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

Applications that use cross-document messaging could be unsafe if origin checking is done incorrectly (or not at all) in the message receivers. It's important that developers writing apps that rely on postMessage() carefully check to ensure that messages originate from their own sites, otherwise malicious code from other sites could spoof rogue messages. The functionality itself isn't inherently insecure, though; developers have used various DOM/browser capabilities to emulate cross-domain messaging for some time now. The window.name attribute has been abused, as has Javascript-driven injection of HTML and URL rewriting. There's even a cross-platform JavaScript library called easyXDM that provides a friendly interface to these hacks.

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

HTML5 will also support new data formats and tags such as the <canvas> and <video> tags. In-browser support for video means browser developers now have to parse historically bug-ridden file formats. This increases the attack surface of HTML5 browsers but otherwise doesn’t affect the typical web app developer. The <canvas> tag is a complex set of functionality mixing Javascript and imaging-related functions, and image parsers have historically been rife with vulnerabilities.

Developers Should Be Wary of Cross-Origin Javascript Requests

Another new feature set that’s not directly part of HTML5, but has recently been introduced, is limited support for cross-origin Javascript requests. Historically, it's been forbidden for Javascript code to request pages from any host other than the page that served the script itself; this is part of the same-origin policy. However, the W3C’s current draft for Cross-Origin Resource Sharing provides a way to circumvent the same-origin policy using a mechanism similar to the crossdomain.xml file in Flash (i.e. the server decides which domains are allowed to access its resources).

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).

The cross-domain-request features are actually fairly troublesome, from a security point of view. Malicious code on any site can cause probe requests to be sent to any other site, in every major browser, today. Developers need to be aware of both probe types and ensure that their applications won't be fooled by probes. Fortunately, cookies aren't passed in any browser's probe request. Adding to the confusion, some of the official documentation on the topic contains reference code that is blatantly insecure. For example, in an MSDN page on XDomainRequest, ASP code is provided for setting the "Access-Control-Allow-Origin" header field to "*". This would allow any remote site to make unauthenticated requests against that page from JavaScript, which is not advisable for most applications. Developers need to be sure they understand the dangers of creating an overly permissive access control list.

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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Chris Eng, vice president of research, is responsible for integrating security expertise into Veracode’s technology. In addition to helping define and prioritize the security feature set of the Veracode service, he consults frequently with customers to discuss and advance their application security initiatives. With over 15 years of experience in application security, Chris brings a wealth of practical expertise to Veracode.

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