The Flying Developer

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06 Nov 2012
Basic Rails Security: Lessons from IceBox

Last week I read an article titled Never Give Your Information To 10 Minute Old Startups on the terrible security holes IceBox had left open in their app.

Specifically, they had urls like this: /users/12 for people’s dashboards. Changing the user id gave you full access to another person’s account. Oops!

There are a couple of really simple things that the devs at IceBox should have done before letting the public access this page:

  1. Fixed their URLs
  2. Applied some authorization logic

I don’t know what stack IceBox is running behind the scenes, but I’m going to show you how to do these things in Rails.


A lot of the time, you want to make resources available at a specific URL. Blog posts, wiki pages, or any other browsable resource. Should users be browsable? Probably not.

In rails, the default RESTful routes (created by adding resources :things to your routes file) assume plurality. Products, comments, articles, and so on. To access a particular instance of a resource, you hit /users/:id, /users/:id/edit, and so on. Cool!

But what if a user should only have access to a particular instance of a resource? How to I get a URL like this: /user?

Rails supports the use of sigular resources to solve this exact problem. Instead of using resources :users to generate the routes, you simply use resource :user. Note the lack of pluralization. This gives you URLs like /user/new and /user.

Whenever a user hits one of these singular resources, it’s up to the app to decide which resource gets loaded. Which brings us neatly to…


Security revolves around two things: Authentication and authorization. These terms are often used interchangably, but there are important differences. In laymans terms:

  • When a user logs in, you authenticate them
  • When a user trys to perform an action, you authorize them

The failure IceBox made was in authorization. Any logged-in user could access the account of any other user.Fixing the URL structure as described above goes part-way to preventing this issue, but you still need to figure out which user account to display (if any!) when someone hits your site.

In all my Rails projects, I use a gem called CanCan to solve this problem. CanCan is a fantastic authorization framework which hides much of the plumbing and lets you focus on defining the abilities of various user roles.

There are many, many tutorials on adding CanCan to your project. I recommend starting with the official documentation and then watching the CanCan Railscast. I’m going to show a simple example for loading the correct user when someone hits the /user endpoint.

First up, open the ability.rb file that the CanCan install creates and add the following:

class Ability
  include CanCan::Ability

  def initialize(user)
    can :manage, User, :user_id =>

That code tells CanCan that the logged in user (passed in through the user param) has full access to User objects that have their id.

CanCan assumes that you have a current_user method available in your application controller. The simplest version of this method might do this:

def current_user

How the session is set up falls under authentication, so we won’t deal with it here.

The final piece is to set up your User controller to check that the person making the request is authorized to do so. CanCan has a handy helper method called load_and_authorize_resource that creates an instance variable with the same name as the controller after checking the current user’s abilities against the defined rules.

UserController < ApplicationController

  def show
    # Nothing to do here!

We can leave the show method empty and the @user variable gets passed to our view for display. Yay! Now people can only access their own accounts.


The IceBox example is a real-world case demonstrating what can happen when you rush the deployment of your app.

Hopefully the tips above will stop the same fate befalling your next app.

Thanks for reading! If you like my writing, you may be interested in my book: Healthy Webhook Consumption with Rails

David at 21:58


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