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XSS Attacks On Business Owners Data Are A Genuine Threat

Written by  Nov 15, 2019

Data protection due to GDPR has been enhanced and as well as other privacy regulations, businesses have strengthened their platforms toward better protecting and securing user data.

But is this enough for a business owner, entrepreneur or manager?

Recent vulnerability reports prove that even major ecommerce and social platforms can easily become an attack vector for cross-site-scripting (or XSS) attacks, and these happen even if the platforms themselves are secure. With vulnerabilities in third-party application providers being used by major customer-facing platforms, there is an increased risk that user data will be exposed to malicious players. This is the risk organisations have to deal with.

Data privacy regimes

Maybe the biggest tech news in 2018 was the enforcement of the European General Data Protection Regulation, which sought to protect European Union citizens' personal data from being collected and utilised without consent. With the GDPR, any business that handles data on E.U. citizens, or which counts E.U. citizens as among their clients, will need to explicitly inform said users of data gathering efforts, and seek explicit content for doing so.

GDPR has had its impact even outside of Europe since any business that provides services to E.U. citizens or residents will need to comply. In addition, there have been numerous privacy-focused regulations that are also in effect worldwide, given the recent consumer and business focus on data privacy, which are all good things that are working to protect us.

Even with an increased focus toward enhancing privacy, however, there are still many risks involved when it comes to businesses losing user data to malicious hackers. For one, given the collaborative nature of services (e.g., an ecommerce store utilising a payment processor or a logistics provider), the weakest link here would be the service that can introduce a potential breach. In this regard, the moment a third-party application puts the user at risk, the entire operation could already be compromised. Some organisations have failed to protect their data properly and the EU have given out millions of Euros in fines last year.

What is XSS?

XSS is an abbreviation for cross-site scripting, these types of attacks are a form of data-injection, wherein malicious client-side code is injected by an attacker into an otherwise legitimate website. This works by injecting code -- mostly JavaScript -- into a website or web app’s output, often working through forms such as search fields, feedback forms, forum text entry fields and even cookies stored on a user’s browser.

When an unsuspecting user accesses an affected website, the injected code has the potential to deliver a payload, which can include executing code, stealing data, controlling a user’s session or installing backdoors to a computer system or network.

Such attacks are borne by the need for today’s websites to be interactive. With the numerous interactions between browser and server over a single session, XSS can even be used to pull content from a third-party website, use existing cookie data (which can include usernames and passwords), or interact directly with an app’s client-side processes.

What can businesses and users do?

For businesses, especially those that run consumer-facing platforms, or even those that utilise websites for employee access. This involves building applications with a tight security development lifecycle. This means constantly building and updating in order to reduce or eliminate security-related errors in design and coding. This also means assuming that all data that is being received by the application can potentially come from an untrusted source, even if it comes from users who are already logged in and authenticated.

As such, some changes that can be adopted for business owners and managers can include:

  • Not trusting user input blindly. This means constantly validating the input for type, length, format and data range whenever such data goes across trust boundaries.
  • Reducing client-side input, to preclude the possibility of unwanted code or character sets being passed through.
  • Setting a webpage’s character set to the bare minimum (ISO-8859-1), which is sufficient for English and most European languages.
  • Asking users to re-authenticate before accessing critical services.
  • Immediately expiring login sessions if access from multiple IP addresses is detected.
  • Utilising vulnerability scanners to keep track of such risks in real-time.
  • And conducting penetration testing before an application or website goes live.

Conclusion

As XSS attacks are a real threat, it makes sense to focus on preventing security risk, especially in the light of calls for better data privacy and protection. This is important today, given the fact that most sites will not work without client-side scripting.

If this all seems a bit mind-boggling to you, make sure to contact your webmaster and have them walk you through these important points regarding data protection. Knowing that major social networks and services have actually been at open risk to a big XSS attack, both businesses and users need to be proactive about their security.


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Peter Flynn

Senior Editor and self confessed techie, bringing a variety of topical business tech news, help and advice in the UK. I have worked in various fields throughout my career such as a Systems Administrator, Security Consultant and other technical related roles, these days I concentrate on IT journalism and technical writing.

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