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[whatwg] Basic defense at the client against common XSS attack types

From: Jacques Jongerden <jacques_jongerden@hotmail.com>
Date: Mon, 20 Jun 2011 19:47:59 +0200
Message-ID: <COL102-DS1781BF7DC4C5AAD2DD3CCB9E6E0@phx.gbl>
I'd like your thoughts on an idea concerning a basic defense mechanism on
the client against several types of common XSS attacks, complementing the
existing array of (mainly server-side) security measures. Now I'll be the
first to admit that this is hardly my area of expertise, so I could really
use some feedback on the feasibility of this proposal and perhaps it might
serve as a source of inspiration to others that are more versed in the
subject matter.

The concept itself is simple: enable web developers to delimit parts of an
HTML document that ought not declare scripting elements. The browser would
then not execute any scripting content that originates within the delimited
area. The execution is somewhat tricky though. A custom attribute (or
element for that matter) would not cut it; an attacker could simply inject a
closing tag for the decorated element together with the rest of the
malicious payload.

One way to tackle the issue is to use an element with a randomly generated
(at the server) token value that is repeated in the closing tag. Because the
attacker cannot predict the value of the token at the time of injection, the
block restricting the use of script content cannot be escaped. Unfortunately
it might require a new type of construct, for example similar to the way
conditional comments are defined within Internet Explorer. Consider the
following example:

<!doctype html>
<html lang="en">
<head>
   <meta charset="UTF-8">
   <title>Some page that includes user input</title>
   <link rel="stylesheet" href="css/style.css">
   <script src="js/script.js"></script>
</head>
<body>
   <div id="container">

      <div id="main" role="main">
         <article><!--[start-ignore-script:MyToken]-->

            <!-- content here includes user input; the browser should ignore
                 any scripted content originating in this area, including
                 script blocks, event handlers, css expressions, etc. -->

         <!--[end-ignore-script:MyToken]--></article>
      </div>

      <script type="text/javascript">

         /* This script is executed though, because the element is not
            inside of a restricted execution area. */

      </script>

   </div>
</body>
</html>

Because the scripting restriction instructions are formatted as HTML
comments older browsers will simply ignore them. The 'MyToken' part within
both instructions would be substituted by a token that is dynamically
generated at the server. The same token would be used in the
'start-ignore-script' as well as the 'end-ignore-script' instruction
comments (or whatever other name that might better communicate the intent).
These two comments would be parsed by the browser and all scripting blocks,
event handlers, CSS expressions and any other script content declared within
them would consequently be ignored (that is, not executed).

Because the application developer knows where user input might be displayed,
he or she is well informed to make the decision if and where to apply such
content restrictions in the markup. Using the security mechanism does
however imply that the developer also won't be able to directly use
JavaScript within the delimited area, because the browser cannot be expected
to reliably distinguish between normal and malicious scripting. This
shouldn't pose too much of a problem though.

Although the proposed mechanism prevents execution of scripting content that
is declared within the delimited block, it shouldn't prevent other scripts
on the page from traversing the enclosed elements and manipulating them,
quite possibly adding event handlers in the process. This way the functional
impact of the proposed mechanism is minimized. Such a solution does beg the
need for some concept of script ownership, i.e. the browser must have some
way of distinguishing between script content that originates in the
restricted markup and things like event handlers that have been added by
scripts that reside *outside* the restricted markup. An event handler that
has been added by a script outside of the delimited area should be executed
when the event fires, even though it is registered on an element that cannot
declare any 'executable' content itself.

Note that this is in line with common scripting best practices that
prescribe not directly adding event handlers to HTML markup, but adding them
to the DOM programmatically instead, progressively enhancing the content at
the client, given the browser's capabilities. If a web developer is already
applying JavaScript in such fashion, adding the proposed attribute to
sections of an HTML document would hardly cause any inconvenience.

This 'opt-in' security measure seems relatively easy to understand and apply
for web developers and allows for fine-grained control over script execution
in generated documents. It doesn't absolve developers from carefully
handling user input, but it should help to reduce the impact of newly
discovered vectors for several types of XSS attacks.

And now for some questions:

* Could this actually work or is there some simple workaround that I'm
overlooking?
* How hard would this be to implement within common browsers?
* Could the syntax perhaps be simplified?

So please do chime in on the topic and share your opinions and ideas!

Cheers,

Jacques
Received on Monday, 20 June 2011 10:47:59 UTC

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