In this section, we'll explain what cross-site scripting is, describe the different varieties of cross-site scripting vulnerabilities, and spell out how to find and prevent cross-site scripting.
Cross-site scripting (also known as XSS) is a web security vulnerability that allows an attacker to compromise the interactions that users have with a vulnerable application. It allows an attacker to circumvent the same origin policy, which is designed to segregate different websites from each other. Cross-site scripting vulnerabilities normally allow an attacker to masquerade as a victim user, to carry out any actions that the user is able to perform, and to access any of the user's data. If the victim user has privileged access within the application, then the attacker might be able to gain full control over all of the application's functionality and data.
There are three main types of XSS attacks. These are:
Reflected XSS is the simplest variety of cross-site scripting. It arises when an application receives data in an HTTP request and includes that data within the immediate response in an unsafe way.
Here is a simple example of a reflected XSS vulnerability:
<p>Status: All is well.</p>
The application doesn't perform any other processing of the data, so an attacker can easily construct an attack like this:
<p>Status: <script>/* Bad stuff here... */</script></p>
If the user visits the URL constructed by the attacker, then the attacker's script executes in the user's browser, in the context of that user's session with the application. At that point, the script can carry out any action, and retrieve any data, to which the user has access.
Stored XSS (also known as persistent or second-order XSS) arises when an application receives data from an untrusted source and includes that data within its later HTTP responses in an unsafe way.
The data in question might be submitted to the application via HTTP requests; for example, comments on a blog post, user nicknames in a chat room, or contact details on a customer order. In other cases, the data might arrive from other untrusted sources; for example, a webmail application displaying messages received over SMTP, a marketing application displaying social media posts, or a network monitoring application displaying packet data from network traffic.
Here is a simple example of a stored XSS vulnerability. A message board application lets users submit messages, which are displayed to other users:
<p>Hello, this is my message!</p>
The application doesn't perform any other processing of the data, so an attacker can easily send a message that attacks other users:
<p><script>/* Bad stuff here... */</script></p>
var search = document.getElementById('search').value;
var results = document.getElementById('results');
results.innerHTML = 'You searched for: ' + search;
If the attacker can control the value of the input field, they can easily construct a malicious value that causes their own script to execute:
You searched for: <img src=1 onerror='/* Bad stuff here... */'>
In a typical case, the input field would be populated from part of the HTTP request, such as a URL query string parameter, allowing the attacker to deliver an attack using a malicious URL, in the same manner as reflected XSS.
An attacker who exploits a cross-site scripting vulnerability is typically able to:
The actual impact of an XSS attack generally depends on the nature of the application, its functionality and data, and the status of the compromised user. For example:
The vast majority of XSS vulnerabilities can be found quickly and reliably using Burp Suite's web vulnerability scanner.
Preventing cross-site scripting is trivial in some cases but can be much harder depending on the complexity of the application and the ways it handles user-controllable data.
In general, effectively preventing XSS vulnerabilities is likely to involve a combination of the following measures:
How common are XSS vulnerabilities? XSS vulnerabilities are very common, and XSS is probably the most frequently occurring web security vulnerability.
How common are XSS attacks? It is difficult to get reliable data about real-world XSS attacks, but it is probably less frequently exploited than other vulnerabilities.
What is the difference between XSS and SQL injection? XSS is a client-side vulnerability that targets other application users, while SQL injection is a server-side vulnerability that targets the application's database.