1. Web Security Academy
  2. HTTP Host header attacks
  3. Exploiting

How to identify and exploit HTTP Host header vulnerabilities

In this section, we'll look more closely at how you can identify whether a website is vulnerable to HTTP Host header attacks. We'll then provide examples of how you can exploit this, along with several interactive labs that you can use to practice these exploits on a deliberately vulnerable website.

How to test for vulnerabilities using the HTTP Host header

To test whether a website is vulnerable to attack via the HTTP Host header, you will need an intercepting proxy, such as Burp Proxy, and manual testing tools like Burp Repeater and Burp Intruder.

In short, you need to identify whether you are able to modify the Host header and still reach the target application with your request. If so, you can use this header to probe the application and observe what effect this has on the response.

Supply an arbitrary Host header

When probing for Host header injection vulnerabilities, the first step is to test what happens when you supply an arbitrary, unrecognized domain name via the Host header.

Some intercepting proxies derive the target IP address from the Host header directly, which makes this kind of testing all but impossible; any changes you made to the header would just cause the request to be sent to a completely different IP address. However, Burp Suite accurately maintains the separation between the Host header and the target IP address. This separation allows you to supply any arbitrary or malformed Host header that you want, while still making sure that the request is sent to the intended target.

Tip

The target URL is displayed either at the top of the panel (for Burp Repeater and Proxy interception) or on the "Target" tab in Burp Intruder. You can edit the target manually by clicking the pencil icon.

Sometimes, you will still be able to access the target website even when you supply an unexpected Host header. This could be for a number of reasons. For example, servers are sometimes configured with a default or fallback option in case they receive requests for domain names that they don't recognize. If your target website happens to be the default, you're in luck. In this case, you can begin studying what the application does with the Host header and whether this behavior is exploitable.

On the other hand, as the Host header is such a fundamental part of how the websites work, tampering with it often means you will be unable to reach the target application at all. The front-end server or load balancer that received your request may simply not know where to forward it, resulting in an "Invalid Host header" error of some kind. This is especially likely if your target is accessed via a CDN. In this case, you should move on to trying some of the techniques outlined below.

Check for flawed validation

Instead of receiving an "Invalid Host header" response, you might find that your request is blocked as a result of some kind of security measure. For example, some websites will validate whether the Host header matches the SNI from the TLS handshake. This doesn't necessarily mean that they're immune to Host header attacks.

You should try to understand how the website parses the Host header. This can sometimes reveal loopholes that can be used to bypass the validation. For example, some parsing algorithms will omit the port from the Host header, meaning that only the domain name is validated. If you are also able to supply a non-numeric port, you can leave the domain name untouched to ensure that you reach the target application, while potentially injecting a payload via the port.

GET /example HTTP/1.1
Host: vulnerable-website.com:bad-stuff-here

Other sites will try to apply matching logic to allow for arbitrary subdomains. In this case, you may be able to bypass the validation entirely by registering an arbitrary domain name that ends with the same sequence of characters as a whitelisted one:

GET /example HTTP/1.1
Host: notvulnerable-website.com

Alternatively, you could take advantage of a less-secure subdomain that you have already compromised:

GET /example HTTP/1.1
Host: hacked-subdomain.vulnerable-website.com

For further examples of common domain-validation flaws, check out our content on circumventing common SSRF defences and Origin header parsing errors.

Send ambiguous requests

The code that validates the host and the code that does something vulnerable with it often reside in different application components or even on separate servers. By identifying and exploiting discrepancies in how they retrieve the Host header, you may be able to issue an ambiguous request that appears to have a different host depending on which system is looking at it.

The following are just a few examples of how you may be able to create ambiguous requests.

Inject duplicate Host headers

One possible approach is to try adding duplicate Host headers. Admittedly, this will often just result in your request being blocked. However, as a browser is unlikely to ever send such a request, you may occasionally find that developers have not anticipated this scenario. In this case, you might expose some interesting behavioral quirks.

Different systems and technologies will handle this case differently, but it is common for one of the two headers to be given precedence over the other one, effectively overriding its value. When systems disagree about which header is the correct one, this can lead to discrepancies that you may be able to exploit. Consider the following request:

GET /example HTTP/1.1
Host: vulnerable-website.com
Host: bad-stuff-here

Let's say the front-end gives precedence to the first instance of the header, but the back-end prefers the final instance. Given this scenario, you could use the first header to ensure that your request is routed to the intended target and use the second header to pass your payload into the server-side code.

Supply an absolute URL

Although the request line typically specifies a relative path on the requested domain, many servers are also configured to understand requests for absolute URLs.

The ambiguity caused by supplying both an absolute URL and a Host header can also lead to discrepancies between different systems. Officially, the request line should be given precedence when routing the request but, in practice, this isn't always the case. You can potentially exploit these discrepancies in much the same way as duplicate Host headers.

GET https://vulnerable-website.com/ HTTP/1.1
Host: bad-stuff-here

Note that you may also need to experiment with different protocols. Servers will sometimes behave differently depending on whether the request line contains an HTTP or an HTTPS URL.

Add line wrapping

You can also uncover quirky behavior by indenting HTTP headers with a space character. Some servers will interpret the indented header as a wrapped line and, therefore, treat it as part of the preceding header's value. Other servers will ignore the indented header altogether.

Due to the highly inconsistent handling of this case, there will often be discrepancies between different systems that process your request. For example, consider the following request:

GET /example HTTP/1.1
 Host: bad-stuff-here
Host: vulnerable-website.com

The website may block requests with multiple Host headers, but you may be able to bypass this validation by indenting one of them like this. If the front-end ignores the indented header, the request will be processed as an ordinary request for vulnerable-website.com. Now let's say the back-end ignores the leading space and gives precedence to the first header in the case of duplicates. This discrepancy might allow you to pass arbitrary values via the "wrapped" Host header.

Other techniques

This is just a small sample of the many possible ways to issue harmful, ambiguous requests. You can also adapt many HTTP request smuggling techniques to construct Host header attacks.

Inject host override headers

Even if you can't override the Host header using an ambiguous request, there are other possibilities for overriding its value while leaving it intact. This includes injecting your payload via one of several other HTTP headers that are designed to serve just this purpose, albeit for more innocent use cases.

As we've already discussed, websites are often accessed via some kind of intermediary system, such as a load balancer or a reverse proxy. In this kind of architecture, the Host header that the back-end server receives may contain the domain name for one of these intermediary systems. This is usually not relevant for the requested functionality.

To solve this problem, the front-end may inject the X-Forwarded-Host header, containing the original value of the Host header from the client's initial request. For this reason, when an X-Forwarded-Host header is present, many frameworks will refer to this instead. You may observe this behavior even when there is no front-end that uses this header.

You can sometimes use X-Forwarded-Host to inject your malicious input while circumventing any validation on the Host header itself.

GET /example HTTP/1.1
Host: vulnerable-website.com
X-Forwarded-Host: bad-stuff-here

Although X-Forwarded-Host is the de facto standard for this behavior, you may come across other headers that serve a similar purpose, including:

  • X-Host
  • X-Forwarded-Server
  • X-HTTP-Host-Override
  • Forwarded

Tip

In Burp Suite, you can use the Param Miner extension's "Guess headers" function to automatically probe for supported headers using its extensive built-in wordlist.

From a security perspective, it is important to note that some websites, potentially even your own, support this kind of behavior unintentionally. This is usually because one or more of these headers is enabled by default in some third-party technology that they use.

How to exploit the HTTP Host header

Once you have identified that you can pass arbitrary hostnames to the target application, you can start to look for ways to exploit it.

In this section, we'll provide some examples of common HTTP Host header attacks that you may be able to construct. We've also created some deliberately vulnerable websites so that you can see how these exploits work and put what you've learned to the test.

We'll cover the following examples:

Password reset poisoning

Attackers can sometimes use the Host header for password reset poisoning attacks. To learn more about this technique, and try it for yourself using our LABS, check out the dedicated topic below.

Web cache poisoning via the Host header

When probing for potential Host header attacks, you will often come across seemingly vulnerable behavior that isn't directly exploitable. For example, you may find that the Host header is reflected in the response markup without HTML-encoding, or even used directly in script imports. Reflected, client-side vulnerabilities, such as XSS, are typically not exploitable when they're caused by the Host header. There is no way for an attacker to force a victim's browser to issue an incorrect host in a useful manner.

However, if the target uses a web cache, it may be possible to turn this useless, reflected vulnerability into a dangerous, stored one by persuading the cache to serve a poisoned response to other users.

To construct a web cache poisoning attack, you need to elicit a response from the server that reflects an injected payload. The challenge is to do this while preserving a cache key that will still be mapped to other users' requests. If successful, the next step is to get this malicious response cached. It will then be served to any users who attempt to visit the affected page.

Standalone caches typically include the Host header in the cache key, so this approach usually works best on integrated, application-level caches. That said, the techniques discussed earlier can sometimes enable you to poison even standalone web caches.

Web cache poisoning is covered extensively in a dedicated topic on the Web Security Academy.

Exploiting classic server-side vulnerabilities

Every HTTP header is a potential vector for exploiting classic server-side vulnerabilities, and the Host header is no exception. For example, you should try the usual SQL injection probing techniques via the Host header. If the value of the header is passed into a SQL statement, this could be exploitable.

Accessing restricted functionality

For fairly obvious reasons, it is common for websites to restrict access to certain functionality to internal users only. However, some websites' access control features make flawed assumptions that allow you to bypass these restrictions by making simple modifications to the Host header. This can expose an increased attack surface for other exploits.

Accessing internal websites with virtual host brute-forcing

Companies sometimes make the mistake of hosting publicly accessible websites and private, internal sites on the same server. Servers typically have both a public and a private IP address. As the internal hostname may resolve to the private IP address, this scenario can't always be detected simply by looking at DNS records:

www.example.com: 12.34.56.78
intranet.example.com: 10.0.0.132

In some cases, the internal site might not even have a public DNS record associated with it. Nonetheless, an attacker can typically access any virtual host on any server that they have access to, provided they can guess the hostnames. If they have discovered a hidden domain name through other means, such as information disclosure, they could simply request this directly. Otherwise, they can use tools like Burp Intruder to brute-force virtual hosts using a simple wordlist of candidate subdomains.

Routing-based SSRF

It is sometimes also possible to use the Host header to launch high-impact, routing-based SSRF attacks. These are sometimes known as "Host header SSRF attacks".

Classic SSRF vulnerabilities are usually based on XXE or exploitable business logic that sends HTTP requests to a URL derived from user-controllable input. Routing-based SSRF, on the other hand, relies on exploiting the intermediary components that are prevalent in many cloud-based architectures. This includes in-house load balancers and reverse proxies.

Although these components are deployed for different purposes, fundamentally, they receive requests and forward them to the appropriate back-end. If they are insecurely configured to forward requests based on an unvalidated Host header, they can be manipulated into misrouting requests to an arbitrary system of the attacker's choice.

These systems make fantastic targets. They sit in a privileged network position that allows them to receive requests directly from the public web, while also having access to much, if not all, of the internal network. This makes the Host header a powerful vector for SSRF attacks, potentially transforming a simple load balancer into a gateway to the entire internal network.

You can use Burp Collaborator to help identify these vulnerabilities. If you supply the domain of your Collaborator server in the Host header, and subsequently receive a DNS lookup from the target server or another in-path system, this indicates that you may be able to route requests to arbitrary domains.

Having confirmed that you can successfully manipulate an intermediary system to route your requests to an arbitrary public server, the next step is to see if you can exploit this behavior to access internal-only systems. To do this, you'll need to identify private IP addresses that are in use on the target's internal network. In addition to any IP addresses that are leaked by the application, you can also scan hostnames belonging to the company to see if any resolve to a private IP address. If all else fails, you can still identify valid IP addresses by simply brute-forcing standard private IP ranges, such as 192.168.0.0/16.

CIDR notation

IP address ranges are commonly expressed using CIDR notation, for example, 192.168.0.0/16.

IPv4 addresses consist of four 8-bit decimal values known as "octets", each separated by a dot. The value of each octet can range from 0 to 255, meaning that the lowest possible IPv4 address would be 0.0.0.0 and the highest 255.255.255.255.

In CIDR notation, the lowest IP address in the range is written explicitly, followed by another number that indicates how many bits from the start of the given address are fixed for the entire range. For example, 10.0.0.0/8 indicates that the first 8 bits are fixed (the first octet). In other words, this range includes all IP addresses from 10.0.0.0 to 10.255.255.255.

SSRF via a malformed request line

Custom proxies sometimes fail to validate the request line properly, which can allow you to supply unusual, malformed input with unfortunate results.

For example, a reverse proxy might take the path from the request line, prefix it with http://backend-server, and route the request to that upstream URL. This works fine if the path starts with a / character, but what if starts with an @ character instead?

GET @private-intranet/example HTTP/1.1

The resulting upstream URL will be http://backend-server@private-intranet/example, which most HTTP libraries interpret as a request to access private-intranet with the username backend-server.