In this section, we’ll explain the differences between XSS and CSRF, and discuss whether CSRF tokens can help to prevent XSS attacks.
What is the difference between XSS and CSRF?
Cross-site request forgery (or CSRF) allows an attacker to induce a victim user to perform actions that they do not intend to.
The consequences of XSS vulnerabilities are generally more serious than for CSRF vulnerabilities:
- CSRF often only applies to a subset of actions that a user is able to perform. Many applications implement CSRF defenses in general but overlook one or two actions that are left exposed. Conversely, a successful XSS exploit can normally induce a user to perform any action that the user is able to perform, regardless of the functionality in which the vulnerability arises.
- CSRF can be described as a “one-way” vulnerability, in that while an attacker can induce the victim to issue an HTTP request, they cannot retrieve the response from that request. Conversely, XSS is “two-way”, in that the attacker’s injected script can issue arbitrary requests, read the responses, and exfiltrate data to an external domain of the attacker’s choosing.
Can CSRF tokens prevent XSS attacks?
Some XSS attacks can indeed be prevented through the effective use of CSRF tokens. Consider a simply reflected XSS vulnerability that can be trivially exploited like this:
Now, suppose that the vulnerable function includes a CSRF token:
Assuming that the server properly validates the CSRF token, and rejects requests without a valid token, then the token does prevent exploitation of the XSS vulnerability. The clue here is in the name: “cross-site scripting”, at least in its reflected form, involves a cross-site request. By preventing an attacker from forging a cross-site request, the application prevents trivial exploitation of the XSS vulnerability.
Some important caveats arise here:
- If a reflected XSS vulnerability exists anywhere else on the site within a function that is not protected by a CSRF token, then that XSS can be exploited in the normal way.
- If an exploitable XSS vulnerability exists anywhere on a site, then the vulnerability can be leveraged to make a victim user perform actions even if those actions are themselves protected by CSRF tokens. In this situation, the attacker’s script can request the relevant page to obtain a valid CSRF token and then use the token to perform the protected action.
- CSRF tokens do not protect against stored XSS vulnerabilities. If a page that is protected by a CSRF token is also the output point for a stored XSS vulnerability, then that XSS vulnerability can be exploited in the usual way, and the XSS payload will execute when a user visits the page.