When Two Rights Make a Wrong

Photo of Curtis Lusmore Curtis Lusmore

A few years ago I came across this awesome post, How I hacked hundreds of companies through their helpdesk, which describes a neat hack on a whole bunch of companies. I encourage you to read the full post because it’s a fascinating read, but I’ll summarise the gist of it here.

Some work apps, the most common example being Slack, allow you to register and sign in with any email address on your employer’s domain, e.g. anything@company.com. This is a convenience that allows your employees to self-service register without allowing just anybody in. This sounds safe enough to a lot of companies, because they figure they only give out these email addresses to current employees.

Many apps with support systems, the example from the post being GitLab, will assign customers an email address, like some-random-id@company.com, that they can email to create a support ticket. Since basically everything can send email, this is a handy way of integrating with a bunch of apps quickly. Again, this sounds safe enough because we don’t generally think of access to a throwaway email address as providing access to critical systems.

In isolation, each of these ideas sounds great. But as you’ve probably already spotted, the combination is a catastrophe. The author was able to join GitLab’s private Slack instance by signing up with his assigned support email address.

There are other examples in the infosec space, like websites that will hide all but the last few digits of your credit card number or social security number, and others that use this information as proof-of-identity during an account recovery process. The combination here means that if somebody gains access to one of your accounts they might be able to leverage information it leaks to access other accounts.

There’s another example that I noticed during COVID-19, though perhaps not as extreme. The Sneezing 101 page on the QLD Government website says you should sneeze into your elbow, which makes sense since you don’t want to get your hands dirty and then spread the germs onto everything you touch. However, the Automation of pedestrian crossing signals at intersections page on the QLD Government website says you should press pedestrian crossing buttons with your elbow, which also makes sense since you don’t want germs to spread from the button to your hands.

But think about the combination of doing both of these things together. Is it safe to sneeze into my elbow and then use it to press buttons at pedestrian crossings, elevators, or to pull door handles? Is it safe to bury my head into the elbow that I just used to press all those buttons? Again, individually both of these ideas sound great, but they don’t work together in combination. I picked on the QLD Gov website here because it happened to be the top search result, but I have seen the same suggestions dozens of times over the last year.

Again, neither piece of advice is bad and I’m certainly not suggesting either be changed or retracted, but in combination they can lead to an undesirable or unintended outcome. In other cases, such as the exploit described in the article I linked above, you absolutely do need to change one or the other, and because both are individually good ideas it’s not always clear which to change.