Wednesday, August 30, 2006

HTTP Fingerprinting

What is HTTP Fingerprinting?
HTTP Fingerprinting is a technique that helps determine the following:
a) The web server software hosting the website
b) Version and other deployment details of the webserver

How does HTTP Fingerprinting help?
Depends on which side you are looking from. From a bonafide perspective, HTTP fingerprinting allows n/w administrators to profile the webservers in their environment and monitor patches. It also allows an pen-tester/security auditor to narrow down the list of attacks that the server must be subject to expose vulnerabilities.

Why is HTTP Fingerprinting possible?
Try this. Ask a programmer to implement a string comparison function. Provide the flowchart that details the logic. Now ask another programmer to do the same. Provide the same flowchart to this programmer too. You can be sure that the implementations, although accurate, would be dissimilar. The same goes for the way in which HTTP web servers are implemented. There are several vendors in the market today viz. Microsoft, Apache, Netscape and the list goes on. The web server implementations from each of these vendors have their own nuances and subtleties in which they implement the HTTP protocol. This, unfortunately, is the reason why HTTP Fingerprinting becomes possible!

How does one go about HTTP fingerprinting?
- Use banner grabbing
Try the following,
(i) run telnet IP_Address 80 at the command prompt. Substitute IP_Address with the IP address of the machine hosting the web server.
(ii) Type in the telnet window
(iii) Press Enter.
(iv) Press Enter again.
If all runs fine, what you should see is the web server banner! Feast on the information that you will see. You should be able to determine the following:
- The default home page configured for the site
- The last time the page was modified
- The web server running along with its version
- The time on the server
...and lots more.
Banner grabbing allows an attacker to get vital information about the web server software running on the box. It allows script kiddies (and determined hackers) to narrow down to the Achille's heel of the website. The other things you can do is best left to your imagination!

- Difference in HTTP implementations
This involves subjecting the web server to different HTTP messages and observing the responses. These responses are then compared to expected responses from the corresponding web servers. Matches will indicate a correct recognition of the web server.
Illustrating this point, Microsoft IIS 6.0 when subject to a HEAD / HTTP/1.0 emits out a response in which Server and Date are contiguous. The same is not seen for other web servers. More examples can be found at

How does one prevent HTTP fingerprinting?
- By changing the HTTP server banner string to something obscure or misleading

- Transposing the HTTP headers so as to remove any points of distinction

- Using custom HTTP error codes such as 404 or 500

- Using HTTP server plug-ins available that allow you to do some of the above

HTTP Fingerprinting Bottomline
HTTP fingerprinting remains the "entry-point" for a user (whatever his/her intentions) and offers him/her a clear line-of-sight perspective. HTTP fingerprinting also remains a necessary evil.

1 comment:

marc.ruef said...


Nice article! If you are interested in http fingerprinting, take a look at my httprecon project:

It automates the described methodology and introduces some new techniques to identify web server implementations.