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Some secure programs accept data from one untrusted user (the attacker) and pass that data on to a different user's application (the victim). If the secure program doesn't protect the victim, the victim's application (e.g., their web browser) may then process that data in a way harmful to the victim. This is a particularly common problem for web applications using HTML or XML, where the problem goes by several names including ``cross-site scripting'', ``malicious HTML tags'', and ``malicious content.'' This book will call this problem ``cross-site malicious content,'' since the problem isn't limited to scripts or HTML, and its cross-site nature is fundamental. Note that this problem isn't limited to web applications, but since this is a particular problem for them, the rest of this discussion will emphasize web applications. As will be shown in a moment, sometimes an attacker can cause a victim to send data from the victim to the secure program, so the secure program must protect the victim from himself.
Let's begin with a simple example. Some web applications are designed to permit HTML tags in data input from users that will later be posted to other readers (e.g., in a guestbook or ``reader comment'' area). If nothing is done to prevent it, these tags can be used by malicious users to attack other users by inserting scripts, Java references (including references to hostile applets), DHTML tags, early document endings (via </HTML>), absurd font size requests, and so on. This capability can be exploited for a wide range of effects, such as exposing SSL-encrypted connections, accessing restricted web sites via the client, violating domain-based security policies, making the web page unreadable, making the web page unpleasant to use (e.g., via annoying banners and offensive material), permit privacy intrusions (e.g., by inserting a web bug to learn exactly who reads a certain page), creating denial-of-service attacks (e.g., by creating an ``infinite'' number of windows), and even very destructive attacks (by inserting attacks on security vulnerabilities such as scripting languages or buffer overflows in browsers). By embedding malicious FORM tags at the right place, an intruder may even be able to trick users into revealing sensitive information (by modifying the behavior of an existing form). This is by no means an exhaustive list of problems, but hopefully this is enough to convince you that this is a serious problem.
Most ``discussion boards'' have already discovered this problem, and most already take steps to prevent it in text intended to be part of a multiperson discussion. Unfortunately, many web application developers don't realize that this is a much more general problem. Every data value that is sent from one user to another can potentially be a source for cross-site malicious posting, even if it's not an ``obvious'' case of an area where arbitrary HTML is expected. The malicious data can even be supplied by the user himself, since the user may have been fooled into supplying the data via another site. Here's an example (from CERT) of an HTML link that causes the user to send malicious data to another site:
In short, a web application cannot accept input (including any form data) without checking, filtering, or encoding it. You can't even pass that data back to the same user in many cases in web applications, since another user may have surreptitiously supplied the data. Even if permitting such material won't hurt your system, it will enable your system to be a conduit of attacks to your users. Even worse, those attacks will appear to be coming from your system.
Fundamentally, this means that all web application output impacted by any user must be filtered (so characters that can cause this problem are removed), encoded (so the characters that can cause this problem are encoded in a way to prevent the problem), or validated (to ensure that only ``safe'' data gets through). This includes all output derived from input such as URL parameters, form data, cookies, database queries, CORBA ORB results, and data from users stored in files. In many cases, filtering and validation should be done at the input, but encoding can be done during either input validation or output generation. If you're just passing the data through without analysis, it's probably better to encode the data on input (so it won't be forgotten). However, if your program processes the data, it can be easier to encode it on output instead. CERT recommends that filtering and encoding be done during data output; this isn't a bad idea, but there are many cases where it makes sense to do it at input instead. The critical issue is to make sure that you cover all cases for every output, which is not an easy thing to do regardless of approach.
Warning - in many cases these techniques can be subverted unless you've also gained control over the character encoding of the output. Otherwise, an attacker could use an ``unexpected'' character encoding to subvert the techniques discussed here. Thankfully, this isn't hard; gaining control over output character encoding is discussed in Section 8.5.
The first subsection below discusses how to identify special characters that need to be filtered, encoded, or validated. This is followed by subsections describing how to filter or encode these characters. There's no subsection discussing how to validate data in general, however, for input validation in general see Chapter 4, and if the input is straight HTML text or a URI, see Section 4.10. Also note that your web application can receive malicious cross-postings, so non-queries should forbid the GET protocol (see Section 4.11).
Here are the special characters for a variety of circumstances (my thanks to the CERT, who developed this list):
Note that, in general, the ampersand (&) is special in HTML and XML.
One approach to handling these special characters is simply eliminating them (usually during input or output).
If you're already validating your input for valid characters (and you generally should), this is easily done by simply omitting the special characters from the list of valid characters. Here's an example in Perl of a filter that only accepts legal characters, and since the filter doesn't accept any special characters other than the space, it's quite acceptable for use in areas such as a quoted attribute:
However, if you really want to strip away only the smallest number of characters, then you could create a subroutine to remove just those characters:
An alternative to removing the special chacters is to encode them so that they don't have any special meaning. This has several advantages over filtering the characters, in particular, it prevents data loss. If the data is "mangled" by the process from the user's point of view, at least with encoding it's possible to reconstruct the data that was originally sent.
HTML, XML, and SGML all use the ampersand ("&") character as a way to introduce encodings in the running text; this encoding is often called ``HTML encoding.'' To encode these characters, simply transform the special characters in your circumstance. Usually this means '<' becomes '<', '>' becomes '>', '&' becomes '&', and '"' becomes '"'. As noted above, although in theory '>' doesn't need to be quoted, because some browsers act on it (and fill in a '<') it needs to be quoted. There's a minor complexity with the double-quote character, because '"' only needs to be used inside attributes, and some old browsers don't properly render it. If you can handle the additional complexity, you can try to encode '"' only when you need to, but it's easier to simply encode it and ask users to upgrade their browsers.
This approach to HTML encoding isn't quite enough encoding in some circumstances. As discussed in Section 8.5, you need to specify the output character encoding (the ``charset''). If some of your data is encoded using a different character encoding than the output character encoding, then you'll need to do something so your output uses a consistent and correct encoding. Also, you've selected an output encoding other than ISO-8859-1, then you need to make sure that any alternative encodings for special characters (such as "<") can't slip through to the browser. This is a problem with several character encodings, including popular ones like UTF-7 and UTF-8; see Section 4.8 for more information on how to prevent ``alternative'' encodings of characters. One way to deal with incompatible character encodings is to first translate the characters internally to ISO 10646 (which has the same character values as Unicode), and then using either numeric character references or character entity references to represent them:
URIs have their own encoding scheme, commonly called ``URL encoding.'' In this system, characters not permitted in URLs are represented using a percent sign followed by its two-digit hexadecimal value. To handle all of ISO 10646 (Unicode), it's recommended to first translate the codes to UTF-8, and then encode it. See Section 4.10.4 for more about validating URIs.