XSS is the most common publicly reported security vulnerability, and part of every hacker’s toolkit.
Reflected XSS attacks are less dangerous than stored XSS attacks, which cause a persistent problem when users visit a particular page, but are much more common. Any page that takes a parameter from a GET or POST request and displays that parameter back to the user in some fashion is potentially at risk. A page that fails to treat query string parameters as untrusted content can allow the construction of malicious URLs. An attacker will spread these malicious URLs in emails, in comments sections, or in forums. Since the link points at a site the user trusts, they are much more likely to click on it, not knowing the harm that it will do.
Reflected XSS vulnerabilities are easy to overlook in your code reviews, since the temptation is to only check code that interacts with the data store. Be particularly careful to check the following types of pages:
- Search results - does the search criteria get displayed back to the user? Is it written out in the page title? Are you sure it is being escaped properly?
- Error pages - if you have error messages that complain about invalid inputs, does the input get escaped properly when it is displayed back to the user? Does your 404 page mention the path being searched for?
- Form submissions - if a page POSTs data, does any part of the data being submitted by the form get displayed back to the user? What if the form submission is rejected – does the error page allow injection of malicious code? Does an erroneously submitted form get pre-populated with the values previously submitted?
Our example hack demonstrated a maliciously crafted GET request. However, POST requests should be treated with similar caution. If you don’t protect against cross-site request forgery, attackers can easily construct malicious POST requests. And even if you do protect against CSRF, attackers will often use a combination of vulnerabilities to construct poisoned POST requests.
Be sure to check all pages on your site, whether they write to the data store or not!
Escape Dynamic Content
Unless your site is a content-management system, it is rare that you want your users to author raw HTML. Instead, you should escape all dynamic content coming from a data store, so the browser knows it is to be treated as the contents of HTML tags, as opposed to raw HTML.
Escaping dynamic contents generally consists of replacing significant characters with the HTML entity encoding:
Most modern frameworks will escape dynamic content by default – see the cross-site scripting exercise for details.
Be even more careful if untrusted content is being inserted into
<style> tags on a page. Escaping in these scenarios needs special consideration,
and if your choice of tools doesn’t have stylesheet and script encoding available
by default, consider using a dedicated tool.
If a particular dynamic data item can only take a handful of valid values, the best practice is to restrict the values in the data store, and have your rendering logic only permit known good values. If a URL expects a “country” parameter in the URL, for instance, make sure it is only permitted to take on one of a list of valid enumerated values.
Implement a Content-Security Policy
Modern browsers support Content-Security Policies
can be loaded and executed from. XSS attacks rely on the attacker being
able to run malicious scripts on a user’s web page - either by
<script> tags somewhere within the
<html> tag of a
malicious third-party domain.
|Content-Security-Policy: script-src 'self' https://apis.google.com|
The content security policy can also be set in a
<meta> tag in the
element of the page:
<meta http-equiv="Content-Security-Policy" content="script-src 'self' https://apis.google.com">
This approach will protect your users very effectively! However, it may take a considerable amount of discipline to make your site ready for such a header. Inline scripts tags are considered bad practice in modern web-development - mixing content and code makes web-applications difficult to maintain - but are common in older, legacy sites.
To migrate away from inline scripts incrementally, consider makings use of
CSP Violation Reports.
By adding a
report-uri directive in your policy header, the browser will
|Content-Security-Policy-Report-Only: script-src 'self'; report-uri http://example.com/csr-reports|
This will give you reassurance that there are no lingering inline scripts, before you ban them outright.
- How Cross-site Scripting Works
- An Introduction to Content Security Policy
- CSP (Content Security Policy) on the Mozilla Developer Network
- Content Security Policy Explained