPack is actually the null_session one, which can be confusing.


This is the one Rails 5 sets up by default. It will raise an exception if a CSRF attack occurs:

protect_from_forgery with: :exception

This strategy ensures that the execution stops right after the verify_authenticity_token check if the request is fraudulent.

Null Session

This strategy will not cause the app to crash but will instead nullify the session for the duration of the request .

# or
protect_from_forgery with: :null_session

Note that while this is now the default, Rails 3 didn’t generate the ApplicationController file with the with: :exception parameter, so you didn’t touch a thing and have an old app that you kept on updating, you might have the null_session strategy set up and not even know it.

Reset Session

The third strategy, reset_session , simply calls the reset_session of @controller as you can see here .

protect_from_forgery with: :reset_session

Important Note On Security

It is very important to keep in mind that fraudulent requests will go through with the null_session and reset_session strategies. The only action taken by these strategies is to make sure the session is empty during the request.

As an illustration here are the logs for a fraudulent request:

Started POST "/posts"
Processing by PostsController#create as */*
Can't verify CSRF token authenticity.
Completed 200 OK in 2ms (Views: 1.0ms | ActiveRecord: 0.0ms)

I think that it is quite counter intuitive and might cause serious security concerns depending on your implementation. Brakeman even considers using other strategies to be an issue .

If you want to learn more about this, Jason Yeo explains it in depth in his great article, “ When Rails’ protect from forgery Fails ”. If you’re unsure of your implementation, the safe approach is to use the exception strategy.

Building A Custom Strategy

In some cases it can be interesting to build your own strategy. Let’s say you don’t want to return 500s when a CSRF attack occurs, but you still want to be warned or at least have better logs.

How It Works

First, let’s take a look at how all this works:

The requests goes through verify_authenticity_token . If there is an issue, it then logs a warning and then calls the handle_unverified_request method of the forgery_protection_strategy .

Getting An Exception

First, let’s get a InvalidAuthenticityToken exception. If you want to do it properly, you probably want to do this writing tests, but to demonstrate this I’ll be using curl .

Start your server and call a POST action that has protect_from_forgery activated using curl. This way you’re sure that you don’t have the proper authenticity token .

$ curl -X POST -I http://localhost:3000/secure_post_action

You should see this in your logs:

Can't verify CSRF token authenticity.
Completed 422 Unprocessable Entity in 1ms (ActiveRecord: 0.0ms)
ActionController::InvalidAuthenticityToken (ActionController::InvalidAuthenticityToken)

Adding A Custom Forgery Protection Strategy

Now that we know how to quickly test, let’s add our new strategy.

Any forgery propection strategy needs to be initalized with a controller and respond to handle_unverified_request . So the bare minimum here is:

class MyStrategy
  def initialize(controller)

  def handle_unverified_request

Then you can use it by changing your controller code:

class ApplicationController < ActionController::Base
 protect_from_forgery with: MyStrategy

Now you can get your strategy to do whatever you’d like and check the result by running the curl command. To give you ideas, here’s what I implemented on a project to get a bit more logs while still falling back on the null_session strategy:

class LoggingForgeryStrategy
  def initialize(controller)
    @controller = controller

  def handle_unverified_request
    Rails.logger.warn [
    ].join(" - ")



  def request
    @request ||= @controller.request

  def null_session

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