Cross-site scripting (XSS) attacks are among the most prevalent web-based security threats on the Internet. While they may not sound like a big deal, they can cause significant harm to both individuals and businesses. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what a cross-site scripting attack is and how it works. We’ll also examine some real-life examples and provide tips for preventing these attacks from happening.
What is Cross-Site Scripting?
There are two primary categories of cross-site scripting - Stored and Reflected.
Stored XSS attacks happen when the malicious code is stored permanently on a server within a database or any sort of data storage mechanism. The injection process takes place when an attacker submits malicious data via an input field that allows the malicious script to be saved to the database. Whenever the data is requested or retrieved from the server and served back to a user, the script is executed.
Reflected XSS attacks take advantage of the ability to go and search for a specific vulnerability within the website (such as an input field) which they can execute their malicious code from. Once the code has been injected into the website, the attacker will attempt to lure a victim into clicking on the link, which will then cause the malicious script to execute.
Real-life Examples of Cross-Site Scripting Attacks
Let us look at some real-life examples of cross-site scripting attacks to help us better understand the severity of these attacks.
Case 1: Samy Worm Attack
Remember Myspace? Before the rise of Facebook, it was the place to be. In 2005, a hacker named Samy Kamkar launched a cross-site scripting attack known as the Samy Worm on Myspace. The worm went viral, spreading to over one million users in less than 20 hours. It modified the user profile of those who viewed Kamkar's profile to add a friend request to Kamkar's profile. When clicked, the friend request was sent, and the worm injected itself onto the viewer's profile, which then began propagating itself. While Kamkar claimed that he launched the attack as a way to show how easy it is to exploit Myspace's security, it still caused significant harm to users.
Case 2: Twitter XSS Attack
In 2010, a vulnerability in Twitter enabled an attacker to execute a cross-site scripting attack against Twitter users. The attack involved the insertion of a script that activated when a user hovered their mouse over a tweet. The script then caused users' browsers to automatically retweet the tweet, even if they didn't want to. While the exploit was not explicitly designed to cause harm, it did expose how easy it is for attackers to take control of user accounts through seemingly harmless means.
How to Prevent Cross-Site Scripting Attacks
Protecting your website from cross-site scripting attacks requires attention to detail and a few key preventative measures. Some of these measures include:
1. User Input Validation: One of the simplest measures is to validate user input to ensure that it doesn't contain harmful code.
3. Authentication and Authorization: It is essential to authenticate and authorize user requests before execution, especially in complex web systems. It is also significant to maintain strong passwords for user accounts and have them changed regularly.
In conclusion, cross-site scripting attacks are a type of security threat with the potential to cause significant harm to individuals and businesses alike. While there are steps that developers and website owners can take to prevent these attacks, such as validating user inputs or sanitizing them, there is still a need for increased awareness and vigilance in the face of such cyber threats. By staying informed, up to date, and preparing ahead of time, the chances of falling victim to such harmful attacks can be substantially reduced. Be sure to follow the recommended guidelines, use strong passwords, and monitor your website for any vulnerability.