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Cross Site Request Forgery: CSRF

Cross Site Request Forgery
I. What Is CSRF?

Cross-Site Request Forgery (also known as CSRF or XSRF attacks) is an attack which allows attackers to execute undesired actions on a web application in which a user currently is authenticated. The attack is possible when the targeted application does not properly validate the origin of the request, and relies only on the existence of a valid session between the victim's browser and the application server.

In the most common scenario of a CSRF attack, a logged-on user will access an additional web page provided by the attacker in another tab of the browser. This page will immediately target a sensitive function within the application – which is still open in another tab – by submitting a specially crafted request. Since the request is submitted from the same browser, the vulnerable application will accept the request and execute the action.

II. Protection:

Proper CSRF protection is based on preventing attackers from being able to create a granular request for actions in a system. A solution to this type of attack is to implement unique random tokens for sensitive forms. For each form submission, the token should be validated on the server side.

As a side note, these tokens should always be submitted using the POST method. They are usually supplied as a hidden form field.

III. PHP Implementation Example:

Generating a secure CSRF token:

function generateCSRFKey($key) {
$token = base64_encode(openssl_random_pseudo_bytes(16));
$_SESSION['csrf_' . $key] = $token;
return $token;

You may be tempted to use rand() or uniqid() but they both specifically state that these functions should not be used for generating secure tokens! Also base64_encode() is only used to make sure the value doesn't break any HTML code.

Checking a submitted token is valid:

function checkCSRFKey($key, $value) {
if (!isset($_SESSION['csrf_' . $key]))
return false;
if (!$value)
return false;

if ($_SESSION['csrf_' . $key] !== $value)
return false;

unset($_SESSION['csrf_' . $key]);
return true;

The above code can be used to add a unique token to any form using:

<input type="hidden" value="<?=generateCSRFKey('settings');?>" name="token">

Then the first check in the server-side code that handles the form should be that the supplied token is valid:

$token = $_POST['token'];
if (checkCSRFKey('settings', $token)) {
// Handle error

Hope, you enjoyed reading this post.
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