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Is Gmail Safe? How do you protect yourself from these kind of attacks? (makeuseof.com)
36 points by arunsharma on Nov 22, 2008 | hide | past | web | favorite | 20 comments

His advice is good and probably worth implementing. one thing though..

> Make sure to upgrade your domain to private registration so that your contact details don’t show up on WhoIS searches. If you’re on GoDaddy I’d recommend going with Protected Registration <

I thought some WHOIS services offered the ability to view cached pages of all previous contact details, no ?

Yeah, for a fee, you can find historical registration info and other goodies:


Yeah, I read that the other day ... blanking on the site/url but I remember it being possible. I guess you're screwed either way.

Can one of the google employees here ask one of their gmail buddies about this?

http://blogs.zdnet.com/security/?p=554 It looks like the gmail team has created a fix and pushed the fix. It suggests that you keep checking your filters to see if you been rigged as the fix wouldn't fix it (pun intended).

That's from a year ago. I think TFA is speculating about the same kind of vulnerability, but active now. It is just speculation, though.

I would be curious to know how they fixed it in the first place.

"...including 2 malware monitors, an antivirus and 2 firewalls" In case the attack is too strong for the first firewall?

:D 2 firewall wouldn't help at all. Use one - the best one .

Seems like the simple solution would be for Google to require authentication/SSL to create a filter.

I guess the solution is to use Gmail in a separate browser profile that you won't use for anything else.


And the Gmail engineers should add an opt-out "high security" mode that checks the referer to make sure the form submission is coming from Gmail itself and not some outside website. This way people who like to use custom/blank referers can ignore this security concern if they want, and all the rest of us can prevent the risk of this problem.

EDIT: Or how about just adding an in-line Javascript variable? Say, on all Gmail pages, you could embed this in the page:

   <script>var SECURITY_KEY = "918028cd79a5ba47e83e6ba68d036ca3";</script>
And then when sending AJAX or form requests in the background, make sure to include that as a request parameter. That way, even if the user has the right authentication cookies, external websites won't be able to fool Gmail into thinking they are Gmail.

Really, this doesn't seem like a very hard problem to solve...couple lines of code...

Is this solution scalable though? Are you saying that they should store this key on the server side for each instance of gmail and then check every single AJAX request to see if the key is present?

Not only it scalable as it is the only solution.

See "Good Patterns & procedures to prevent CSRF": http://www.owasp.org/index.php/Reviewing_code_for_Cross-Site...

That doesn't sound unscalable. It's pretty linear scaling, they already store information per logged in user anyway.

They store information per logged in user but are they performing some type of lookup information for every single AJAX request? I opened up a chat box and 7 HTTP requests fired off. I have no clue what these are for, but are each one of those validated and could they be quickly? During typical gmail usage several requests are fired off in the background for simple and seemingly trivial user actions like the one mentioned above.

EDIT: ...and after I was done typing the message above I returned to gmail and 15+ more requests has been fired off without me doing anything. The message took well under a minute to type. Seems like a lot of validation would have to be done.

The same key can be used for each session...when the Gmail page is being generated, I am saying this embedded in-line key can be associated TO the user's cookie, so that there is a one-to-one correspondence between this "Javascript cookie/session variable" and the user's actual cookie. There is no problem whatsoever. The only thing to be done is the exact same authentication that Google has to do to determine from which authenticated user chat requests are coming from (or any other AJAX request sent to Gmail).

EDIT: To answer your question of "are they doing some kind of lookup for each AJAX request?" Well of course, since they already have to look up a user's ID, account information, etc. based on the cookie they send.

Agreed they have to authenticate but I don't think they perform a lookup on every single request. They probably use a key but it is more likely this key (let's call it the AJAX key) is generated from the user's dat (id, ip, whatever else) using some hashing function on the back-end. When the server receives a request it can check to see if a request is valid by re-generating the AJAX key from the requests meta data (header or whatever other data sent with the request for authentication purposes). This is much quicker and more scalable than a lookup for every request and its just as secure. Even if someone guesses your key generation method (which should be HIGHLY unlikely) you can simply change it and it will work for all users immediately, even ones who are logged in already.

Now maybe they are performing a lookup for each request but I just do not see how they can handle the load, or why they would want to given the alternative I just suggested. Google sends a ridiculous amount of data back to their servers during a Gmail session. I haven't examined the traffic extensively but open up a chat box in gmail and the Firebug console at the same time. Click anywhere in the chat box. See the request that fires off int he console? That happens EACH TIME you click ANYWHERE in the box. I guess they are doing some type of clicking heat map or something I don't know, but whatever they are doing it requires sending potentially 1+ AJAX requests per second for many users.

I am not knowledgeable enough to tell you how much is too much for a server/file system/database to handle quickly (~150 ms per request for millions of requests at once) so maybe the situation I just described is not as bad as I made it seem.

Server-side is probably the right place to fix it, but I tend to be impatient when it comes to security.

Could this be done by running e.g. a portable instance of Firefox alongside a regular install? I read that a while back some people were doing this to use/test Firefox 2 and 3 concurrently, but I never gave it a try.

Currently, I keep a clean Opera installation solely for high-importance secure transactions, but I like some of the features that (I know, I have to trust them) Firefox extensions add to Gmail. I also don't want to be running Gmail through that clean Opera installation; I want to restrict my use of the latter to access to known sites and trusted content.

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