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Cross-Site Scripting Attacks

The earliest experiments with scripts that could run in web browsers revealed a problem: all of the HTTP requests made by the browser were done with the authority of the user’s cookies, so pages could cause quite a bit of trouble by attempting to, say, POST to the online web site of a popular bank asking that money be transferred to the attacker’s account. Anyone who visited the problem site while logged on to that particular bank in another window could lose money. To address this, browsers imposed the restriction that scripts in languages like JavaScript can only make connections back to the site that served the web page, and not to other web sites. This is called the “same origin policy.”

Today, would-be attackers find ways around this policy by using a constellation of attacks called cross-site scripting (known by the acronym XSS to prevent confusion with Cascading Style Sheets). These techniques include things like finding the fields on a web page where the site will include snippets of user-provided data without properly escaping them, and then figuring out how to craft a snippet of data that will perform some compromising action on behalf of the user or send private information to a third party. Next, the wouldbe attackers release a link or code containing that snippet onto a popular web site, bulletin board, or in spam e-mails, hoping that thousands of people will click and inadvertently assist in their attack against the site. There are a collection of techniques that are important for avoiding cross-site scripting; you can find them in any good reference on web development. The most important ones include the following:

  • When processing a form that is supposed to submit a POST request, always carefully disregard any GET parameters.
  • Never support URLs that produce some side effect or perform some action simply through being the subject of a GET.
  • In every form, include not only the obvious information—such as a dollar amount and destination account number for bank transfers—but also a hidden field with a secret value that must match for the submission to be valid. That way, random POST requests that attackers generate with the dollar amount and destination account number will not work because they will lack the secret that would make the submission valid.

While the possibilities for XSS are not, strictly speaking, problems or issues with the HTTP protocol itself, it helps to have a solid understanding of them when you are trying to write any program that operates safely on the World Wide Web.

A library called WebOb is also available for Python (and listed on the Python Package Index) that contains HTTP request and response classes that were designed from the other direction: that is, they were intended all along as general-purpose representations of HTTP in all of its low-level details. You can learn more about them at the WebOb project web page: