I reported this to Google in November 2018, but after 5 months they had made no headway on the issue (citing internal communication difficulties), and therefore I’m publishing details such that site owners and companies can defend their own sites from this sort of attack. Google have now told me they do not have immediate plans to remedy this.
page URL parameter:
If someone was to craft a malicious URL where instead of a number in the
Chrome to the rescue
It is for that reason that Google Chrome has an XSS Auditor, which attempts to identify this type of attack and protect the user (by refusing to load the page):
So far, so good.
Googlebot = Chrome 41
So the first step was to check, whether Googlebot (or Google’s Website Rendering Service [WRS], to be more precise) would actually render a URL with an XSS attack. One of my early tests was on the startup bank, Revolut — a 3 year old fintech startup with $330M in funding having XSS vulnerabilities demonstrates the breadth of the XSS issue (they’ve now fixed this example).
It is often (as in the case with Revolut) possible to entirely replace the content of the page to create your own page and content, hosted on the victim domain.
Content links are cached
I submitted a test page to the Google index, and then examining the cache of these pages shows that the link being added to the page does appear in the Google index:
A second set of experiments demonstrated (again via the mobile friendly tool) that you can change the canonicals on pages:
Which I also confirmed via Google’s URL Inspector Tool, which reports the injected canonical as the true canonical (h/t to Sam Nemzer for the suggestion):
Links are crawled and considered
To test this, I crafted a page on Revolut which contained a link to a page on one of my test domains which I had just created moments before, and had previously not existed. I submitted the Revolut page to Google and later on Googlebot crawled the target page on my test domain. The page later appeared in the Google search results:
All of this demonstrates that there is potential to manipulate the Google search results. However, I was unsure how to test this without actually impacting legitimate search results, so I stopped where I was (I asked Google for permission to do this in a controlled fashion a few days back, but not had an answer just yet).
How could this be abused?
The obvious attack vector here is to inject links into other websites to manipulate the search results – a few links from prominent sites can make a very dramatic difference to search performance. The https://www.openbugbounty.org/ lists more than 125,000 un-patched XSS vulnerabilities. This included 260 .gov domains, 971 .edu domains, and 195 of the top 500 domains (as ranked by the Majestic Million top million sites.
A second attack vector is to create malicious pages (maybe redirecting people to a malicious checkout, or directing visitors to a competing product) which would be crawled and indexed by Google. This content could even drive featured snippets and appear directly in the search results. Firefox doesn’t yet have adequate XSS protection, so this pages would load for Google users searching with Firefox.
The most obvious way to defend against this is to take security seriously and try to ensure you don’t have XSS vulnerabilities on your site. However, given then numbers from OpenBugBounty above, it is clear that that is more difficult that it sounds – which is the exact reason that Google added the XSS Auditor to Chrome!
One quick thing you can do is check your server logs and search for URLs that have terms such as ‘script’ in them, indicating a possible XSS attempt.
This exploit is a combination of existing issues, but combine to form an zero-day exploit that has potential to be very harmful for Google users. I reported the issue to Google back on November 2018, but they have not confirmed the issue from their side or made any headway addressing it. They cited “difficulties in communication with the team investigating”, which felt a lot like what happened during the report of XML Sitemaps exploit.
My impression is that if a security issue affects a not commonly affected part of Google, then the internal lines of communication are not well oiled. It was March when I got the first details, when Google let me know “that our existing protection mechanisms should be able to prevent this type of abuse but the team is still running checks to validate this” – which didn’t agree with the evidence. I re-ran some of my tests and didn’t see a difference. The security team themselves were very responsive, as usual, but seemingly had no way to move things forward unfortunately.
It was 140 days after the report when I let Google know I’d be publicly disclosing the vulnerability, given the lack of movement and the fact that this could already be impacting both Google search users, as well as website owners and advertisers. To their credit, Google didn’t attempt to dissuade me and asked me to simply to use my best judgement in what I publish.
If you have any questions, comments or information you can find me on Twitter at @TomAnthonySEO, or if you are interested in consulting for technical/specialised SEO, you can contact me via Distilled.
- 3rd November 2018 – I filed the initial bug report.
- Over the next few weeks/months we went back and forth a bit.
- 11th February 2019 – Google responded letting me know they were “surfacing some difficulties in communication with the team investigating”
- 17th April 2018 – Google confirmed they have no immediate plans to fix this. I believe this is probably because they are preparing to release a new build of Googlebot shortly (I wonder if this was why the back and forth was slow – they were hoping to release the update?)