XSS on Google Search – Sanitizing HTML in The Client?Articles . Blog
Google Search is arguably the frontpage of
the Internet, and it’s search bar has been hammered with untrusted user-input for decades.
That’s why I would have never thought to ever experience something like a live XSS
on Google Search myself. That was, until I was sent the following URL. I see this weird
string in the search bar – coming from the q parameter – and then I clicked into the
text box. alert(1). My colleague Masato Kinugawa has actually done it. And it’s such an interesting
bug as well. To understand this bug here, we need to understand
some background stuff first. If you have learned about the basics of reflective or stored XSS,
you know that we generally advice you need to properly encode any untrusted data, depending
on the context where it is placed into the page. Is it just placed in the DOM, inside
that task alone is in general not that trivial and we still see a lot of XSS because of that,
but nowadays it is also mostly solved if you use proper web frameworks.
However we still have a huge challenge when it comes to sanitizing HTML. Sometimes web
applications want to allow certain kinds of HTML tags. You want bold and italic text,
but no scripts. A prime example is HTML emails displayed and rendered in a webmailer. Or
having a WYSIWYG editor for user’s to style text, but you don’t want them to be able
sound counterintuitive. At least when I thought about this the first time, it seemed so wrong.
should you not use some kind of HTML parser library on your server and then sanitize the
untrusted data there, before placing it into the webpage?
Unfortunately, in the use-case where you want to sanitize HTML and allow certain tags but
highlights the challenge. Pause the video for a moment and try to explain
how the following two HTML snippets should be understood by the browser, how does the
hierarchy look like. Especially the fact that the tag seems to be closing here, but it’s
also an attribute of the other tag. What does the browser do? Go Pause and try it! So first of all, this is kinda invalid HTML,
right? There is no html, head or body element. But worse, the opened tags miss closing tags.
So what do we do now? The browser could refuse to display the website because of HTML errors,
or the browser tries to be smart and fix it for you.
So let’s load the snippets in the browser, and examine the parsed HTML, the DOM tree.
The first example is a div, with a script tag inside. and it actually looks kinda logical.
Div opens, script opens, script tag has an attribute title and contains the string, this
string happens to be a closing div tag, but doesn’t matter. It’s in the attribute
string, right? And then the browser fixed it, by adding the
closing script tag, then a closing div tag, and embedding the whole thing in a regular
html document. Now look at the other example.
We have a script tag, which contains a div tag. But that doesn’t really make sense,
So when we look at what the browser did, we see that it took the script tag, placed it
And then we have the closing script tag. And then the quote and angle bracket are simply
text after the script tag, and thus it is placed as text into the body.
So both examples had a similar setup, but you experienced two weird things.
First we have the browser fixing the HTML, by adding missing closing tags. And we experienced
the weird parsing behaviour. Because when we humans look at this, we kinda
feel like it’s a div tag inside of a script tag. But that doesn’t make sense, because
logical that the script ends here. Right?
So you see browsers are very weird and it’s non-trivial to parse HTML. And this behaviour
is actually abused in a class of XSS, called mutation XSS. Some of these mutations or behaviours
are included in the HTML specification. And others are unique to a certain browser. And
thus implementing a sanitizer library for the server, trying to cover the behaviour
of EVERY browser and for all the different browser VERSIONS, that makes no sense. Probably
impossible to maintain. That’s where we come to client side sanitization.
The basic idea is, we can actually use the browser’s own parser, to parse the string
and then we can sanitize it. Clever idea, right? Now getting the browser to parse an HTML string
in a way that it doesn’t execute scripts embedded in it, is not that easy. But there
are some techniques. Luckily there is already an awesome and maintained
from Cure53. Coincidentally it’s also where Masato Kinugawa works at. Let’s have a quick peek into the source
code to look at one example what DOMPurify might use to parse HTML. And it’s right
here in the purify.js, where it creates a “template” tag element. What’s so special about it?
now let me create a div element. And then I’m going to assign a string to the innerHTML.
And this is basically our untrusted user input. And so I’m using here a typical XSS vector,
an image tag with a non-existing image and an onerror event that executes alert.
When I execute that line, we see the failed image request and the alert(1) has popped
up. The reason for that is, when we do innerHTML,
the browser takes the string and parses and interprets it. It finds this image tag, tries
to load the image and fires the onerror. But let’s do the same with the template
element. We create it. Now assign the payload to the innerHTML of
it. And… nothing. No alert(1). BUT we can now take the template.content and
list all the children. We see there is one child. The image tag. The browser parsed it
and now it’s available in the DOM for us to work with. For example we could now make
sure that the image tag has no onerror attribute and we just delete it. Then we can use innerHTML
again to extract the sanitized SAFE html and use it in the real document. For example we
can now add it into the div and of course nothing happens. Very clever, right? And that’s
basically how DOMpurify works. But then came Masato. Masato is an incredible
XSS researcher and he found a weird browser or HTML quirk. Which lead to an issue in DOMpurify. Let’s do the template.innerHTML trick again,
but this time with masato’s google XSS payload. We assign it. And now let’s look at the
content document tree it parsed. We have a noscript element and inside we have
a p tag. Which has a title attribute with a string. That string contains a closing noscript
tag and an img XSS vector, but it ignored it, like our earlier example with the div.
It is parsed as an attribute. And so now, when we sanitize this, we look at this and
BUT WHAT THE F’? It triggered a request to load the image AND
the alert(1) popped up. How is that possible? Let’s examine the div. How does the DOM
look like. WHAT? This makes no sense? This looks totally different. Now it’s like our
second example with the script tag, remember? Noscript opens, then comes a bit of text which
happens to be the p title, and then it encountered a closing noscript tag. Which meant the image
tag after it is now a real HTML tag. It’s not contained in the attribute anymore. Why did the innerHTML on the div parse the
string differently than the innerHTML on the template? In our original example we understood
why the different parsing happens. The script tag just behaves differently because it contains
how can the same tag be interpreted in two different ways? The answer to that lies in the official HTML
specification. The noscript element represents nothing if
It is used to present different markup to user agents (so browsers) that support scripting
and those that don’t support scripting, by affecting how the document is parsed. And here you see how the noscript element
parses the given string differently. And this is exactly what happened to google
as well. Let’s circle back to the google search xss. I have modified the payload and
the XSS is executed. By the way, this is a good tip when trying to debug a more complex
DOM XSS to see where and why it fired. So here we are.
Now we can see the call stack where we are coming from. And going a layer up, we see
that the string b is assigned to the innerHTML of a.
b looks already sanitized, because the browser has added closing tags to it. But as you know,
this is still evil. And so it triggered the XSS here. But where is the root cause? So of course, this was fixed INCREDIBLY fast
by google. Just a little bit after I got the XSS URL the issue was fixed – but I still
fixed code, and diffed them. Looking through the new changes, we find that here an innerHTML
was replaced with an additional XML sanitizer. So we can also set a breakpoint there in the
vulnerable version and have a closer look. So here we hit it. And if we scroll up a bit,
we find that google also creates a template element. This is google’s sanitizer, and
And this is the commit that fixes the issue. But it turns out it was a rollback of another
change. On the 26. September 2018, a nintendo switch fan, made a change and removed the
additional sanitizer step. I have heard that it was due to some interface design issues
they had. Anyway, that introduced the issue. So the XSS existed for roughly 5 months in
on that sanitizer. What an absolutely crazy XSS. I know, I know,
I always say that something blows my mind. But this just blows my mind.
Written by Michelle Gutierrez
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