Year Of Security for Java – Week 11 – X-XSS-Protection

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What is it and why should I care?
X-XSS-Protection is a Microsoft IE technology used to help prevent reflected XSS attacks in IE.

Note 1: This is not a “panacea” for XSS. There is no excuse for not developing your site in a secure manner to prevent XSS. This however is a protection offered by the browser itself (as opposed to an application), meant to protect the masses from the vast amount of XSS litter on the internet.
Note 2: Firefox (by way of NoScript), Chrome (by way of WebKit) and Safari(also WebKit) have similar protections, but apparently don’t use the X-XSS-Protection header as a controlling mechanism.

The XSS protection provided essentially checks for request content that is matched in the response and would cause an XSS vulnerability to be exploited. The filter then performs some mangling of the content to prevent the attack from succeeding. According to the docs, IE has the protection turned on by default for most security zones, including the Internet zone, which is the primary concern for most users.

What should I do about it?
The first thing you should do is work towards resolving any and all XSS issues in your application. As a security minded developer, this is a must.

The recommendation for the use of this header is actually not so straightforward in my opinion. In general, the other HTTP headers I’ve described already in the series have had very little downside. However, the X-XSS-Protection header has had some problems in the past. As far as I’m aware, the IE folks have done a good job of dealing with the known vulns, but I still have concerns since some of the vulns have exposed security problems.

In general, I would recommend keeping the protection enabled, unless you are very sure you have XSS all cleaned up in your app. However, this comes with the caveat that you should at least put some thought into the use cases in your site first. Depending on your choice, here are the options you have available to use, and how you enable them in your application using the X-XSS-Protection HTTP header.

1. Enable the protection for all security zones in blocking mode (Blocking mode means the site won’t display at all if an XSS attempt is found, but rather a simple warning to the user that the attack has been blocked):

X-XSS-Protection: 1; mode=block

2. Enable the protection for all security zones:

X-XSS-Protection: 1

3. Leave the protection enabled for the default zones:

Do nothing.

4. Disable the protection entirely (I only recommend this in 2 cases: either you’re positive that you’ve completely resolved XSS in your app, or there’s an issue in the XSS filter that you’re aware of that causes an additional vulnerability) :

X-XSS-Protection: 0

The protection provided by the X-XSS-Protection header is not complete, but it does raise the bar against attackers and helps protect users. While there have certainly been some implementation issues, the fact that all the major browsers have some implementation of reflected XSS protection shows the importance of this issue. Be prudent in implementation, but certainly do everything you can to help your users be safe.


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