What Can ModSecurity Do?
ModSecurity is a toolkit for real-time web application monitoring, logging, and access control. I like to think about it as an enabler: there are no hard rules telling you what to do; instead, it is up to you to choose your own path through the available features. That's why the title of this section asks what ModSecurity can do, not what it does.
The freedom to choose what to do is an essential part of ModSecurity's identity and goes very well with its open source nature. With full access to the source code, your freedom to choose extends to the ability to customize and extend the tool itself to make it fit your needs. It's not a matter of ideology, but of practicality. I simply don't want my tools to restrict what I can do.
Back on the topic of what ModSecurity can do, the following is a list of the most important usage scenarios:
- Real-time application security monitoring and access control At its core, ModSecurity gives you access to the HTTP traffic stream, in real-time, along with the ability to inspect it. This is enough for real-time security monitoring. There's an added dimension of what's possible through ModSecurity's persistent storage mechanism, which enables you to track system elements over time and perform event correlation. You are able to reliably block, if you so wish, because ModSecurity uses full request and response buffering.
- Full HTTP traffic logging Web servers traditionally do very little when it comes to logging for security purposes. They log very little by default, and even with a lot of tweaking you are not able to get everything that you need. I have yet to encounter a web server that is able to log full transaction data. ModSecurity gives you that ability to log anything you need, including raw transaction data, which is essential for forensics. In addition, you get to choose which transactions are logged, which parts of a transaction are logged, and which parts are sanitized.
- Continuous passive security assessment Security assessment is largely seen as an active scheduled event, in which an independent team is sourced to try to perform a simulated attack. Continuous passive security assessment is a variation of real-time monitoring, where, instead of focusing on the behavior of the external parties, you focus on the behavior of the system itself. It's an early warning system of sorts that can detect traces of many abnormalities and security weaknesses before they are exploited.
- Web application hardening One of my favorite uses for ModSecurity is attack surface reduction, in which you selectively narrow down the HTTP features you are willing to accept (e.g., request methods, request headers, content types, etc.). ModSecurity can assist you in enforcing many similar restrictions, either directly, or through collaboration with other Apache modules. They all fall under web application hardening. For example, it is possible to fix many session management issues, as well as cross-site request forgery vulnerabilities.
- Something small, yet very important to you Real life often throws unusual demands to us, and that is when the flexibility of ModSecurity comes in handy where you need it the most. It may be a security need, but it may also be something completely different. For example, some people use ModSecurity as an XML web service router, combining its ability to parse XML and apply XPath expressions with its ability to proxy requests. Who knew?
Guiding PrinciplesThere are four guiding principles on which ModSecurity is based, as follows:
- Flexibility I think that it's fair to say that I built ModSecurity for myself: a security expert who needs to intercept, analyze, and store HTTP traffic. I didn't see much value in hardcoded functionality, because real life is so complex that everyone needs to do things just slightly differently. ModSecurity achieves flexibility by giving you a powerful rule language, which allows you to do exactly what you need to, in combination with the ability to apply rules only where you need to.
- Passiveness ModSecurity will take great care to never interact with a transaction unless you tell it to. That is simply because I don't trust tools, even the one I built, to make decisions for me. That's why ModSecurity will give you plenty of information, but ultimately leave the decisions to you.
- Predictability There's no such thing as a perfect tool, but a predictable one is the next best thing. Armed with all the facts, you can understand ModSecurity's weak points and work around them.
- Quality over quantity Over the course of six years spent working on ModSecurity, we came up with many ideas for what ModSecurity could do. We didn't act on most of them. We kept them for later. Why? Because we understood that we have limited resources available at our disposal and that our minds (ideas) are far faster than our implementation abilities. We chose to limit the available functionality, but do really well at what we decided to keep in.
Deployment OptionsModSecurity supports two deployment options: embedded and reverse proxy deployment. There is no one correct way to use them; choose an option based on what best suits your circumstances. There are advantages and disadvantages to both options:
- Embedded Because ModSecurity is an Apache module, you can add it to any compatible version of Apache. At the moment that means a reasonably recent Apache version from the 2.0.x branch, although a newer 2.2.x version is recommended. The embedded option is a great choice for those who already have their architecture laid out and don't want to change it. Embedded deployment is also the only option if you need to protect hundreds of web servers. In such situations, it is impractical to build a separate proxybased security layer. Embedded ModSecurity not only does not introduce new points of failure, but it scales seamlessly as the underlying web infrastructure scales. The main challenge with embedded deployment is that server resources are shared between the web server and ModSecurity.
- Reverse proxy Reverse proxies are effectively HTTP routers, designed to stand between web servers and their clients. When you install a dedicated Apache reverse proxy and add ModSecurity to it, you get a “proper” network web application firewall, which you can use to protect any number of web servers on the same network. Many security practitioners prefer having a separate security layer. With it you get complete isolation from the systems you are protecting. On the performance front, a standalone ModSecurity will have resources dedicated to it, which means that you will be able to do more (i.e., have more complex rules). The main disadvantage of this approach is the new point of failure, which will need to be addressed with a high-availability setup of two or more reverse proxies.
Is Anything Missing?ModSecurity is a very good tool, but there are a number of features, big and small, that could be added. The small features are those that would make your life with ModSecurity easier, perhaps automating some of the boring work (e.g., persistent blocking, which you now have to do manually). But there are really only two features that I would call missing:
- Learning Defending web applications is difficult, because there are so many of them, and they are all different. (I often say that every web application effectively creates its own communication protocol.) It would be very handy to have ModSecurity observe application traffic and create a model that could later be used to generate policy or assist with false positives. While I was at Breach Security, I started a project called ModProfiler [http://www.modsecurity.org/projects/modprofiler/] as a step toward learning, but that project is still as I left it, as version 0.2.
- Passive mode of deployment ModSecurity can be embedded only in Apache 2.x, but when you deploy it as a reverse proxy, it can be used to protect any web server. Reverse proxies are not everyone's cup of tea, however, and sometimes it would be very handy to deploy ModSecurity passively, without having to change anything on the network.