Nov 24, 2012

Is XSS Solved?

In academic research a problem is solved when it is fully understood and a solution is shown to work in a practical setting. If we define "XSS solved" as every instance of XSS eradicated from earth we will probably not see a solution in our lifetime. So, from a research perspective, is XSS solved already?

Geeks in a Castle

Early October I attended the weeklong seminar on web application security at castle Dagstuhl, Southwest Germany. An awesome opportunity to socialize and discuss with leading experts in web appsec academia.

Group photo outside the castle (original).

"XSS Is Solved"

One of the break-out sessions was on XSS. Someone had voiced the opinion that XSS is solved already the day before. The break-out session took the claim seriously and hashed it out.

From a principal standpoint, which is the typical standpoint of academic research, a problem like XSS is solved when a) we fully understand the problem and its underpinnings, and b) have a PoC solution that is practical enough to be rolled out and has the potential to solve the problem fully.

Do we fully understand XSS and its underpinnings?

Important Papers on XSS

Looking at recent publications we arrived at the following short list that we felt summarizes how academia understands XSS today:
  • Context-Sensitive Auto-Sanitization in Web Templating Languages Using Type Quali´Čüers [pdf]
  • ScriptGard: Preventing Script Injection Attacks in Legacy Web Applications with Automatic Sanitization [pdf]
  • A Symbolic Execution Framework for JavaScript [pdf]
  • Gatekeeper: Mostly Static Enforcement of Security and Reliability Policies for JavaScript Code [pdf]
  • Scriptless Attacks – Stealing the Pie Without Touching the Sill [pdf]
The conclusion was that yes, we think the understanding of XSS is fairly good. But we lack a definition of XSS that would summarize this understanding and allow new attack forms to be deemed XSS or Not XSS.

Current Definitions of XSS

Can you believe that? We still don't have a reasonable definition of XSS.

Wikipedia says "XSS enables attackers to inject client-side script into web pages viewed by other users". 

But it can easily be shot down. Do we need "web pages" to have XSS? Does an attack have to be "viewed by other users" to be XSS? More importantly the Wikipedia definition doesn't say whether the attackers' scripts have to be executed or not or in what context. With default CSP in place you can still inject the script into a page, right? With sandboxed JavaScript you can both inject and execute without causing an XSS attack. And what about these "attackers"? Can they be compromised trusted third parties, legitimate users of the system, or even clumsy business partners?

OWASP says "Cross-Site Scripting attacks are a type of injection problem, in which malicious scripts are injected into the otherwise benign and trusted web sites. Cross-site scripting (XSS) attacks occur when an attacker uses a web application to send malicious code, generally in the form of a browser side script, to a different end user."

Again "web sites" seem to be a prerequisite, but are they? Here the injected scripts have to be "malicious", but do they? And does the target web site have to be "benign and trusted"? OWASP just like Wikipedia fails to state that the injected script has to be executed. Then OWASP changes its mind and says XSS happens when an attacker "uses a web application to send malicious code". Clearly, this widens the scope beyond JavaScript. But look at that sentence and imagine Alice using to send an email to Bob containing a malicious code sample. Alice has done XSS since she used a web application to send malicious code.

I know I'm nit-picking here. Neither Wikipedia nor OWASP have proposed an academic definition of XSS. They're trying to be pedagogical and reach out to non-appsec people.

But we still need a (more) formal definition. To be clear, we need a definition of XSS that allows us to say if a certain vulnerability or attack is XSS or not. Without such a definition we cannot know if countermeasures such as CSP "solves XSS" or not.

Also, Dave Wichers brought up an interesting detail at this year's OWASP AppSec Research conference in Athens. We need to redefine reflected XSS, stored XSS, and DOM-based XSS into server-side XSS reflected and stored, and client-side XSS reflected and stored.

Current, insufficient categorization of XSS.

Proposed new categorization of XSS.

A New Candidate Definition of XSS

To get the juices flowing at the castle we came up with a candidate definition of XSS that the rest of the participants could shoot down.

Candidate definition of XSS: An XSS attack occurs when a script from an untrusted source is executed in rendering a page.

It was shot down thoroughly, in part by yours truly :). 

Terms more or less undefined in the candidate definition:
  • Script. JavaScript, any web-enabled script language, or any character sequence that sort of executes in the browser?
  • Untrusted. What does trusting and not trusting a script mean? Who expresses this trust or distrust?
  • Source. Is it a domain, a server, a legal entity such as Google, or the attacker multiple steps away in the request chain?
  • Executed. Relates to "Script" above. Does it mean running on the JavaScript engine, invoke a browser event, invoke an http request, or what?
  • Rendering. Does rendering have to happen for an attack to be categorized as XSS?
  • Page. Is a page a prerequisite for XSS? Can XSS happen without a page existing?

So Is XSS Solved?

Back to the original question. The feeling at Dagstuhl was that CSP is the mechanism we're all betting on to solve XSS. Not that it's done in version 1.0, not even 1.1. But it's a work horse that we can use to beat XSS in the long run.

What we need right now is a satisfactory definition of XSS. That way we can find the gaps in current countermeasures (including CSP) and get to work on filling them. Don't be surprised if the gaps are fairly few and academic researchers start saying "XSS is solved" within a year. Hey, they need to work on application security problems of tomorrow, not the XSS plague in all the legacy web apps out there.

Please chip in by commenting below. If you can give a good definition of XSS, even better!

Nov 7, 2012

The Rugged Developer

I took part in the intense, weeklong Rugged Summit this spring. Rugged as in Rugged Software. Rugged Software as in secure and robust software. The major outcome of the summit and the homework afterwards was a strawman of The Rugged Handbook. It's free, available here (as docx).

My main contribution to the handbook was being lead author of The Rugged Developer chapter. I'd like to share it with you as a stand-alone blog post below. Hopefully you can give me and the other authors some feedback!

The Rugged Developer
As a Rugged Developer, I want my software to be secure against attacks, interference, corruption, random events, and more.

To achieve my goals I have come to value...

  • Software Quality over Security Products
  • Defensive Code over Patching
  • Ruggedizing Your Own Systems over Waiting To Be Hacked

Your Mission as a Rugged Developer
Good news – you're already Rugged ... in part. We developers do all sorts of things to ensure our code is robust and maintainable. To become a fully rugged developer you only need to add security to the quality goals you try to achieve.

The interesting part of security is that you're protecting your code against intelligent adversaries, not just random things. So in addition to being robust against chaotic users and errors in other systems, your code also has to withstand attacks from people who really know the nuts and bolts of your programming languages, your frameworks, and your deployment platform.

Being a Rugged developer means you have a key role in your project’s security story. The story should tell you what security defenses are available, when they are to be used, and how they are to be used.  Your job is to ensure these things happen. You should also strive to integrate security tests into your development life cycle, and even try to hack your own systems. Better you than a “security” guy or bad guy, right?

Ideas for Being an Effective Rugged Developer
Add Security Unit Tests. Perhaps you've been to security training or you've read a blog post on a new attack form. Make it a habit of trying to add unit tests for attack input you come across. They will add to your negative testing and make your application more robust. A certain escape character, for instance ', may be usable in a nifty security exploit but just as well produce numerous of errors for benign users. A user registration with the name Olivia O'Hara should not fizzle your SQL statement execution. You as a developer have the deepest knowledge of how the system is designed and implemented and thus you are in the best position to implement and test security.

Model Your Data Instead of Using Strings. Almost nothing is just a string. Strings are super convenient for representing input, but they are also capable of transmitting source code, SQL statements, escape characters, null values, markup etc. Write wrappers around your strings and narrow down what they can contain. Even if you don't spend time on a draconic regular expressions or check for syntax and semantics, a simple input restriction to unicode letters + digits + simple punctuation may prove extremely powerful against attacks. Attackers love string input. Rugged developers deny them the pleasure.

Hack Your Own Systems. Even more fun, do it with your team. If management has a problem, tell them it's better you do it than someone on the outside.

Get Educated. There are many materials available to help you learn secure coding, including websites, commercial secure coding training, and vulnerable applications like WebGoat. Also, although top lists can be lame, the OWASP Top 10 and CWE Top 25 are great places to start. As luck would have it, most of the issues in these lists are concrete and you can take action in code today. There are a lot more good materials available at both OWASP and MITRE.  

Make Sure You Patch Your Application Frameworks and Libraries. Know which frameworks and libraries you use (Struts, Spring, .NET MVC, jQuery etc) and their versions. Make sure your regression test suite allows you to upgrade frameworks quickly. Make sure you get those patch alerts. A framework with a security bug can quickly open up several or all your applications to attacks. All the major web frameworks have been found to have severe security bugs the last two years so the problem is very much a reality today.

The Rugged Developer should evaluate success based on how well their code stands up to both internal and external stresses. How many weaknesses are discovered after the code is released for testing? How often are mistakes repeated? How long does it take to remediate a vulnerability? How many security-related test cases are associated with a project?