stream of consciousness about software. but mostly blank

what the reflected XSS

reflected XSS attacks are a common way of tricking a users browser agent into executing malicious code. I’ll share onedefinition I found from mozilla and unpack the key terms / concepts.

When a user is tricked into clicking a malicious link, submitting a specially crafted form, or browsing to a malicious site, the injected code travels to the vulnerable website. The Web server reflects the injected script back to the user’s browser, such as in an error message, search result, or any other response that includes data sent to the server as part of the request. The browser executes the code because it assumes the response is from a “trusted” server which the user has already interacted with.

there’s a few key phrases here that are important to understanding XSS:

  • malicious link – this is the link sent by the attack to a user of a web service. Lets assume you’re the user and the service is This link may look like “<script>… malicious code …</script>” which contains code that the attacker wants to execute on your browser.
  • malicious site – this is a site owned by the attacker. A malicious site doesn’t need to exist for an attack to happen, but it’s one place an attacker can get you to submit details that they can use to construct a scripted attack. For example, lets say they need your email address to perform an attack. The site might have a fake form that collects your email address and then redirects you to “” with an embedded URL script.
  • vulnerable website – this is the site that is vulnerable to XSS attacks. In general, that includes any site that doesn’t escape / sanitize inputs from the client. The problem with this is that it can lead to the browser agent executing user provided (via an attacker) javascript.
  • web server – this is the bank services backend service
  • “trusted” server – this is the bank server that returned the HTML containing malicious code that the users browser executed. Trusted is in quotes here because the server is returning javascript that it did not intend to. So it can’t really be trusted.

XSS attacks take advantage of:

  • A web service that liberally accepts user provided inputs (an attacker can replace a safe input with client code) and renders that input without sanitization (permits arbitrary code execution via injected script tags)
  • An established trust between the user agent and the web service. Any malicious code may execute in the context of an established session between the user and the service. For example, the user may be logged in and therefore all requests originating from the page (which will contain auth related cookies like session cookies) are trusted by the backend.
  • An unsuspecting user that blindly clicks a link (perhaps emailed to them) or fills out a form on a malicious website

err how is this different from stored XSS?

the only difference between reflected XSS and stored XSS is that with stored XSS, the malicious code is actually stored on the vulnerable web services servers. For example, lets say twitter is the vulnerable website and you’re a twitter user. Now lets assume you’re following someone who’s an attacker and they submit a tweet containing malicious code that they know will be executed by browser agents when it gets rendered, say, in the newsfeed of followers.

so here’s how it goes down – they submit the tweet containing script code. That tweet gets stored on the twitter servers (this is where the word “stored” comes from). That tweet will be rendered in users news feeds and when it does, the contents of the tweet gets executed as javascript. Boom, that’s the XSS attack. Just like reflected XSS, this can be prevented by ensuring that user input (in this case, tweets) is sanitized.

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