Djangocon 2011 Day Three

I know Djangocon has been over for a week, but I didn’t get a chance to talk about day three and specifically Paul McMillan’s excellent security talk. I also think it’s interesting that Djangocon seems to correlate with security releases (2011, 2010).

Timing attacks

Paul demonstrated a timing attack against password reset: a method that mails a user a one-time link to use to reset their password. This timing attack could guess that link with fewer requests than would be needed to guess that link via brute force — that is, fewer than having to guess all possible combinations. It did so by measuring the difference in the times requests took between requests with more vs. fewer correct characters in the URL. I spoke with Paul and he said that this attack works best locally and would be hard to execute remotely because variability in network latency would be significant enough to make measuring the differences in timing difficult. While this attack is not completely practical, a lot of people use shared or cloud hosting which allow attackers to somewhat mitigate this by setting up attack servers in the same network.

Paul also demonstrated a timing attack which leaked some information about whether a username was valid in the system.

Securing Django in production

Even if Django is completely secure (which nothing truly is), mistakes can be made in deployment. Paul recommended an app called django-secure which checks for common misconfigurations. In addition, he said that the login URL should always be throttled to prevent password guessing. The Django security docs which your humble blogger helped write also recommend that among a number of other things. They are worth a read.

Password issues

I posted a primer about Django passwords last month. Paul had some more things to say about it. Firstly, database dumps/backups and initial data which contain hashed passwords should not be public (for example, on github). As I mentioned in the primer, eight character passwords using Django’s current hashing algorithm (sha1) can be brute forced in a matter of hours in the worst case. So if you accidentally leaked a backup — and a number of high profile sites have done things like this — then consider those passwords broken.

The fix for the password problem is to use a “slower” hashing algorithm designed for hashing passwords. I spoke with Paul after the talk and one of the road blocks to using something like bcrypt is its reliance on C extensions and the Django core team is reluctant to introduce them. However, they are really trying to get something better into the Django core for 1.4.


There were a number of other recommendations including:

  • Be careful where you store pickled data (cache, /tmp, etc.). Pickled objects can contain executable code.
  • Use the proper cryptographic functions available in Django and Python including: random.SystemRandom, django.utils.crypto.constant_time_compare, and django.utils.crypto.salted_hmac
  • Be careful when deploying HTTPS to make sure it is done properly

It’s good to hear that security people are going over Django with a fine-toothed comb.