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XSS in Ghost


Ghost is a publishing-focused platform. It powers many writing-focused websites such as the cloudflare blog , troyhunt.com and the Mozilla VR blog .

As the code is fully open source on github , I performed a security audit of the application and found an unauthenticated reflected XSS in the Subscribe feature.

The patched versions are 2.4.0 , and 1.25.6 and 0.11.14 . If you are running a version previous to the above patched versions and have the Subscriber feature enabled, I strongly recommend you to update as soon as possible!

This post will be a technical walk through of the vulnerable code which caused this XSS.

Unauthenticated XSS in Subscriber page

The subscribe page of Ghost is a feature which needs to be manually applied via the labs tab in the blog settings.

More information about the feature is available here .

The subscribe page was vulnerable to a reflected XSS as two of the POSTed variables can be reflected:

subscribed_url subscribed_referrer

Here is a POC form which used to alert the domain, on demo.ghost.io:

<form method="post" action="https://demo.ghost.io/subscribe/" > <input type="text" name="confirm" value="x" /> <input type="text" name="subscribed_url" value="x><img src=x onerror='alert(document.domain)' />" /> <input type="email" name="email" autofocus="autofocus" value="random@email.invalid"/> <button type="submit">POC</button> </form> Vulnerability information

The vulnerable code is under /core/server/apps/subscribers/lib/helpers/subscribe_form.js:46

hidden: new SafeString( makeHidden('confirm') + makeHidden('location', root.subscribed_url ? 'value=' + root.subscribed_url : '') + makeHidden('referrer', root.subscribed_referrer ? 'value=' + root.subscribed_referrer : '') )

And rendered under the subscribe_form template, available at /core/server/helpers/tpl/subscribe_form.hbs

The SafeString function is from HandleBars , and enable the user to write raw (unsafe) HTML to the document.

HTML escaping - Handlebars

Handlebars will not escape a Handlebars.SafeString. [...] In such a circumstance, you will want to manually escape parameters.

In our case, we are passing the result of the makeHidden function:

function makeHidden(name, extras) { return templates.input({ type: 'hidden', name: name, className: name, extras: extras }); }

Where template.input is a Lodash template, and no parameters are sanitized.

templates.input = _.template('<input class="<%= className %>" type="<%= type %>" name="<%= name %>" <%= extras %> />');

For this vulnerability, the extras parameters is tainted with 'value=' + root.subscribed_url , which lets us close the input tag and inject our own HTML code.

Technical information

The reason why Ghost is treating subsribed_url and subscribed_referrer as safe variables is the interesting part of this attack.

To perform the required trick, we need to understand how Ghost and its web server, Express, handles a request.

Before rendering a page, ghost will give a route a list of method to execute, each one sending its result to the next one.

Here is the pertinent code, from /core/server/apps/subscribers/lib/router.js:98 :

// subscribe frontend route subscribeRouter .route('/') .get( _renderer ) .post( bodyParser.urlencoded({extended: true}), honeyPot, handleSource, storeSubscriber, _renderer ); // configure an error handler just for subscribe problems subscribeRouter.use(errorHandler);

The arguments given to each methods are the result, or callback arguments, of the previous method.

If the argument is of type Error , instead of continuing with the next method, it will use the errorHandler method, which will then display an error page.

Here is the errorHandler function:

function errorHandler(error, req, res, next) { req.body.email = ''; if (error.statusCode !== 404) { res.locals.error = error; return _renderer(req, res); } next(error); }

As you can see, the get , post and error routes end up with the same _renderer method, which does render the same template.

The subscriber form, which is the template used by all states, has two states:

An empty state, with the "Enter your email" form. It can contain errors, such as "Invalid Email", and other analytics content, such as the referrer. The filled state once you post an email, with a "Successfully subscribed" message.

It is available under /core/server/apps/subscribers/lib/views/subscribe.hbs:47-68 :

{{^if success}} <header> <h1>Subscribe to {{@blog.title}}</h1> </header> {{subscribe_form // arguments }} {{else}} <header> <h1>Subscribed!</h1> </header> <!-- ... --> {{/if}}

Here is the workflow visualized:

XSS in Ghost

As our tainted parameters are rendered as hidden inputs in the form, we need to trick the server into rendering the input form while using our POST values.

The condition for rendering the vulnerable parameters is the success variable, which checks if any errors occurred when saving the new subscriber.

When sending a post, the first method called is bodyParsed.urlencoded , which converts our body to a javascript object.

The second method is honeyPot , and is essential to this attack.

function honeyPot(req, res, next) { if (!req.body.hasOwnProperty('confirm') || req.body.confirm !== '') { return next(new Error('Oops, something went wrong!')); } // we don't need this anymore delete req.body.confirm; next(); }

As the form has a hidden confirm parameters, it will ensure the parameter is present and that its value is empty. I presume this is to prevent automated bots to fill the form with junk too frequently.

If those conditions are not met, it will call next with an error message, Oops, something went wrong! .

As this is an error object, express will stop calling the next methods and instead use an errorHandler.

If we didn't trigger this error and used the normal workflow, the handleSource function would be called, and perform the following logic:

function handleSource(req, res, next) { req.body.subscribed_url = santizeUrl(req.body.location); req.body.subscribed_referrer = santizeUrl(req.body.referrer); delete req.body.location; delete req.body.referrer; // ... next(); }

As you can see, it would overwrite the subscribed_url and subscribed_referrer with a sanitized version of the posted values.

As we did not call this method, and instead took the honeypot bait, our values for subscribed_url are not sanitized.

We can therefore render the correct part of the form when giving a value to the 'confirm' input, as an error will be sent, which sets success variable to false .

As the same _renderer method is used for all three scenarios, which are get , post and errors , it does provide the request body to the template, even if we're in an error scenario.

Once we get in the rendering code of our form, subscribe_form.js , our context now has the previously thrown error, but also all of our unsanitized posted variables.

Combining this with the vulnerable template and we now have all the required steps for a reflected XSS!

Vulnerability Summary

Causing an error by taking the honeypot bait does not strip or sanitize our variables, unlike the regular route.

This leads the tainted variables being printed in the page, and causes a reflected XSS!

Timeline 2018/07/12: Original disclosure 2018/07/17: Acknowledged the issues: They mentioned a 6-8 weeks timeline for a fix. 2018/09/01: Asking for an update 2018/09/05: They mentioned the ticket got lost in their bug tracking platform. 2018/09/29: Partial fix committed 2018/09/30: Fix released on version 2.4.0 2018/10/07: Fix released on versions 1.25.6 and 0.11.14 2018/11/19: Notified them of a partial, very low risk, bypass. Sent them my recommendations for a permanent fix.

Note here that I never received an update since they acknowledged the ticket got lost, and still didn't hear from them to this day.

Also note that Ghost does not have a bug bounty program, so I did not receive a reward for this vulnerability.

Patch and partial bypass

The patch for the vulnerability is the following :

function errorHandler(error, req, res, next) { req.body.email = ''; req.body.subscribed_url = santizeUrl(req.body.subscribed_url); req.body.subscribed_referrer = santizeUrl(req.body.subscribed_referrer); // ...

Ghost added the sanitizeURL validation on the errorHandler .

function santizeUrl(url) { return validator.isEmptyOrURL(url || '') ? url : ''; }

Where isEmptyOrUrl checks if the URL is valid via the validator npm package, where ghost checks the isEmpty part, and then call the isUrl method of validator if it's not empty.

You might tell yourself:

Hey! A url can still contain a XSS, http://test.com/#><script> is a valid URL!

And you would be right!

Pretty much everything after the hash is technically a valid url, and can contain spaces and other symbols.

This does not work in this case as the validator package does not allow the <> characters.

The relevant part of the check is here :

export default function isURL(url, options) { assertString(url); if (!url || url.length >= 2083 || /[\s<>]/.test(url)) { return false; } if (url.indexOf('mailto:') === 0) { return false; } // ... The /[\s<>]/ regex ensures that we don't send a less than or greater than symbol in the url, wherever it may be.

What we can do however it add spaces, quotes and other characters in the value, to add attributes to the tag.

If we have a look at the HTML in which our content is injected:

<input class="location" type="hidden" name="location" value=OUR_URL />

It is trivial to escape the value attribue. As there are no quotes around the value, adding a space works.

If there were quotes, as our content isn't sanitized for attribute position, we could add a quote and keep on going.

The reason why it is not a complete XSS like it previously was is because of the input type.

With a regular input, we could modify it to have this form:

<input class="location" type="text" name="location" value=x onfocus="alert(document.domain)" autofocus />

Which would trigger the alert. But on a hidden input, as it's hidden we can't focus on it.

This makes it a lot harder to have an XSS, and the resulting XSS will require user actions unlike the previous versions.

Garet Hayes made a great blog post on the PortSwigger blog: XSS in hidden input fields , where setting an accesskey attribute and triggering it does launch the onclick event, even though the event is hidden.

Here is a proof of concept:

<input type="hidden" accesskey="X" onclick="alert(1)">

With this input, when the user presses ALT+SHIFT+X or CMD+ALT+X on OSX, the alert will launch.

This does make it almost worthless as an input since there is no chance a user will manually press those keys, but it's still a reflected XSS.

I have notified ghost of this bypass as well as the recommended solution on November 19th, but never received an answer.


Unlike other big CMS such as WordPress and Joomla, as Ghost is publisher-focused, most visitors on the website won't have an account.

On the other CMS, there are plugins to create new features such as making an e-commerce website, allow comments or write your own p osts, which allows the users to create accounts.

This limits the attack scope to public content, which makes it a lot more secure by default, as you can't access most of the internal API as a guest.

Overall, while the security team did take a very long time to fix this and using a weak solution, the security of the application from an external attacker is pretty good as the scope is very limited.

Follow me on Twitter if you want to learn more about security and keep up to date regarding my publications!

The next post will be about multiple stored XSS on Dev.to , which was caused by a logic bug in the publication platform.

If you can provide invitation for private programs on any platform, feel free to send me an invite! You can contact me via twitter, DM's are open.

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