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Improper Neutralization of Input During Web Page Generation ('Cross-site Scripting')

ID: 79Date: (C)2012-05-14   (M)2022-10-10
Type: weaknessStatus: USABLE
Abstraction Type: Base


The software does not neutralize or incorrectly neutralizes user-controllable input before it is placed in output that is used as a web page that is served to other users.

Extended Description

Cross-site scripting (XSS) vulnerabilities occur when:

1. Untrusted data enters a web application, typically from a web request.

2. The web application dynamically generates a web page that contains this untrusted data.

3. During page generation, the application does not prevent the data from containing content that is executable by a web browser, such as JavaScript, HTML tags, HTML attributes, mouse events, Flash, ActiveX, etc.

4. A victim visits the generated web page through a web browser, which contains malicious script that was injected using the untrusted data.

5. Since the script comes from a web page that was sent by the web server, the victim's web browser executes the malicious script in the context of the web server's domain.

6. This effectively violates the intention of the web browser's same-origin policy, which states that scripts in one domain should not be able to access resources or run code in a different domain.

There are three main kinds of XSS:

Type 1: Reflected XSS (or Non-Persistent)

The server reads data directly from the HTTP request and reflects it back in the HTTP response. Reflected XSS exploits occur when an attacker causes a victim to supply dangerous content to a vulnerable web application, which is then reflected back to the victim and executed by the web browser. The most common mechanism for delivering malicious content is to include it as a parameter in a URL that is posted publicly or e-mailed directly to the victim. URLs constructed in this manner constitute the core of many phishing schemes, whereby an attacker convinces a victim to visit a URL that refers to a vulnerable site. After the site reflects the attacker's content back to the victim, the content is executed by the victim's browser.

Type 2: Stored XSS (or Persistent)

The application stores dangerous data in a database, message forum, visitor log, or other trusted data store. At a later time, the dangerous data is subsequently read back into the application and included in dynamic content. From an attacker's perspective, the optimal place to inject malicious content is in an area that is displayed to either many users or particularly interesting users. Interesting users typically have elevated privileges in the application or interact with sensitive data that is valuable to the attacker. If one of these users executes malicious content, the attacker may be able to perform privileged operations on behalf of the user or gain access to sensitive data belonging to the user. For example, the attacker might inject XSS into a log message, which might not be handled properly when an administrator views the logs.

Type 0: DOM-Based XSS

In DOM-based XSS, the client performs the injection of XSS into the page; in the other types, the server performs the injection. DOM-based XSS generally involves server-controlled, trusted script that is sent to the client, such as Javascript that performs sanity checks on a form before the user submits it. If the server-supplied script processes user-supplied data and then injects it back into the web page (such as with dynamic HTML), then DOM-based XSS is possible.

Once the malicious script is injected, the attacker can perform a variety of malicious activities. The attacker could transfer private information, such as cookies that may include session information, from the victim's machine to the attacker. The attacker could send malicious requests to a web site on behalf of the victim, which could be especially dangerous to the site if the victim has administrator privileges to manage that site. Phishing attacks could be used to emulate trusted web sites and trick the victim into entering a password, allowing the attacker to compromise the victim's account on that web site. Finally, the script could exploit a vulnerability in the web browser itself possibly taking over the victim's machine, sometimes referred to as "drive-by hacking."

In many cases, the attack can be launched without the victim even being aware of it. Even with careful users, attackers frequently use a variety of methods to encode the malicious portion of the attack, such as URL encoding or Unicode, so the request looks less suspicious.

Enabling Factors for Exploitation
Cross-site scripting attacks may occur anywhere that possibly malicious users are allowed to post unregulated material to a trusted web site for the consumption of other valid users, commonly on places such as bulletin-board web sites which provide web based mailing list-style functionality.
Stored XSS got its start with web sites that offered a "guestbook" to visitors. Attackers would include JavaScript in their guestbook entries, and all subsequent visitors to the guestbook page would execute the malicious code. As the examples demonstrate, XSS vulnerabilities are caused by code that includes unvalidated data in an HTTP response.

Likelihood of Exploit: High to Very High

Applicable Platforms
Language Class: Language-independent
Architectural Paradigm: Web-based
Architectural Paradigm: Often
Technology Class: Often
Technology Class: Web-Server

Time Of Introduction

  • Architecture and Design
  • Implementation

Related Attack Patterns

Common Consequences

ScopeTechnical ImpactNotes
Bypass protection mechanism
Read application data
The most common attack performed with cross-site scripting involves the disclosure of information stored in user cookies. Typically, a malicious user will craft a client-side script, which -- when parsed by a web browser -- performs some activity (such as sending all site cookies to a given E-mail address). This script will be loaded and run by each user visiting the web site. Since the site requesting to run the script has access to the cookies in question, the malicious script does also.
Execute unauthorized code or commands
In some circumstances it may be possible to run arbitrary code on a victim's computer when cross-site scripting is combined with other flaws.
Execute unauthorized code or commands
Bypass protection mechanism
Read application data
The consequence of an XSS attack is the same regardless of whether it is stored or reflected. The difference is in how the payload arrives at the server.
XSS can cause a variety of problems for the end user that range in severity from an annoyance to complete account compromise. Some cross-site scripting vulnerabilities can be exploited to manipulate or steal cookies, create requests that can be mistaken for those of a valid user, compromise confidential information, or execute malicious code on the end user systems for a variety of nefarious purposes. Other damaging attacks include the disclosure of end user files, installation of Trojan horse programs, redirecting the user to some other page or site, running "Active X" controls (under Microsoft Internet Explorer) from sites that a user perceives as trustworthy, and modifying presentation of content.

Detection Methods

Automated Static Analysis
Use automated static analysis tools that target this type of weakness. Many modern techniques use data flow analysis to minimize the number of false positives. This is not a perfect solution, since 100% accuracy and coverage are not feasible, especially when multiple components are involved.
Black Box
Use the XSS Cheat Sheet [R.79.6] or automated test-generation tools to help launch a wide variety of attacks against your web application. The Cheat Sheet contains many subtle XSS variations that are specifically targeted against weak XSS defenses.

Potential Mitigations

Architecture and Design
Libraries or Frameworks
Use a vetted library or framework that does not allow this weakness to occur or provides constructs that make this weakness easier to avoid.
Examples of libraries and frameworks that make it easier to generate properly encoded output include Microsoft's Anti-XSS library, the OWASP ESAPI Encoding module, and Apache Wicket.
Architecture and Design
 Understand the context in which your data will be used and the encoding that will be expected. This is especially important when transmitting data between different components, or when generating outputs that can contain multiple encodings at the same time, such as web pages or multi-part mail messages. Study all expected communication protocols and data representations to determine the required encoding strategies.
For any data that will be output to another web page, especially any data that was received from external inputs, use the appropriate encoding on all non-alphanumeric characters.
Parts of the same output document may require different encodings, which will vary depending on whether the output is in the:

etc. Note that HTML Entity Encoding is only appropriate for the HTML body.
Consult the XSS Prevention Cheat Sheet [R.79.16] for more details on the types of encoding and escaping that are needed.
Architecture and Design
Identify and Reduce Attack Surface
Understand all the potential areas where untrusted inputs can enter your software: parameters or arguments, cookies, anything read from the network, environment variables, reverse DNS lookups, query results, request headers, URL components, e-mail, files, filenames, databases, and any external systems that provide data to the application. Remember that such inputs may be obtained indirectly through API calls.
This technique has limited effectiveness, but can be helpful when it is possible to store client state and sensitive information on the server side instead of in cookies, headers, hidden form fields, etc.
Architecture and Design
 For any security checks that are performed on the client side, ensure that these checks are duplicated on the server side, in order to avoid CWE-602. Attackers can bypass the client-side checks by modifying values after the checks have been performed, or by changing the client to remove the client-side checks entirely. Then, these modified values would be submitted to the server.
Architecture and Design
If available, use structured mechanisms that automatically enforce the separation between data and code. These mechanisms may be able to provide the relevant quoting, encoding, and validation automatically, instead of relying on the developer to provide this capability at every point where output is generated.
Output Encoding
Use and specify an output encoding that can be handled by the downstream component that is reading the output. Common encodings include ISO-8859-1, UTF-7, and UTF-8. When an encoding is not specified, a downstream component may choose a different encoding, either by assuming a default encoding or automatically inferring which encoding is being used, which can be erroneous. When the encodings are inconsistent, the downstream component might treat some character or byte sequences as special, even if they are not special in the original encoding. Attackers might then be able to exploit this discrepancy and conduct injection attacks; they even might be able to bypass protection mechanisms that assume the original encoding is also being used by the downstream component.
The problem of inconsistent output encodings often arises in web pages. If an encoding is not specified in an HTTP header, web browsers often guess about which encoding is being used. This can open up the browser to subtle XSS attacks.
 With Struts, write all data from form beans with the bean's filter attribute set to true.
Identify and Reduce Attack Surface
To help mitigate XSS attacks against the user's session cookie, set the session cookie to be HttpOnly. In browsers that support the HttpOnly feature (such as more recent versions of Internet Explorer and Firefox), this attribute can prevent the user's session cookie from being accessible to malicious client-side scripts that use document.cookie. This is not a complete solution, since HttpOnly is not supported by all browsers. More importantly, XMLHTTPRequest and other powerful browser technologies provide read access to HTTP headers, including the Set-Cookie header in which the HttpOnly flag is set.
Defense in Depth
Input Validation
Assume all input is malicious. Use an "accept known good" input validation strategy, i.e., use a whitelist of acceptable inputs that strictly conform to specifications. Reject any input that does not strictly conform to specifications, or transform it into something that does.
When performing input validation, consider all potentially relevant properties, including length, type of input, the full range of acceptable values, missing or extra inputs, syntax, consistency across related fields, and conformance to business rules. As an example of business rule logic, "boat" may be syntactically valid because it only contains alphanumeric characters, but it is not valid if the input is only expected to contain colors such as "red" or "blue."
Do not rely exclusively on looking for malicious or malformed inputs (i.e., do not rely on a blacklist). A blacklist is likely to miss at least one undesirable input, especially if the code's environment changes. This can give attackers enough room to bypass the intended validation. However, blacklists can be useful for detecting potential attacks or determining which inputs are so malformed that they should be rejected outright.
When dynamically constructing web pages, use stringent whitelists that limit the character set based on the expected value of the parameter in the request. All input should be validated and cleansed, not just parameters that the user is supposed to specify, but all data in the request, including hidden fields, cookies, headers, the URL itself, and so forth. A common mistake that leads to continuing XSS vulnerabilities is to validate only fields that are expected to be redisplayed by the site. It is common to see data from the request that is reflected by the application server or the application that the development team did not anticipate. Also, a field that is not currently reflected may be used by a future developer. Therefore, validating ALL parts of the HTTP request is recommended.
Note that proper output encoding, escaping, and quoting is the most effective solution for preventing XSS, although input validation may provide some defense-in-depth. This is because it effectively limits what will appear in output. Input validation will not always prevent XSS, especially if you are required to support free-form text fields that could contain arbitrary characters. For example, in a chat application, the heart emoticon ("<3") would likely pass the validation step, since it is commonly used. However, it cannot be directly inserted into the web page because it contains the "<" character, which would need to be escaped or otherwise handled. In this case, stripping the "<" might reduce the risk of XSS, but it would produce incorrect behavior because the emoticon would not be recorded. This might seem to be a minor inconvenience, but it would be more important in a mathematical forum that wants to represent inequalities.
Even if you make a mistake in your validation (such as forgetting one out of 100 input fields), appropriate encoding is still likely to protect you from injection-based attacks. As long as it is not done in isolation, input validation is still a useful technique, since it may significantly reduce your attack surface, allow you to detect some attacks, and provide other security benefits that proper encoding does not address.
Ensure that you perform input validation at well-defined interfaces within the application. This will help protect the application even if a component is reused or moved elsewhere.
Architecture and Design
Enforcement by Conversion
When the set of acceptable objects, such as filenames or URLs, is limited or known, create a mapping from a set of fixed input values (such as numeric IDs) to the actual filenames or URLs, and reject all other inputs.
Use an application firewall that can detect attacks against this weakness. It can be beneficial in cases in which the code cannot be fixed (because it is controlled by a third party), as an emergency prevention measure while more comprehensive software assurance measures are applied, or to provide defense in depth.
An application firewall might not cover all possible input vectors. In addition, attack techniques might be available to bypass the protection mechanism, such as using malformed inputs that can still be processed by the component that receives those inputs. Depending on functionality, an application firewall might inadvertently reject or modify legitimate requests. Finally, some manual effort may be required for customization.
Environment Hardening
When using PHP, configure the application so that it does not use register_globals. During implementation, develop the application so that it does not rely on this feature, but be wary of implementing a register_globals emulation that is subject to weaknesses such as CWE-95, CWE-621, and similar issues.


Related CWETypeViewChain
CWE-79 ChildOf CWE-896 Category CWE-888  

Demonstrative Examples   (Details)

  1. The following example consists of two separate pages in a web application, one devoted to creating user accounts and another devoted to listing active users currently logged in. It also displays a Stored XSS (Type 2) scenario.
  2. This code displays a welcome message on a web page based on the HTTP GET username parameter. This example covers a Reflected XSS (Type 1) scenario.
  3. This example also displays a Reflected XSS (Type 1) scenario.
  4. This example covers a Stored XSS (Type 2) scenario.

Observed Examples

  1. CVE-2008-5080 : Chain: protection mechanism failure allows XSS
  2. CVE-2006-4308 : Chain: only checks "javascript:" tag
  3. CVE-2007-5727 : Chain: only removes SCRIPT tags, enabling XSS
  4. CVE-2008-5770 : Reflected XSS using the PATH_INFO in a URL
  5. CVE-2008-4730 : Reflected XSS not properly handled when generating an error message
  6. CVE-2008-5734 : Reflected XSS sent through email message.
  7. CVE-2008-0971 : Stored XSS in a security product.
  8. CVE-2008-5249 : Stored XSS using a wiki page.
  9. CVE-2006-3568 : Stored XSS in a guestbook application.
  10. CVE-2006-3211 : Stored XSS in a guestbook application using a javascript: URI in a bbcode img tag.
  11. CVE-2006-3295 : Chain: library file is not protected against a direct request (CWE-425), leading to reflected XSS.

For more examples, refer to CVE relations in the bottom box.

White Box Definitions

Black Box Definitions

Taxynomy Mappings

PLOVER  Cross-site scripting (XSS)
7 Pernicious Kingdoms  Cross-site Scripting
CLASP  Cross-site scripting
OWASP Top Ten 2007 A1
Cross Site Scripting (XSS)
OWASP Top Ten 2004 A1
Unvalidated Input
OWASP Top Ten 2004 A4
Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) Flaws
Cross-site Scripting


  1. Jeremiah Grossman Robert "RSnake" Hansen Petko "pdp" D. Petkov Anton Rager Seth Fogie .XSS Attacks. Syngress. Published on 2007.
  2. Michael Howard David LeBlanc John Viega .24 Deadly Sins of Software Security. McGraw-Hill. Section:'"Sin 2: Web-Server Related Vulnerabilities (XSS, XSRF, and Response Splitting)." Page 31'. Published on 2010.
  3. Michael Howard David LeBlanc John Viega .24 Deadly Sins of Software Security. McGraw-Hill. Section:'"Sin 3: Web-Client Related Vulnerabilities (XSS)." Page 63'. Published on 2010.
  4. .Cross-site scripting. Wikipedia. 2008-08-26.
  5. M. Howard D. LeBlanc .Writing Secure Code 2nd Edition. Microsoft. Section:'Chapter 13, "Web-Specific Input Issues" Page 413'. Published on 2002.
  6. RSnake .XSS (Cross Site Scripting) Cheat Sheet.
  7. Microsoft .Mitigating Cross-site Scripting With HTTP-only Cookies.
  8. Mark Curphey, Microsoft .Anti-XSS 3.0 Beta and CAT.NET Community Technology Preview now Live!.
  9. OWASP .OWASP Enterprise Security API (ESAPI) Project.
  10. Ivan Ristic .XSS Defense HOWTO.
  11. OWASP .Web Application Firewall.
  12. Web Application Security Consortium .Web Application Firewall Evaluation Criteria.
  13. RSnake .Firefox Implements httpOnly And is Vulnerable to XMLHTTPRequest. 2007-07-19.
  14. .XMLHttpRequest allows reading HTTPOnly cookies. Mozilla.
  15. .Apache Wicket.
  16. OWASP .XSS (Cross Site Scripting) Prevention Cheat Sheet.
  17. OWASP .DOM based XSS Prevention Cheat Sheet.
  18. Jason Lam .Top 25 series - Rank 1 - Cross Site Scripting. SANS Software Security Institute. 2010-02-22.
  19. Mark Dowd John McDonald Justin Schuh .The Art of Software Security Assessment 1st Edition. Addison Wesley. Section:'Chapter 17, "Cross Site Scripting", Page 1071.'. Published on 2006.
CVE    16993

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