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Mozilla unveils cure for Web 2.0 world run amok

Putting XSS worms on notice

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The Mozilla Foundation has unveiled an early version of its Firefox browser that it says could virtually eliminate one of the most common attack forms now menacing the web.

It implements an inchoate technology the foundation calls CSP, short for the Content Security Policy specification. It allows web developers to embed a series of HTML headers into their sites that by default block some of the most abused features from being offered. Newer versions of Firefox, and other browsers if they adopt the standard, would then enforce those policies across the site's entire domain.

The primary aim of CSP is to immunize websites from attacks based on XSS, or cross-site scripting. The exploits frequently target javascript, Adobe Flash and other user-supplied content that allows attackers to inject malicious content and code into trusted websites. Administrators then have the option of whitelisting only the types of content they need to make their sites work as designed.

"A lot of the big sites who are dealing with user content and who are seeing some of these problems with cross-site scripting, we've heard excitement from them," said Johnathan Nightingale, whose official title at Mozilla is human shield. "It's hard to filter out all the potentially bad things that a malicious user can include."

The CSP preview builds are designed to give web developers a sneak peek at the specification and chime in with suggestions for making it better. Mozilla hopes it will become an open standard and is already shepherding it through the World Wide Web Consortium.

Over the past few years, XSS attacks have emerged as one of the most common ways to exploit web surfers and Web 2.0 sites alike. A recent rash of Twitter worms relied on XSS vulnerabilities in the microblogging site. Such self-replicating attacks date back to at least 2005, when the so-called Samy Worm knocked MySpace out of commission by adding more than 1 million users to the creator's friends list.

CSP has the ability to do more than stamp out XSS. By erecting a wall in front of a company's intranet and other protected resources, CSP could insulate organizations from so-called DNS rebinding attacks. Those techniques use HTML sleight of hand to trick web browsers behind an organization's firewall into attacking routers and other vital targets.

Of course, all of this is still no more than a gleam in the eyes of Mozilla developers. For it to catch on, large websites will have to invest heavily in it, and given Mozilla's still-modest market share, that will almost certainly require other browser suppliers (read: Microsoft) to get on board.

That's an awful lot of ifs. Still, CSP is worth watching - and if you're a web developer, even playing around with. If it works as intended, it could prove to be one of the more promising solutions for a Web 2.0 world that's built first and is only later, if ever, patched. ®

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