Lots of people have been asking us for opinions on HTML5 security lately. Chris and I discussed the potential attack vectors with the Veracode research team, most notably Brandon Creighton and Isaac Dawson. Here’s some of what we came up with. Keep in mind that the HTML5 spec and implementations are still evolving, particularly with respect to security concerns, so we shouldn’t assume any of this is set in stone.
Don’t Forget Origin Checks on Cross-Document Messaging
One bright spot with regard to cross-document messaging is that older apps won’t be threatened by these issues, only new apps that are intentionally written to rely on the feature.
Local Storage Isn’t as Problematic as You Think
Local storage doesn’t appear to present major security risks, despite a lot of FUD circulating on the topic. Besides cookies, there have always been numerous ways for web apps to store data client-side through the use of plugins (Java, JWS, Flash, Silverlight, Google Gears, etc.) or browser extensions — WebKit/Safari/Chrome have supported local storage before it was even part of HTML5.
Developers should also be aware that as currently implemented, the HTML5 sessionStorage attribute can be vulnerable to manipulation from foreign sites under certain circumstances. A remote site can get a handle to a window containing a site for which a browser has data in sessionStorage. Then, the remote site can navigate to arbitrary URLs in that window, while the window will still contain its
sessionStorage. Hopefully this implementation bug will be fixed by the time the standard is final.
New Tags Increase Attack Surface
Firefox, Safari, and Chrome currently allow cross-domain requests to be sent using XMLHttpRequest. Before the entire request is allowed to proceed, the browser sends a probe request using the OPTIONS method (instead of, for example, GET or POST) first. If the server responds to this probe with an “Access-Control-Allow-Origin” header that gives the source host permission to make the request, the browser will then resend the full request with the requested HTTP method. This is consistent with the current working draft for W3C Cross-Origin Resource Sharing.
However, IE works differently. Instead of relaxing permissions on XMLHttpRequest, it uses a new object type called XDomainRequest. Also, instead of sending a probe that replaces the normal HTTP method with OPTIONS, its probe includes the original HTTP method as well as the request body (in the other browsers, the request body is omitted).
Sandbox Attribute Could Make Security Easier
One thing that may help, depending on how the standard is eventually defined and implemented, is the support for a sandbox attribute on IFRAMEs. This attribute will allow a developer to chose how data should be interpreted. Unfortunately, this design, like much of HTML, has a pretty high chance of being misunderstood by developers and may easily be disabled for the sake of convenience. If done properly, it could help protect against malicious third-party ads or anywhere else that accepts untrusted content to be redisplayed.
Always Remember Input Validation
The most important thing that developers can do is to remember basic security tenets, for example, the idea that all user input should be considered untrusted. They should learn how the new HTML5 features actually work in order to understand where they’d be tempted to make erroneous assumptions.
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