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Cross-site scripting

Web Design & Development Guide

Cross-site scripting


Cross-site scripting (XSS) is a type of computer security vulnerability typically found in web applications which allow code injection by malicious web users into the web pages viewed by other users. Examples of such code include HTML code and client-side scripts. An exploited cross-site scripting vulnerability can be used by attackers to bypass access controls such as the same origin policy. Recently, vulnerabilities of this kind have been exploited to craft powerful phishing attacks and browser exploits. Cross-site scripting was originally referred to as CSS, although this usage has been largely discontinued.


When Netscape first introduced the JavaScript language, they realized the security risks of allowing a Web server to send executable code to a browser (even if only in a browser sandbox). One key problem with this is the case where users have more than one browser window open at once. In some instances, a script from one page should be allowed to access data from another page or object, but in others, this should be strictly forbidden, as a malicious Web site could attempt to steal sensitive information this way. In order to fix this problem, browsers introduced the same origin policy. Essentially, this policy allows any interaction between objects and pages that originated from the same domain and over the same protocol. That way, a malicious Web site would not be able to access sensitive data in another browser window via JavaScript.

Since then, other similar access-control policies have been adopted in other browsers and client-side scripting languages to protect users from malicious Web sites. In general, cross-site scripting holes can be seen as vulnerabilities present in web pages which allow attackers to bypass these mechanisms. By finding clever ways of injecting malicious script into pages served by other domains, an attacker can gain elevated access privileges to sensitive page content, session cookies, and a variety of other objects.


The acronym CSS was often used in the early days to refer to cross-site scripting vulnerabilities, but this quickly became confusing in technical circles because both Cascading Style Sheets and the Content-scrambling system shared the same acronym. Perhaps the first use of the abbreviation XSS was by Steve Champeon in his Webmonkey article "XSS, Trust, and Barney". In 2002, Steve also posted the suggestion of using XSS as an alternative abbreviation to the Bugtraq mailing list. In a rare show of unity, the security community quickly adopted the alternative, and CSS is seldom used today to refer to cross-site scripting, although a few existing pages still use it this way.


As of now three distinct types of XSS vulnerability are known. (These will be labeled Type 0, Type 1, and Type 2 for the purposes of this discussion, but these names are by no means industry standard nomenclature. Where possible, other names for these will be provided.)

[edit] Type 0

This form of XSS vulnerability has been referred to as DOM-based or Local cross-site scripting, and while it is not new by any means, a recent paper (DOM-Based cross-site scripting) does a good job of defining its characteristics. With Type 0 cross-site scripting vulnerabilities, the problem exists within a page's client-side script itself. For instance, if a piece of JavaScript accesses a URL request parameter and uses this information to write some HTML to its own page, and this information is not encoded using HTML entities, an XSS hole will likely be present, since this written data will be re-interpreted by browsers as HTML which could include additional client-side script.

In practice, exploiting such a hole would be very similar to the exploit of Type 1 vulnerabilities (see below), except in one very important situation. Because of the way Internet Explorer treats client-side script in objects located in the "local zone" (for instance, on the client's local hard drive), an XSS hole of this kind in a local page can result in remote execution vulnerabilities. For example, if an attacker hosts a malicious website, which contains a link to a vulnerable page on a client's local system, a script could be injected and would run with privileges of that user's browser on their system. This bypasses the entire client-side sandbox, not just the cross-domain restrictions that are normally bypassed with XSS exploits.

Type 1

This kind of cross-site scripting hole is also referred to as a non-persistent or reflected vulnerability, and is by far the most common type. These holes show up when data provided by a web client is used immediately by server-side scripts to generate a page of results for that user. If unvalidated user-supplied data is included in the resulting page without HTML encoding, this will allow client-side code to be injected into the dynamic page. A classic example of this is in site search engines: if one searches for a string which includes some HTML special characters, often the search string will be redisplayed on the result page to indicate what was searched for, or will at least include the search terms in the text box for easier editing. If all occurrences of the search terms are not HTML entity encoded, an XSS hole will result.

At first blush, this does not appear to be a serious problem since users can only inject code into their own pages. However, with a small amount of social engineering, an attacker could convince a user to follow a malicious URL which injects code into the results page, giving the attacker full access to that page's content. Due to the general requirement of the use of some social engineering in this case (and normally in Type 0 vulnerabilities as well), many programmers have disregarded these holes as not terribly important. This misconception is sometimes applied to XSS holes in general (even though this is only one type of XSS) and there is often disagreement in the security community as to the importance of cross-site scripting vulnerabilities.

Type 2

This type of XSS vulnerability is also referred to as a stored or persistent or second-order vulnerability, and it allows the most powerful kinds of attacks. A type 2 XSS vulnerability exists when data provided to a web application by a user is first stored persistently on the server (in a database, filesystem, or other location), and later displayed to users in a web page without being encoded using HTML entities. A classic example of this is with online message boards, where users are allowed to post HTML formatted messages for other users to read.

These vulnerabilities are usually more significant than other types because an attacker can inject the script just once. This could potentially hit a large number of other users with little need for social engineering or the web application could even be infected by a cross-site scripting virus.

The methods of injection can vary a great deal, and an attacker may not need to use the web application itself to exploit such a hole. Any data received by the web application (via email, system logs, etc) that can be controlled by an attacker must be encoded prior to re-display in a dynamic page, else an XSS vulnerability of this type could result.

Exploit scenarios

Attackers intending to exploit cross-site scripting vulnerabilities must approach each class of vulnerability differently. For each class, a specific attack vector is described here. (The names below come from the cast of characters commonly used in computer security.)

Type-0 attack

  1. Mallory sends a URL to Alice (via email or another mechanism) of a maliciously constructed web page.
  2. Alice clicks on the link.
  3. The malicious web page's JavaScript opens a vulnerable HTML page installed locally on Alice's computer.
  4. The vulnerable HTML page contains JavaScript which executes in Alice's computer's local zone.
  5. Mallory's malicious script now may run commands with the privileges Alice holds on her own computer.

Type-1 attack

  1. Alice often visits a particular website, which is hosted by Bob. Bob's website allows Alice to log in with a username/password pair and store sensitive information, such as billing information.
  2. Mallory observes that Bob's website contains a reflected XSS vulnerability.
  3. Mallory crafts a URL to exploit the vulnerability, and sends Alice an email, making it look as if it came from Bob (ie. the email is spoofed).
  4. Alice visits the URL provided by Mallory while logged into Bob's website.
  5. The malicious script embedded in the URL executes in Alice's browser, as if it came directly from Bob's server. The script steals sensitive information (authentication credentials, billing info, etc) and sends this to Mallory's web server without Alice's knowledge.

Type-2 attack

  1. Bob hosts a web site which allows users to post messages and other content to the site for later viewing by other members.
  2. Mallory notices that Bob's website is vulnerable to a type 2 XSS attack.
  3. Mallory posts a message, controversial in nature, which may encourage many other users of the site to view it.
  4. Upon merely viewing the posted message, site users' session cookies or other credentials could be taken and sent to Mallory's webserver without their knowledge.
  5. Later, Mallory logs in as other site users and posts messages on their behalf....

Please note, the preceding examples are merely a representation of common methods of exploit and are not meant to encompass all vectors of attack.

Real-world examples

There are literally hundreds of examples of cross-site scripting vulnerabilities available publicly. Just a few examples to illustrate the different types of holes will be listed here.

  • An example of a type 0 vulnerability was once found in an error page produced by Bugzilla where JavaScript was used to write the current URL, through the document.location variable, to the page without any filtering or encoding. In this case, an attacker who controlled the URL might have been able to inject script, depending on the behavior of the browser in use. This vulnerability was fixed by encoding the special characters in the document.location string prior to writing it to the page.
  • A famous example for type 1 XSS vulnerabilities: Two XSS vulnerabilities in Google.com website were identified and published by Yair Amit in December 2005. The vulnerabilities allowed an attacker to impersonate legitimate members of Google's services or to mount a phishing attack. This publication presented an obscure way to bypass common XSS countermeasures by using UTF-7 encoded payloads.
  • Two type 1 XSS vulnerabilities were exploited humorously, in August 2006, through a fake news summary which claimed President Bush appointed a 9 year old boy to be the chairperson of the Information Security Department. This claim was backed up with links to cbsnews.com and www.bbc.co.uk, both of which were vulnerable to separate XSS holes which allowed the attackers to inject an article of their choosing.
  • An example of a type 2 vulnerability was found in Hotmail, in October 2001 by Marc Slemko, which allowed an attacker to steal a user's Microsoft .NET Passport session cookies. The exploit for this vulnerability consisted of sending a malicious email to a Hotmail user, which contained malformed HTML. The script filtering code in Hotmail's site failed to remove the broken HTML and Internet Explorer's parsing algorithm happily interpreted the malicious code. This problem was quickly fixed, but multiple similar problems were found in Hotmail and other Passport sites later on.
  • Netcraft announced on June 16, 2006 that a security flaw in the PayPal web site is being actively exploited by fraudsters to steal credit card numbers and other personal information belonging to PayPal users. The issue was reported to Netcraft via their own anti-phishing toolbar. Soon after, Paypal reported that a "change in some of the code" on the Paypal website had removed the vulnerability.
  • On October 13, 2005 Samy exploited a security flaw in MySpace resulting in over one million friend requests being made to its creators profile. Qualifying as a type 2 vulnerability, it used multiple XMLHttpRequests to propagate itself.
  • An XSS vulnerability in Community Architect Guestbook was disclosed by Susam Pal on April 19, 2006 which can be exploited by malicious people to conduct script insertion attacks. As a result, many free web-hosting services which used the guestbook were vulnerable to such attacks.
  • On November 8th 2006 Rajesh Sethumadhavan discovered a type 2 vulnerability in the social network site Orkut which would make it possible for Orkut members to inject HTML and JavaScript into their profile [1]. Rodrigo Lacerda used this vulnerability to create a cookie stealing script known as the Orkut Cookie Exploit which was injected into the Orkut profiles of the attacking member(s). By merely viewing these profiles unsuspecting targets had the communities they owned transferred to a fake account of the attacker. On December 12th, Orkut fixed the vulnerability.

Avoiding XSS vulnerabilities

Reliable avoidance of cross-site scripting vulnerabilities currently requires the encoding of all HTML special characters in potentially malicious data. This is generally done right before display by web applications (or client-side script), and many programming languages have built-in functions or libraries which provide this encoding (in this context, also called quoting or escaping).

An example of this kind of quoting is shown below, from within the Python interpreter:-

~> python
Python 2.3.5 (#2, Aug 30 2005, 15:50:26)
Type "help", "copyright", "credits" or "license" for more information.
>>> import cgi

>>> print "<script>alert('xss');</script>"

>>> print cgi.escape("<script>alert('xss');</script>")

Here, the first print statement produces executable client-side script, whereas the second print statement outputs a string which is an HTML-quoted version of the original script. The quoted versions of these characters will appear as literals in a browser, rather than with their special meaning as HTML tags. This prevents any script from being injected into HTML output, but it also prevents any user-supplied input from being formatted with benign HTML.

The ultimate problem with trying to avoid XSS vulnerabilities is that every situation is different. For any given situation, the needs and the issues change. For instance, if user input is going into the src attribute of a hyperlink, cgi.escape() would not be sufficient. Let's say a picture was to be added to a page of pictures, in this fashion:

 <img src='$url'>

An attacker could enter "doesntexist.jpg' onerror='alert(document.cookie)" to add an event which triggers when the browser fails to load "doesntexist.jpg", executing the code.

If one were to implement a function likecgi.escape() (which comes with Python), one would be best off converting <, >, &, " and ' characters to their equivalent HTML entity.

As stated above, the unfortunate consequence of this fix is that users are prevented from embedding non-malicious HTML into pages. Because HTML standards do not provide any simple mechanism to disable client-side scripts in specific portions of a web-page, it is difficult to reliably cleanse script from normal HTML. The most reliable method is for web applications to parse the HTML, strip tags and attributes that do not appear in a whitelist, and output valid HTML. However even this parsing can sometimes be exploited by providing a malformed HTML code, breaking the parsing algorithm. As a similar attack targeted Hotmail, on October 2001.

Other forms of mitigation

The easiest way to eliminate XSS vulnerabilities is to encode (HTML quote) all user-supplied HTML special characters, thereby preventing them from being interpreted as HTML. Unfortunately, users of many kinds of web applications (commonly forums and webmail) wish to use some of the features HTML provides. There are some web applications, which attempt to identify all "evil" HTML, and neutralize it, either by removing it or encoding it. These algorithms usually end up being incredibly complex, and for this reason it is almost impossible to know for sure if all possible injections are eliminated. This is because JavaScript has been so tightly integrated into HTML syntax, in addition to the fact that browser and web technologies are still heavily under development. In order to eliminate certain injections, any server-side algorithm must either reject broken HTML, understand how every browser will interpret broken HTML, or (preferably) fix the HTML to be well-formed using techniques akin to those of HTML Tidy.

Besides content filtering, other methods for XSS mitigation are also commonly used. One example is that of cookie security. Many web applications rely on session cookies for authentication between individual HTTP requests, and because client-side scripts generally have access to these cookies, most simple XSS exploits are written to steal these cookies. To mitigate this particular threat (though not the XSS problem in general), many web applications tie session cookies to the IP address of the user who originally logged in, and only permit that IP to use that cookie. This is effective in most situations (if an attacker is only after the cookie), but obviously breaks down in situations where an attacker is behind the same NATed IP address or web proxy. Internet Explorer also has a feature, called the HTTP Only flag, which allows a webserver to set a cookie which is unavailable to client-side scripts. While this seems like a useful feature, it does not prevent the use of XSS to steal passwords or perform cross-site request forgery attacks.

An additional common mitigation, is to use input validation of all potentially malicious data sources. This is a common theme in application development (even outside of web development) and is generally very useful. For instance, if a form accepts some field, which is supposed to contain a phone number, a server-side routine could remove all characters other than digits, parentheses, and dashes, such that the result cannot contain a script. (Incidentally, this can be used to prevent other injection attacks, such as SQL injection, from being successful.) While effective for most types of input, there are times when an application, by design, must be able to accept special HTML characters, such as '<' and '>'. In these situations, HTML entity encoding is the only option.

Finally, some web applications are written to (sometimes optionally) operate completely without the need for client-side scripts. This allows users, if they choose, to completely disable scripting in their browsers before using the application. In this way, even potentially malicious client-side scripts could be inserted unescaped on a page, and users would not be susceptible to XSS attacks. Unfortunately external content can still be loaded into the page with tags like <iframe> or <object>, which often is enough to trick users.

Many browsers can also be configured to disable client-side scripts on a per-domain basis. This is a common mistake, whose failure is that it blocks bad sites only after the user knows that they are bad, which normally of course is too late. Therefore only a functionality that by default blocks all scripting and external inclusions, and then allows the user to enable it on a per-host-basis is the only way to greatly enhance the convenience of such a system. Doing this has been possible for a long time in Internet Explorer (since version 4) setting up the so called "Security Zones", and in Opera since version 9 using its "Site Specific Preferences", slightly more discoverable and usable. A user friendly solution for Firefox and other Gecko based browsers is provided by the open source NoScript extension, featuring also a specific Anti-XSS protection functionality.

One of the major drawbacks to this mitigation is that most users are ignorant of such measures, and would not know how to properly secure their browsers for such applications, if these security settings were disabled by default. The other major drawback is that many insecure sites simply don't work without client-scripts, thereby forcing the user to disable the protection for that site and opening their system to the threat.

Related vulnerabilities

There are several classes of vulnerabilities or attack techniques which are related, and worth mentioning:

  • Cross Zone Scripting vulnerabilities, which exploits "zone" concepts in software, usually execute code with a greater privilege.
  • HTTP Header Injection vulnerabilities, which can be used to create cross-site scripting conditions in addition to allowing attacks such as HTTP response splitting.
  • Cross-site request forgery (CSRF/XSRF) is almost the opposite of XSS, in that rather than exploiting the user's trust in a site, the attacker exploits the site's trust in the client software, submitting requests that the site believes come from its own pages.

External links


Attack vectors




Browser exploit
Cross-site cooking
Cross-site request forgery
Cross-site scripting
Cross-zone scripting
Directory traversal
Evil twin (wireless networks)
HTTP response splitting
IDN homograph attack
Referer spoofing
Session fixation
Session poisoning
Website spoofing

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