What is forced browsing and how does it work?


Web applications are crucial elements in the provision of services on the Internet.

It is no longer news that many have suffered from security breaches. A website can expose individuals to significant risk if it is not properly protected.

Attackers can gain access to restricted pages and confidential user data using several techniques, including forced browsing.

In this article, we will discuss the concept of forced browsing and how it works.

What is forced browsing?

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Forced browsing is a technique used by attackers to access restricted web pages or other resources by manipulating the URL. We also talk about forced navigation. As the name suggests, an attacker forcibly browses a resource for which he does not have permission.

Such an attack targets files in the web server directory, or restricted URLs, which do not verify authorization.

These resources are beneficial to attackers if they contain sensitive data. This could be the website itself or the clients of the site. Sensitive data can include:

  • Credits

  • Source code

  • Backup files

  • Newspapers

  • Configuration

  • Internal network details

While a website can be the victim of a forced browsing attack, it is not properly secured.

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The permission should ensure that users have the appropriate permissions to access the restricted pages. Users provide their login information, such as a username and password, before being allowed access. Forced browsing tries to bypass these security settings by requesting access to restricted paths. It tests to see if it can access a page without providing valid credentials.

How does forced browsing work?

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Forced browsing is a common problem with websites that have various user roles such as normal users and administrator users. Each user logs in from the same page but has access to different menus and options. However, if the pages to which these menus lead are not secure, a user can guess the name of a valid page and try to go directly to its URL.

There are several scenarios that show how forced browsing works, whether done manually or using an automated tool. Let’s take a look at a few cases.

1. An unsecured account page

A user logs into a website and their account page URL is www.example.com/account.php?user=4. User can rotate numbers and change URL to www.example.com/account.php?user=6. If the page opens, they will be able to access the other user’s information without needing to know their login information.

2. An unsecured order page

A user with an account on an e-commerce website views one of their orders at www.example.com/orders/4544. They now change the order ID randomly to www.example.com/orders/4546. If the orders page has a forced browsing weakness, the attacker can discover user details with this command. At the very least, they’ll get information about an order that isn’t theirs.

3. URL analysis

An attacker uses a scan tool to find directories and files in the file system of the Web server. It can search for common administrator, password, and log file names. If the tool obtains a successful HTTP response, it implies that a corresponding resource exists. Then the attacker will go ahead and gain access to the files.

Forced browsing methods

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An attacker can lead a force browsing attack manually or with automated tools.

In manual forced browsing, the attacker uses the technique of rotating numbers, or correctly guesses the name of a directory or file and types it in the address bar. This method is more difficult than using automated tools because the attacker cannot manually send requests at something like the same frequency.

Forced browsing using automated tools involves the use of a tool to find existing directories and files on the website. Many restricted files are usually hidden, but scanning tools can extract them.

The automated tools go through many potential page names and record the results obtained from the server. They also store URLs that match each page request. The attacker will then conduct a manual investigation to find out which pages he can access.

Regardless of the method used, forced browsing is akin to a brute force attack, where the attacker guesses your password.

How to prevent forced browsing

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Here’s something to keep in mind: Hiding files doesn’t make them inaccessible. Make sure you don’t assume that if you don’t link to a page, an attacker won’t be able to access it. Forced navigation demystifies this hypothesis. And the common names assigned to pages and directories can be easily guessed, making resources accessible to attackers.

Here are some tips to help you avoid forced browsing.

1. Avoid using common names for files

Developers typically assign common names to files and web directories. These common names can be “admin”, “logs”, “administrator” or “backup”. By looking at them, they are quite easy to guess.

One way to keep forced browsing at bay is to name files with strange or complex names that are difficult to understand. With that in place, attackers will have a difficult problem to solve. The same technique helps create strong and effective passwords.

2. Keep your directory list disabled on the web server

A default configuration poses a security risk because it could help hackers gain unauthorized access to your server.

If you enable directory listing on your web server, you can disclose information that will invite attackers. You should deactivate your directory listing and keep file system details out of public view.

3. Check user authentication before each secure operation

It is easy to ignore the need to authenticate site users on a specific web page. If you’re not careful, you might forget to do this.

Make sure your web pages are only accessible to authenticated users. Deploy authorization control at every step to maintain security.

4. Use appropriate access controls

Using proper access controls means granting users explicit access to resources and pages that match their rights and nothing more.

Be sure to define the types of files that users are allowed to access. For example, you can restrict user access to backup or database files.

Face the attackers

If you host a web application on the public Internet, you are inviting attackers to do their best to force entry. With that in mind, forcible navigation attacks are inevitable. The question is, will you allow attackers to gain access when they attempt to do so?

You do not have to. Build strong resistance by deploying different layers of cybersecurity on your system. It is your responsibility to secure your digital assets. Do whatever you need to do to secure what’s yours.


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