Ruminations of idle rants and ramblings of a code monkey

New Account Email Validation (Part I)

.NET Stuff | Security | Web (and ASP.NET) Stuff

We’ve all seen it … when you sign up for a new account, your account isn’t active until you validate it from an email sent to the registered email address. This allows sites with public registration to ensure a couple of things. First, that the email provided by the user actually does exist (and they didn’t have a typo). Second, it also validates that the person signing up has access to that email address. Now, let’s be clear, it doesn’t necessarily ensure that the user signing up is the legitimate owner of the email address … there isn’t much more that we can do to actually validate that as we don’t control the email system that they use … but, in a realistic world, that’s the best we can do.

Now, there was a little exchange recently on the ASP.NET forums that I had with someone asking how to do this very thing with ASP.NET’s membership system. Of course, this is perfectly possible to do. Now, I do believe in the KISS (that’s Keep It Simple Stupid) principle, so I look at this from a perspective of using as much built-in functionality as possible to accomplish it. So, for example, I’d really prefer not to have any additional database dependencies such as new tables, etc., to support this new functionality (that isn’t there out-of-the-box) as possible.

First things first … when the new account is created, the account (represented by the MembershipUser class) should have the IsApproved property set to false. This will prevent any logins until such time as the flag is changed. There are two ways to do this, depending on how you the user signs up. If you are using the built-in CreateUserWizard, you can set the DisableCreatedUser property to true.You can also do it if you are calling the API directly from a custom WebForm (or other method). This is accomplished by calling the CreateUser method on the Membership class. There are two overloads that will allow you to do this; both of them take a boolean IsApproved argument. Again, if this is false, the user won’t be allowed to log in until they are approved.

Of course, in extranet-type scenarios with some user self-service, this can be used to validate that the newly registered extranet user is valid via a manual review process. And in those types of cases, because of the very nature of extranets, you would want it to be a manual review process to thoroughly vet the users. Note that you’ll also want to do this if you happen to be a judge and you may have some nasty personal stuff that some people may find offensive think leads to a conflict of interest in a case that you are trying.

But that’s not what we are doing here. We want this to be open and completely self-service, but to still validate that the email is valid and the user has access to it, ensuring that we can communicate with them (or spam them, depending on your viewpoint).

We’ve already discussed the whole e-mail-account-security thing … nothing that we can do about that, so we’ll just move on. But how can we further ensure that we have a (relatively) secure method for doing this, even with the whole e-mail security issue?

First, we need to make sure that whatever validation code we use is not easy for a bad guy to guess … this does defeat the purpose. How far you go with this will certainly depend a great deal on what the risk is from this failure … for example, if this is a site where you have dog pictures, it’s not that big of a deal. If, however, it’s an ecommerce site, you need to be a bit more cautious.

Second, we also need to make sure that the validation code wasn’t intercepted en route. Keep in mind – and a number of devs seem to forget this – SMTP is not a secure protocol. Neither is POP3. They never were; they just weren’t designed for it. (This highlights one of the things that I tell developers a lot … There is no majik security pixii dust … you cannot bolt “security” on at the end of the project; it absolutely must be built in from the initial design and architecture phase.) Everything in SMTP is transmitted in the clear, as is POP3. In fact, if you’re feeling ambitious, you can pop open a telnet client and use it for SMTP and POP3. It’s not the most productive but it is enlightening.

These are the two things that come to mind that are unique to this scenario. There are additional things that you need to account for … Sql Injection, XSS and the rest of the usual suspects.

Now that I’ve said all of that, I will also tell you that I’m working on a sample that shows some techniques for doing this. When I’m done, I will post it here along with a discussion of what was done and what alternative options are that you can do based on your needs, requirements and risk analysis. So … keep tuned right here for more fun and .Net goodness!