I often talk about cross-site scripting (XSS), and that’s partly because I think it’s a pretty interesting type of vulnerability that many developers tend to overlook. It can be quite dangerous, but can also be quite misunderstood. For one thing, the name can be misleading: exploiting XSS does not always involve scripting, and the proliferation of web technologies has taken XSS issues beyond the browser.
One example of script-less cross-site scripting affected some high-profile MySpace users in 2007. Attackers were able to inject HTML into celebrity MySpace pages, but the service filtered out typical <script> payloads. Seemingly innocent <a> links were allowed, though, and adding a bit of CSS allowed one to create an invisible link that covered the entire page. In this case, clicking anywhere on an infected profile led to a malware download.
This attack could be one of the first prominent cases of clickjacking, though the term is usually applied to attacks that hijack clicks with malicious inline frames (iframes). Allowing <iframe> elements in user-controlled HTML opens up a range of issues more broadly known as UI redressing. For instance, an iframe that covers the entire page could render a fake login form that appears to be legitimate given the site’s address, leading to a powerful phishing attack. Frames and forms can also be used to bypass CSRF protections.
Of course, you can sometimes launch simple CSRF attacks using only images. By setting the “src” attribute of an <img> element to another page, the browser will still execute a GET request to that page when it tries to load the image. Without proper CSRF protections, such an attack may be possible without XSS to begin with. But images can also be a source of information leakage or tracking, since GET requests to a malicious server will also likely include a “Referer” header.
Alternate labels, such as “HTML injection” or “web content injection,” have been proposed to describe cross-site scripting, but the established term is likely here to say. Still, remember that protecting against XSS does not simply mean blocking script tags, and keep in mind the power of XSS when integrating web technologies with other platforms.