Cross-Site Scripting Attacks and Defensive Techniques: A Comprehensive Survey*


The advancement of technology and the digitization of organizational functions and services have propelled the world into a new era of computing capability and sophistication. The proliferation and usability of such complex technological services raise several security concerns. One of the most critical concerns is cross-site scripting (XSS) attacks. This paper has concentrated on revealing and comprehensively analyzing XSS injection attacks, detection, and prevention concisely and accurately. I have done a thorough study and reviewed several research papers and publications with a specific focus on the researchers’ defensive techniques for preventing XSS attacks and subdivided them into five categories: machine learning techniques, server-side techniques, client-side techniques, proxy-based techniques, and combined approaches. The majority of existing cutting-edge XSS defensive approaches carefully analyzed in this paper offer protection against the traditional XSS attacks, such as stored and reflected XSS. There is currently no reliable solution to provide adequate protection against the newly discovered XSS attack known as DOM-based and mutation-based XSS attacks. After reading all of the proposed models and identifying their drawbacks, I recommend a combination of static, dynamic, and code auditing in conjunction with secure coding and continuous user awareness campaigns about XSS emerging attacks.

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Weamie, S. (2022) Cross-Site Scripting Attacks and Defensive Techniques: A Comprehensive Survey*. International Journal of Communications, Network and System Sciences, 15, 126-148. doi: 10.4236/ijcns.2022.158010.

*Cross-site scripting attacks.

1. Introduction

XSS (Cross-Site Scripting) is a programming-related flaw [1] that occurs when user input data is not correctly sanitized. The attacker exploits this vulnerability to inject unfiltered scripting code into the web application, resulting in account takeover, session or cooking stealing, and rerouting to the attacker’s website when the parser processes the script [2] [3] . XSS attack can be initiated on any susceptible website written in any programming language.

A thorough analysis of Cross-Site Scripting vulnerabilities has been presented in detail. We talked about what XSS is, the numerous forms of XSS assaults, how an attacker may exploit this weakness, the results of an XSS attack, and the protective strategies established by the research community to fight against XSS attacks. On the other hand, we examined those defensive strategies and identified the shortcomings in how they were defended against particular XSS attacks.

However, despite researchers’ efforts, XSS attacks [4] can still disrupt web applications at a larger skill irrespective of the fact that various tactics and approaches for preventing vulnerabilities have been established. Due to the virtually unchanged browser behavior, it is difficult to detect XSS attacks and differentiate between malicious JavaScript and legitimate online content.

Several sections of the paper are precisely organized according to their respective topics: The definition and classification of XSS, as well as the injection methods utilized by XSS and the damage it causes to web-based applications, are covered in Segment 2. Segment 3 describes the research data composition and compares the CWE Names using the software development vulnerability data for analysis. Segment 4 presents the related work. Segment 5 discusses the XSS prevention and defense mechanism along with the researchers’ defensive techniques for XSS attacks (advantages & disadvantages). Segment 6 describes the challenges associated with detecting and defending against XSS attacks along with the precise precautionary measures that should be implemented in response to a given episode. The current issues are broken down into their parts, and then the perspective for the future is presented.

2. Background of the Cross-Site Scripting Attack

2.1. Categories of XSS Attacks

A cross-site scripting attack generally occurs when an attacker compromises a website by inserting malicious JavaScript code into the client-side input parameters. Figure 1 depicts a comprehensive perspective of the four XSS attack scenarios covered in this paper.

XSS vulnerability exploits [5] the fact that web applications execute scripts in user browsers. If a user tampers with or alters a dynamically generated script, it puts an online application in danger. Although there are four categories of XSS attacks mentioned in this paper, as illustrated in Figure 1, most contemporary web application developers and researchers are familiar with only three of them since they are more common in the research community [6] [7] . Organizations such as the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) [1] [8] have recognized these three types of XSS attacks as the most common XSS attack vectors on the web.

Figure 1. A brief overview of the four categories of cross-site scripting vulnerabilities.

Although each of the four categories of attacks takes a somewhat different approach to exploiting web applications, they are still geared toward the same end goal of collecting user account information as generally illustrated in Figure 2.

However, if you’re not familiar with XSS attacks, this should help put things into perspective. As indicated in Figure 1 regarding the four categories of XSS assaults and also displayed in Figure 2 depicting the typical circumstances of XSS attack vector, the following details about the aforementioned categories are explained respectively.

2.2. Stored Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) Attack

This form of XSS vulnerability is sometimes referred to as a persistent XSS. This is due to the fact that the malicious script is still present on the server after the attack has been completed [9] . During this type of attack, the attacker injects code that has been maliciously written onto the server in such a way that it cannot be removed. As shown in Figure 3, the scenario I used to illustrate a stored XSS attack [10] injected a script tag directly into the Document Object Model (DOM) and subsequently executed a malicious script using JavaScript hypothetically. However, while this is the most popular method of exploiting XSS, it is also the most common approach neutralized by advanced security professionals and security-conscious software developers [11] . A user uploads a malicious XSS script to a database, requested and viewed by other users, resulting in script execution on their systems as described in Figure 3.

Figure 2. Injection methods of a typical cross-site scripting attacks.

Figure 3. Stored XSS attack scenario.

2.3. Reflected Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) Attack

A reflected XSS attack, which is also known as a non-persistent attack, is where the attacker generates a URL that injects arbitrary scripts into the target web application [12] . Most publications and academic resources introduce reflected XSS before moving on to stored XSS concepts. I feel that reflected XSS attacks are frequently more difficult for newly inexperienced programmers to discover and exploit than stored XSS attacks [13] .

A stored XSS attack is relatively straightforward to comprehend from a developer’s perspective. The client provides a resource to the server, which is commonly done through the HTTP protocol. The server inserts the requested resource into a database after receiving it from the client. The malicious script will then be executed unintentionally inside the client’s internet browser if other clients later access that resource, as shown in Figure 3.

On the other hand, reflected XSS attacks work like stored XSS attacks but don’t require a database or a server. No server is involved in a reflected XSS attack because the client code is affected directly in the browser, as demonstrated in Figure 4. Web applications can be vulnerable to this type of attack (see Figure 4) because of actions taken by a user that executes an unstored (interconnected) script on the user’s computer.

Figure 4. Reflected cross-site scripting scenario.

2.4. Document Object Model-Based Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) Attack

The DOM-based XSS attack [12] [14] is obviously a client-side attack. The DOM-based XSS attack type is depicted in Figure 5 as the third important classification for XSS attacks.

Figure 5. Dom-based cross-scripting attack scenario.

The implementation of the DOM in different browsers may make some browsers vulnerable, while others may not. Compared to typical reflected or stored XSS attacks (Figure 3 & Figure 4), these XSS attacks require an extensive understanding of the browser’s DOM and JavaScript to be discovered and exploited.

The DOM-based XSS attacks [15] are principally distinct from other types of XSS in that they do not necessitate communication with a server in any way. As a matter of convention, the source is typically a DOM object that can store text, and the sink generally is a DOM API that can execute a script that has been stored as text.

Both the “source” and the “sink” must be present in the browser’s DOM in order for DOM XSS [16] to work because there’s no server involvement. In most cases, the sink is a DOM API that can run a script stored in the source as text. It’s nearly impossible to detect DOM XSS with static analysis tools or other popular scanners because it never touches a server [17] .

2.5. Mutation-Based Cross-Site Scripting (mXSS) Attack

Dr. Mario Heiderich unveiled six (6) new mXSS attack sub-classes in his publication [18] . In mXSS attack, the DOM can be avoided entirely by using InnerHTML, which enables automatic changes to be made to the HTML content. mXSS is sometimes referred to as mutated XSS or mutation-based XSS. This is due to the fact that it is difficult to predict and involves recursion. When the HTML script is loaded into the browser’s Document Object Model, the data is mutated, which causes an error. However, the content loaded into the browser’s DOM is mutated to verify that it is error-free and does not include any improper markup. This is accomplished by using the element.innerHTML attribute. The fundamental downside of this form of XSS attack is its ability to circumvent server-side defenses and client-side filters. Figure 6 depicts a potential scenario for mutation-based XSS attacks.

Figure 6. Mutation-based cross-site scripting (mXSS) attack scenario.

When an external actor injects something that appears safe, as shown in Figure 6, the browser rewrites and modifies it while processing the HTML, resulting in a mutated XSS attack [19] . This makes it incredibly difficult to find and sanitize bugs in application logic. Despite its novelty and widespread misinterpretation, mXSS attacks have been utilized to bypass the most sophisticated XSS filters available. mXSS has been used to circumvent solutions such as DOMPurify [20] , OWASP AntiSamy, and Google Caja, and a large number of popular web apps (especially email clients) have been discovered to be vulnerable [21] [17] . At its foundation, mXSS works by employing filter-safe payloads that mutate into insecure payloads after filtration. All major browsers are vulnerable to mXSS attacks. Developers must understand how browsers handle optimizations and conditional expressions when rendering DOM nodes.

3. Composition of XSS Comparative Research Data Sources

This research utilizes a subset of the Global dataset containing CVE and CWE Security vulnerability database [22] . However, I concentrated only on the software development component of the information comprising CVE details for XSS vulnerability evaluation, as shown in Figure 7. The data consists of the vulnerability’s CVE-ID, CWE-ID, Explanation, severity, and CVSS and the CWE names under which the vulnerability falls.

However, the abbreviation and acronyms used in this survey are carefully explained in Section 3.1.

As shown in Figure 7, these were the category of the dataset used from a programming perspective. The results from this survey were thoroughly analyzed to determine the annual trends in XSS vulnerability.

Figure 7. A brief overview of the dataset used for analyzing XSS vulnerability.

3.1. Abbreviations and Acronyms

XSS = Cross-Site Scripting;

DOM = Document Object Model;

mXSS = Mutation-Based Cross-Site Scripting;

NVD [23] [24] = National Vulnerability Database;

CVE [25] = Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures;

CWE [26] = Common Weakness Enumeration;

CVSS = Common Vulnerability Scoring System.

3.2. Comparative of the Top 20 Software Development Vulnerabilities

The pie charts below illustrate the number of the top 20 Software Development Vulnerabilities based on CWE Name from 2014 to 2022. Over the last nine years, the most frequent report of a cross-site scripting (XSS) vulnerability has been alarmingly received, as shown in Figure 8. I used python Jupiter Notebook [27] to analyze the data.

Figure 8. Comparative analysis of XSS vulnerability’s yearly trends.

4. Related Works

Different security organizations have revealed that XSS has been prevalent in internet security threats in the past years. Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) vulnerability has infiltrated approximately 70% [28] of web applications, including MySpace, Cisco, NASA, Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube, eBay, [29] , etc. Its emergence is primarily due to security flaws in web application development and incorrect input validation submitted by users in website input fields. The Samy MySpace worm in 2005 brought the XSS vulnerability to the notice of a wider audience globally [30] . So far, a wide variety of XSS attacks have been discussed. Interestingly, after conducting a comprehensive survey and reading over sixty research papers and publications, I have provided in this paper as Protective Approaches the defensive mechanisms revealed by previous researchers concerning XSS vulnerabilities. These defensive measures assist us in identifying and categorizing the articles based on the model employed to resolve the web application security problems.

5. XSS Prevention and Defense Mechanism

The XSS prevention and defense mechanism are explicitly explained in the following sections:

5.1. Preventive Measures and Standard Procedures for Cross-Site Scripting Attack

This section emphasizes most of the standard solutions that can be adopted to significantly reduce the impact of XSS attacks [31] [32] . It emphasizes on describing the XSS mitigation rules that developers can implement to prevent XSS attacks from occurring. It’s evident that these techniques aren’t magic; they’re ineffectual without adequate awareness of users.

It is illustrated from Figure 8 that just two vulnerabilities are dominating the field of web application security attacks, specifically XSS and SQL injection vulnerabilities. Developers can now use numerous preventive measures to keep themselves safe from XSS attacks. Data entered by the user that isn’t trusted is protected using a combination of filtering, escape, and sanitization procedures. The following Table 1 and Table 2 describe each technique:

There are two varieties of escaping: input escaping and output escaping. Practical input escaping requires detecting the context of the untrusted data inserted correctly. In contrast, output escaping is performed to the response web page’s written data. This also considers the data’s context, which is essential for mitigating stored XSS attacks.

5.2. Researchers’ Defensive Techniques for XSS Attacks (Advantages & Disadvantages)

The proliferation of XSS vulnerabilities attracts the interest of researchers and developers of security solutions. The variety of XSS attacks that each solution is

Table 1. General methods for preventing XSS attacks.

Table 2. HTML entity encoding [43] [44] [45] [46] .

designed to defend against has inspired the development of a wide variety of countermeasures. Based on the measures of their implementation model, I have grouped these solutions or techniques into five categories: client-side techniques, server-side techniques, machine learning techniques, and proxy-based techniques. In the following subsections, I have emphasized the most significant and effective methods proposed by the researchers as advantages and observed limitations to those approaches as disadvantages. In the appendix, you can find more information about the researchers’ techniques.

6. Conclusions and Suggestions

This paper presents a comprehensive and in-depth survey on XSS attacks and the defensive techniques emphasized in the previous and current research literature. I have provided a global dataset combining CVE and CWE Security vulnerability information, taking into account the risk of XSS and how it is rapidly limiting the scientific endeavors of researchers worldwide. The author also offered a graphical representation of the annual trends of XSS attacks based on a comparative investigation of CWE names.

As indicated in Section 5.2, I have highlighted the impact of XSS attacks and the interminable effort given by the research community to combat XSS attacks. Along with its advantages and disadvantages, XSS defensive approaches to prior and recent efforts in various fields have been broadly classified. Existing XSS defensive techniques were separated into the following categories: machine learning technique, client-size technique, proxy-side technique, server-size technique, and combined technique. However, the vast majority of the cutting-edge XSS defensive techniques available in this paper protect against the more common types of XSS vulnerabilities, such as stored and reflected XSS. Presently, no dependable solution can provide appropriate protection against the recently found form of XSS attack known as DOM and mutation-based XSS attacks. These attacks have been identified as a potential security risk. This study recommendation emphasizes the importance of developing solutions capable of offering effective defense against the newly identified variant of XSS. Using the survey results, we believe that the research community can better understand XSS protection measures and that this survey can also guide the development of more integrated and pragmatic security solutions. This survey suggested an efficient and robust XSS defensive architecture for future research. This study significantly contributes to the development of effective defensive mechanisms to limit the effects of such attacks on rapidly expanding web application platforms. Evaluation of existing XSS attack defensive solutions at the client-side, proxy-side, and server-side levels, as well as a machine learning technique that will undoubtedly aid in the evaluation of the impact of such an advanced level attack.

Combining static testing, dynamic testing, code auditing with secure coding, and ongoing initiatives to educate users about XSS developing vulnerabilities is critical. XSS will persist unless internet users become more aware of their security and privacy and software developers construct secure programs. According to this survey, XSS attacks can seize control of vital services and sensitive data if these safeguards are not established and maintained regularly.


This publication was made possible by the direction of the research laboratory of Hunan University’s College of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering. I am grateful for the opportunity to utilize the facility and necessary electronic equipment to complete the data analysis task for this research.

I would like to express my gratitude to the entire research community for pointing me in the right direction and providing clarity regarding the principles that support web application security through the use of papers, books, surveys, online articles, and blogs.


A. Proxy-Based XSS prevention techniques

Table A1. Advantages and disadvantages of proxy-based XSS defensive techniques.

B. Machine learning XSS prevention techniques

Table A2. Advantages and disadvantages of machine learning XSS defensive techniques.

C. Client-side XSS prevention techniques

Table A3. Advantages and disadvantages of client-side XSS defensive techniques.

D. Server-side XSS prevention techniques

Table A4. Advantages and disadvantages of server-side XSS defensive techniques.

E. Combined XSS prevention techniques

Table A5. Advantages and disadvantages of combined XSS defensive techniques.

Conflicts of Interest

The author states that there are no competing interests involved. This article’s structure, as well as its contents and authorship, are solely the author’s responsibility.


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