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Content Security Policy – Trends and Challenges

July 14th, 2014

In December 2012, I was curious who is using Content Security Policy, and how are they using it?

Content Security Policy (CSP) can help websites to get rid of most forms of content injection attacks. As it is standardized and supported by major browsers, we expected websites to implement it. To us, the benefits of CSP seemed obvious.

However, as we started to look into the CSP headers of websites, we noticed that few of them actually used it. To get a better overview we started crawling the Alexa Top 1M every week. What started out as a just-for-fun project escalated to a data collection of over 100GB of HTTP header information alone. We are publishing the results in our (Michael Weissbacher, Tobias Lauinger, William Robertson) paper Why is CSP Failing? Trends and Challenges in CSP Adoption at RAID 2014.

We investigated three aspects of CSP and its adoption. First, we looked into who is using CSP and how it is deployed. Second, we used report-only mode to devise rules for some of our websites. We tried to verify whether this is a viable approach. And third, we looked into generating content security policies for third-party websites through crawling, to find obstacles that prevent wider deployment.

CSP headers in comparison to other security relevant headers

CSP headers in comparison to other security relevant headers

We have found that CSP adoption significantly lags behind other web security mechanisms and that, even when it has been adopted by a site, it is often deployed in a way that negates its theoretical benefits for preventing content injection and data exfiltration attacks. While more popular websites are more likely to use it, only 1% of the 100 most popular websites use it on their front page.

To summarize our findings:

  • Out of the few websites using CSP, the policies in use did not add much protection, marginalizing the possible benefits.
  • The structure of sites, and in particular integration of ad networks, can make deployment of CSP harder.
  • CSP can cause unexpected behavior with Chrome extensions, as we detail below.
  • The project resulted in fixes to phpMyAdmin, Facebook and the GitHub blog.

In our paper, we suggest several avenues for enhancing CSP to ease its adoption. We also release an open source CSP parsing and manipulation library.

Below, we detail on some topics that did not fit into the paper, including bugs that we reported to impacted vendors.

Chrome Extensions

Chrome enforces CSP sent by websites on its extensions. This seems well known, but comes with a couple of side effects. The implications are that CSP from websites can break functionality of extensions, intentionally or unintentionally. Other than that, it makes devising CSP rules based on report-only mode very cumbersome, due to lots of bogus reports. Enforcing rules on extensions seems surprising, especially since they can request permission to modify HTTP headers and whitelist themselves. In fact, we found one such extension that modifies CSP headers in flight.

Recovering granularity of CSP reports

While older versions of Firefox will report specifically whether an eval or inline violation occurred, newer versions of any browser won’t. We provide a work-around to detect such errors in the paper, this involves sending multiple headers and post-processing the reports.

Facebook

With Facebook, we noticed that headers (including CSP) were generated based on the user agent. This has some advantages, e.g., sending less header data to browsers that don’t support certain features. Also, Firefox and Chrome were sent different CSP headers (the difference being, the Skype extension was whitelisted for Chrome.) We also noticed that for some browser versions, no CSP rules were sent out. The likely reason is that CSP handling in some browser versions is buggy. For example, Chrome enforces eval() even in report-only mode in some versions. However, due to misconfiguration, CSP was only served to browser versions before the bugs were introduced, and none after. As a result, CSP was only in use for a fraction of browsers that in fact support it. After we informed them of this, Facebook quickly fixed the issue. Now, CSP is being served to a wider audience of browsers than before. Also, we were added to the Whitehat “Thanks” list.

phpMyAdmin

We found that phpMyAdmin, which serves CSP rules by default, had a broken configuration on it’s demo page. The setup prevented loading of Google Analytics code. This turned out to be interesting, as the script was whitelisted in the default-src directive, but script-src was also specified and less permissive. Those two are not considered together, and the more specific script-src directive overrode default-src. Hence, including the Google analytics code was not allowed and resulted in an error. We pointed out the issue and it resulted in a little commit.

GitHub

We used several sites that deploy CSP as benchmark to test our tool for devising CSP rules. With GitHub, we noticed that our tool came up with more directives than the site itself. After investigating, we found that one of the sites on their blog was causing violations with the original rules, as it tried to include third party images. This was interesting, as any site which specifies a report-uri would have caught this, but GitHub doesn’t use the feature. While this caused no security issue, it stopped the blog post from working as intended. With report-uri enabled that mistake would have popped up in the logs and could have been fixed instantly. We think this highlights how important usage of the report-uri is. In summary, this was more of an interesting observation about report-uri to us than a problem on their side.

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