I thought about using a clickbait title like “Is this the best web security book?”, but I just couldn’t do that to you all. Instead, I want to compare and contrast 3 books, all of which I consider great books about web security. I won’t declare any single book “the best” because that’s too subjective. Best depends on where you’re coming from and what you’re trying to achieve.
The 3 books I’m taking a look at are:
- Real-World Bug Hunting: A Field Guide to Web Hacking
- The Web Application Hacker’s Handbook: Finding and Exploiting Security Flaws
- The Tangled Web: A Guide to Securing Modern Web Applications
Real-World Bug Hunting: A Field Guide to Web Hacking
Real-World Bug Hunting is the most recent of the books in this group, and it
shows. It covers up to date vulnerabilities and mitigations, such as
samesite attribute for cookies, Content Security Policy, and more. As its
name suggests, it has a clear focus on finding bugs, and goes into just enough
detail about each bug class to help you understand the underlying risks posed by
The book covers the following vulnerability classes:
- Open Redirect
- HTTP Parameter Pollution
- Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF)
- HTML Injection
- HTTP Response Splitting
- Cross-Site Scripting (XSS)
- SQL Injection
- Server Side Request Forgery (SSRF)
- XML External Entity (XXE)
- Remote Code Execution
- Memory Corruption (lightly covered)
- Subdomain Takeover
- Race Conditions
- Insecure Direct Object References (IDOR)
- OAUTH Vulnerabilities
- Logic Bugs
It definitely has a “bug bounty” focus, which has both pros and cons. On the plus side, it’s directly focused on finding and exploiting bugs and is able to use disclosed vulnerabilities from bug bounties as real-world examples of how these bug classes apply. On the other hand, it has almost no discussion of how to address the bugs from an engineering point of view, and it doesn’t do a great job of going beyond a Proof of Concept stage to real exploitation that an attacker might do. (For the developer side, you might want to consider another No Starch publication, Web Security for Developers.)
Chapters are well thought-out and stand alone if you just want familiarity with some of the topics. Examples are incredibly well documented and understandable, and include just enough to get you going without extraneous code/text.
While this book is an obvious win for those with an interest in doing Bug Bounties (e.g., HackerOne or Bugcrowd), I would also recommend this book to new Penetration Testers or Red Teamers who don’t have experience with web security or haven’t kept up with developments. It’s a great way to get bootstrapped, and it’s quite well written, so it’s also an easy read. It’s not overly long either and lends itself to easily doing a chapter at a time and reading over a couple of weeks if you don’t have much time right now.
The Web Application Hacker’s Handbook: Finding and Exploting Security Flaws
- Authors: Dafydd Stuttard, Marcus Pinto
- Published: 2011 by Wiley
- 912 Pages
This is an older book, but so many of the fundamental issues haven’t changed. Cross-site scripting and cross-site request forgery are still some of the most common web vulnerabilities, remaining in the OWASP Top 10 throughout this time period.
This book is an absolute beast of a reference on web security. It took me several attempts to actually (eventually) make my way through the entire thing. It goes into a great deal of detail about each topic, including the fundamentals of web security and the vulnerabilities that arise from mistakes in design or implementation of web applications.
Because Dafydd is the author of Burp Suite, the premiere web application testing proxy, the examples given in the book rely heavily on the functionality and tooling provided by Burp. Many of the features/tools are available in the Burp Community Edition, but not all of them. (Though, if you’re serious about web security, you really should get a Burp Professional license – it’s totally worth it.)
As opposed to the bug class oriented approach taken by Real World Bug Hunting, The Web Application Hacker’s Handbook focuses more on the component-wise nature of web applications and the common attacks on each area. It covers many of the same bug classes, but looks at it by application component where they’re likely to occur instead. The general areas considered include:
- Web Application Security Basics
- Client-Side Controls
- Session Management
- Access Control
- Data Storage
- Application Logic Flaws
- Cross Site Scripting
- Attacking Users
- Automating Attacks
- Architecture Problems
- Underlying Application Server Bugs
- Source Review
- Web Hacking Methodologies
The Web Application Hacker’s Handbook is the most in-depth web security book I’ve been able to find. Unfortunately, it’s now 9 years old, and a lot has changed in the web space. While most, if not all, of the vulnerabilities still exist, there may be many mitigations that are not discussed in the book. You’ll probably need to do something to get from this book to get fully up to speed, but on the other hand, you’ll have a very deep understanding of the ways in which web applications can go wrong.
Additionally, if you want to become a Burp Suite power user, going through this book will give you a big boost up due to the emphasis on using Burp Suite to its fullest.
The Tangled Web: A Guide to Securing Modern Web Applications
(Full disclosure: I formerly worked with Michal on the product security team at Google. I’d first read the book prior to that, and it in no way affects my ability to recommend this as a great book.)
I almost didn’t include this book in comparison to the other two because it’s so different. Rather than focusing strictly on the common classes of web bugs, this focuses on how the web works and how the various vulnerabilities came to be, and how new vulnerabilites might occur. It does this by examining web servers, web applications, and web browsers, and their interactions (which turn out to be quite complex if you’re just familiar with the basics of HTTP).
Instead of vulnerability classes, it focuses on web technologies:
- Same Origin Policy
- Security Boundaries
If you’re looking to take a new look at web vulnerabilities and already have a fundamental understanding of the basics, this is a great opportunity to expand your understanding. While it does talk about the common vulnerabilities, it also exposes strange bug classes, like vulnerabilities only exploitable on a single browser due to weird parsing bugs, or the confusion in parsing the same document between a client and a server.
After all, the reason Cross-Site Scripting exists is that something the server understood as “data” is interpreted by the browser as “code” to be executed. HTTP Response Splitting is also a vulnerability brought about by mixing data and metadata (headers) together.
This book is a fascinating read and has wonderful examples, and I feel certain that almost everything will discover something they didn’t already know about web security. Even though The Tangled Web is a little bit old, it’s worth reading to get an understanding of the bad things that can happen and the strange edge cases you might never have considered before.
One of my favorite parts of the book is the presence of a “cheatsheet” in each chapter that summarizes the concepts and how to apply them. This makes the book both a good introduction and a good reference, which is rare to find in the same publication.
It’s worth noting that the book is a little bit less of an easy read than I would like. In some places it seems to jump around and lacks a clear path forward. Another downside that is directly related to the age of the book is the number of examples that focus on Internet Explorer, which is obviously no longer a significant concern on the Internet.
So Which Book?
Well, like I said earlier, I’m not going to declare a “best” book here. If you’re completely new to web security or just looking to do bug bounties, I’d suggest Real-World Bug Hunting as the easiest to digest and most direct to those goals. If you’re looking for the most content but still focusing on attacking applications, I’d go with the Web Application Hacker’s Handbook. Finally, if you’re interested in the most esoteric edge cases, The Tangled Web is your goto, but it’s more of a supplement to the others if you intend to do a lot of web assessments.
Of course, I’ve read all three of the books, and I’ve learned something from all of them. If you have the time and patience (as well as the desire to get much deeper into web security), I think it would be worth your time to read more than one, possibly even all of them, though maybe I’m just an outlier in that case.
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