How the Web Tangled Itself: Uncovering the History of Client-Side Web (In)Security


Ben Stock, CISPA, Saarland University; Martin Johns, SAP SE; Marius Steffens and Michael Backes, CISPA, Saarland University


While in its early days, the Web was mostly static, it has organically grown into a full-fledged technology stack. This evolution has not followed a security blueprint, resulting in many classes of vulnerabilities specific to the Web. Even though the server-side code of the past has long since vanished, the Internet Archive gives us a unique view on the historical development of the Web’s client side and its (in)security. Uncovering the insights which fueled this development bears the potential to not only gain a historical perspective on client-side Web security, but also to outline better practices going forward.

To that end, we examined the code and header information of the most important Web sites for each year between 1997 and 2016, amounting to 659,710 different analyzed Web documents. From the archived data, we first identify key trends in the technology deployed on the client, such as the increasing complexity of client-side Web code and the constant rise of multi-origin application scenarios. Based on these findings, we then assess the advent of corresponding vulnerability classes, investigate their prevalence over time, and analyze the security mechanisms developed and deployed to mitigate them.

Correlating these results allows us to draw a set of overarching conclusions: Along with the dawn of JavaScript-driven applications in the early years of the millennium, the likelihood of client-side injection vulnerabilities has risen. Furthermore, there is a noticeable gap in adoption speed between easy-to-deploy security headers and more involved measures such as CSP. But there is also no evidence that the usage of the easy-to-deploy techniques reflects on other security areas. On the contrary, our data shows for instance that sites that use HTTP-only cookies are actually more likely to have a Cross-Site Scripting problem. Finally, we observe that the rising security awareness and introduction of dedicated security technologies had no immediate impact on the overall security of the client-side Web.

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@inproceedings {203860,
author = {Ben Stock and Martin Johns and Marius Steffens and Michael Backes},
title = {How the Web Tangled Itself: Uncovering the History of Client-Side Web (In)Security},
booktitle = {26th {USENIX} Security Symposium ({USENIX} Security 17)},
year = {2017},
isbn = {978-1-931971-40-9},
address = {Vancouver, BC},
pages = {971--987},
url = {},
publisher = {{USENIX} Association},