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Cross-site scripting (XSS) is an attack in which an attacker injects malicious executable scripts into the code of a trusted application or website. Attackers often initiate an XSS attack by sending a malicious link to a user and enticing the user to click it. If the app or website lacks proper data sanitization, the malicious link executes the attacker’s chosen code on the user’s system. As a result, the attacker can steal the user’s active session cookie.

Software Vulnerability Snapshot

Learn what vulnerabilities were most common in commercial software, and why relying solely on automated tests can leave organizations at risk to cyberattacks and data breaches.

How does cross-site scripting work?

Here’s an example.

<script> i=new/**/Image();isrc='+document.cookie+' '+document.location</script>

While the payload is usually JavaScript, XSS can take place using any client-side language.

To carry out a cross-site scripting attack, an attacker injects a malicious script into user-provided input. Attackers can also carry out an attack by modifying a request. If the web app is vulnerable to XSS attacks, the user-supplied input executes as code. For example, in the request below, the script displays a message box with the text “xss.”<script>alert('xss');</script>

There are many ways to trigger an XSS attack. For example, the execution could be triggered automatically when the page loads or when a user hovers over specific elements of the page (e.g., hyperlinks).

Potential consequences of cross-site scripting attacks include:

  • Capturing the keystrokes of a user
  • Redirecting a user to a malicious website
  • Running web browser–based exploits (e.g., crashing the browser)
  • Obtaining the cookie information of a user who is logged into a website, thus compromising the victim’s account

In some cases, the XSS attack leads to a complete compromise of the victim’s account. Attackers can trick users into entering credentials on a fake form, which provides all the information to the attacker.

What are the cross-site scripting approaches?

Stored XSS takes place when the malicious payload is stored in a database. It renders to other users when data is requested if there is no output encoding or sanitization.

Reflected XSS occurs when a web application sends attacker-provided strings to a victim’s browser so that the browser executes part of the string as code. The payload echoes back in response since it doesn’t have any server-side output encoding.

DOM-based XSS takes place when an attacker injects a script into a response. The attacker can read and manipulate the document object model (DOM) data to craft a malicious URL. The attacker uses this URL to trick a user into clicking it. If the user clicks the link, the attacker can steal the user’s active session information, keystrokes, and so on. Unlike stored XSS and reflected XSS, the entire DOM-based XSS attack happens on the client browser (i.e., nothing goes back to the server).

How can you avoid XSS vulnerabilities?

It’s important to implement security measures early in an application’s development life cycle. For example, perform software design phase security activities such as architecture risk analysis and threat modeling. It is equally important to conduct security testing once application development is complete.

Strategies to prevent XSS attacks include

  • Never trust user input. Always perform input validation and sanitization on input originating from untrusted sources as soon as you receive it. To provide comprehensive coverage, both inbound and outbound input handling should be considered.
  • Implement output encoding. This step is performed prior to writing user-controllable data. Output encoding escapes user input and ensures that the browser interprets it as benign data and not as code.
  • Follow the defense-in-depth principle. This strategy utilizes a variety of security controls to ensure the safety of your most valuable assets. Multiple walls of defense (controls) ensure that even if one wall is breached, there are others in place for protection from malicious attacks.
  • Ensure that web application development aligns with OWASP’s XSS Prevention Cheat SheetThis is a list of tried and tested techniques to prevent XSS. OWASP advises the use of a combination of techniques as an XSS defense mechanism that can be customized for your specific application. 
  • Perform penetration testing to confirm remediation was successful. Seasoned penetration testers can implement the right real-world attack scenarios to ensure that your high-risk XSS vulnerabilities are fortified.

Protect your organization by following secure development guidelines, building security in at all phases of an application’s development. Output encoding is also key to preventing XSS vulnerabilities. Use output encoding libraries that are relevant to the programming languages and frameworks your organization uses. Also, ensure your developers stay up-to-date with XSS prevention best practices. 

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