Earliest(-ish) hack against web-based e-mail

The book starts off with a discussion of cross-site scripting (XSS) attacks along with examples from 2009 that illustrate the simplicity of these attacks and the significant impact they can have. What’s astonishing is how little many of the attacks have changed. Consider the following example, over a decade old, of HTML injection before terms like XSS became so ubiquitous. The exploit appeared about two years before the blanket CERT advisory that called attention to insecurity of unchecked HTML.

On August 24, 1998 a Canadian web developer, Tom Cervenka, posted a message to the comp.lang.javascript newsgroup that claimed

We have just found a serious security hole in Microsoft’s Hotmail service (http://www.hotmail.com/) which allows malicious users to easily steal the passwords of Hotmail users. The exploit involves sending an e-mail message that contains embedded javascript code. When a Hotmail user views the message, the javascript code forces the user to re-login to Hotmail. In doing so, the victim’s username and password is sent to the malicious user by e-mail.

The discoverers, in apparent ignorance of the 1990’s labeling requirements for hacks to include foul language or numeric characters, simply dubbed it the “Hot”Mail Exploit. (They demonstrated further lack of familiarity with disclosure methodologies by omitting greetz, lacking typos and failing to remind the reader of near-omnipotent skills — surely an anomaly at the time. The hacker did not fail on all aspects. He satisfied the Axiom of Hacking Culture by choosing a name, Blue Adept, that referenced pop culture, in this case the title of a fantasy novel by Piers Anthony.)

The attack required two steps. First, they set up a page on Geocities (a hosting service for web pages distinguished by being free before free was co-opted by the Web 2.0 fad) that spoofed Hotmail’s login.

The attack wasn’t particularly sophisticated, but it didn’t need to be. The login form collected the victim’s login name and password then mailed them, along with the victim’s IP address, to the newly-created Geocities account.

The second step involved executing the actual exploit against Hotmail by sending an e-mail with HTML that contained a rather curious img tag:

<img src=”javascript:errurl=’http://www.because-we-can.com/users/anon/hotmail/getmsg.htm&#8217;;

The JavaScript changed the browser’s DOM such that any click would take the victim to the spoofed login page at which point the authentication credentials would be coaxed from the unwitting visitor. The original payload didn’t bother to obfuscate the JavaScript inside the src attribute. Modern attacks have more sophisticated obfuscation techniques and use tags other than the img element. The problem of HTML injection, although well known for over 10 years, remains a significant attack against web applications.

1 thought on “Earliest(-ish) hack against web-based e-mail”

Comments are closed.