Cross Site Scripting (XSS) attacks occur when a website fails to properly prevent attackers from inserting malicious code into an area that takes user provided data, such as form fields on a webpage, HTTP headers, URLs etc. This code is then used to attack other users, rather than the actual website or the server it’s hosted on. This leads many to underestimate the dangers of XSS, despite the fact that an XSS flaw could allow attackers to record what users are typing, redirect users to malicious sites to capture their credentials and change the content of pages to defraud users, to name but a few. There are three main types of XSS attacks, reflected, stored and DOM based. Reflected are the most common, whilst stored are the most deadly.


These occur when the attack is reflected off a webserver, via a search result, error message or any response which echoes the user provided data back to the user. Reflected attacks are normally delivered via a link and therefore require some amount of coercion, such as tricking the victim into clicking a link sent to them in an email.


Stored XSS relies on exactly the same principle as reflected XSS; you’re trying to insert your own malicious code into the source, so when a victim visits that page, their browser will execute your code. The only difference, and the reason why they are so much more dangerous, is that your code will be permanently stored on the page. As a result, anyone who subsequently visits that page will trigger the attack; no coercion is required by you at all. They have traditionally often been found on message boards, public guestbooks etc.

DOM Based

The Document Object Model is a relatively advanced concept, but key to how the majority of modern day websites and applications operate. It’s a platform and language independent interface that allows scripts to dynamically update a page’s content, structure and style. This updating can also be done real time, i.e. on the page being viewed currently, so requires no refreshing of the page. A good example of this is the Google auto search function, every time you type the page you are viewing gets updated with the new results, without requiring a refresh or being forwarded to a new page. This is where DOM based XSS differs from the above, the server is not required for the XSS payload to take effect; instead the attacker abuses the runtime embedding of user supplied data in the page.


For a more detailed description of these flaws, as well as live demonstrations and walkthroughs of how to find and exploit them, see this post. If you think your website or application may be vulnerable to an attack of this type, you should look into an application security assessment.

Article Source: An Introduction to Cross-Site Scripting (XSS)
About the Author: David Jones is a Security Consultant at Perspective Risk