Content Security Policy: A Primer

The browser is not a safe programming environment. It is inherently insecure. – Douglas Crockford, “Ajax Security”

The web’s security model is fundamentally broken, and has been since the beginning. Browsers trust the code they receive from a website, so each chunk of JavaScript that executes on a page runs with access to the entire origin’s data. Cross-site scripting (XSS) attacks exploit this trust, injecting malicious code and other resources into a site in a wide variety of ways. At best, sites are defaced. At worst, user session data is compromised and leaked to untrusted third-parties.

It is, of course, possible to completely eliminate this class of attacks by properly escaping every bit of data that makes it onto a site. A brief glance back at the web’s history shows that this defense is unlikely to be effective; it’s simply a tough problem, given the convoluted set of escaping rules in various HTML contexts, differences in cross-browser implementation, and browser bugs (like UTF-7 support). Even with our solid, modern understanding of the issue, and a variety of secure frameworks, it remains trivial to accidentally create a hole, and one hole is all it takes.

Content Security Policy (CSP) is a relatively new addition to the web platform that promises to mitigate the risk of XSS attacks by giving administrators fine-grained control over the data and code that ought to be allowed to run on their site. The feature boils down to a whitelisting mechanism for images, script, style, and a variety of other resource types. A site declares an acceptable list of origins for each data type it cares about via a straightforward HTTP header, and browsers that support the feature simply refuse to load resources that aren’t listed, thereby ensuring that user data can’t be leaked to third-parties. Browsers that don’t support the feature simply ignore the header, and proceed as per usual.

Though the feature is still very much bleeding-edge, implementations of the draft specification exist in both Firefox 4+ and Chrome 16+, and the W3C has proposed a Web Application Security Working Group which includes CSP as a top-level deliverable. All that in mind, CSP is practically available right now, has no negative effects on browsers that don’t support it, and is already being used successfully by some pretty high-profile sites (like Twitter1). The implementations are being iterated upon, and things are still a bit fast and loose, but getting involved now is certainly something I’d recommend.’s Policies

On, I’m using one stylesheet hosted on, one of Google’s web fonts, and a few inlined data: images. I’d like to ensure that that remains the case, and that I don’t accidentally load script from my friends at

I’ve configured my server to generate the following headers when loading the site:

$ curl -Ik
HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Server: nginx/1.0.8
Date: Sat, 08 Oct 2011 10:38:40 GMT
Content-Type: text/html; charset=UTF-8
Content-Length: 7940
Last-Modified: Sat, 08 Oct 2011 05:07:16 GMT
Connection: keep-alive
Vary: Accept-Encoding
Strict-Transport-Security: max-age=604800
X-WebKit-CSP: default-src 'self'; img-src 'self' data:; font-src;
X-Content-Security-Policy: default-src 'self'; img-src 'self' data:; font-src;
Accept-Ranges: bytes

The interesting bits are X-Content-Security-Policy and X-WebKit-CSP2, both of which contain a simple, semicolon-separated list of policy directives. Each directive consists of a type followed by a set of one or more “source expressions” that define the policy’s limitations. These expressions generally consist of scheme/host/port groupings, but can also contain wildcards and special keywords like 'self' (which expands to the current site’s origin) and 'none' (which ought to be self-explanatory). Let’s look at each in turn.

The first directive is of type default-src, which specifies a catch-all for content types that aren’t explicitly listed. I haven’t created a policy for objects (object-src), for example, so any request for video or Flash content would use the policy specified here. In this case, I’m specifying a single source: 'self'3. This means that resources that hit default-src can only be loaded from the same origin as the page itself. You may see references to allow in older CSP documentation: default-src replaces that keyword.

You likely won’t be shocked to learn that the next directive,img-src, whitelists sources for image resources. Here, images are limited to data: URLs, and to 'self'.

Equally unsurprisingly, the directive of type font-src allows the site to load font resources from, which is taken quite literally and exclusively. Fonts can only be loaded from, and only over HTTPS. Any request for a font from a different host or scheme would throw an error. It’s important to note here that the value of the font-src overrides default-src completely. They aren’t merged: I won’t be able to load fonts from 'self' unless I explicitly add it to font-src’s definition.

Nothing’s free.

In order to function properly, Content Security Policy imposes a few restrictions on sites that make use of it. Two in particular are worth calling out here.

  1. CSP enforces a strict separation of behavior and semantics by refusing to execute inline script, and an equally strict separation of presentation and semantics by refusing to apply inline styles. This follows directly in line with the general recommendation of the web standards community, and allows CSP to clearly identify the source of each piece of data on a page. This identification is essential, as without it the whitelisting mechanism is ineffective. In addition, banning inline script and style substantially reduces the effect of cross-site scripting attacks that rely on JavaScript or CSS reflection: attackers will be forced to compromise a whitelisted resource, which is a much higher bar.

    It’s fairly obvious that this restriction will block execution of code contained within <script> blocks, but also note that it prevents event handlers from being written inline (<a … onclick="JAVASCRIPT"> ought to be rewritten to use addEventListener(…)). Likewise, javascript: URLs won’t work.

    It’s also the case that data: URLs are blocked by default, as they can contain arbitrary content that can’t be easily verified as being safe, or as really being intentionally written by your server. If you’d like to allow data: URLs, you’ll have to do so on a type-by-type basis. See above, for example, where I’m explicitly allowing data: URLs for image resources, but not for any other resource type.

  2. Relatedly, raw strings will not be converted to code. This means that eval is right out, as are a variety of other eval-like mechanisms (setTimeout with a string argument, new Function(…), and so on). Since eval is evil, this isn’t a particularly onerous restriction, but it does mean that you’ll need to parse JSON content without simply executing it, either with something like json.js or with a built-in JSON object.

Further Reading

After this introduction to the feature, I hope you’re interested enough to want to play around a bit with the headers on your own sites.

  1. Though, since CSP is a bit broken in Chrome 15 and below, Twitter is only serving the header to Firefox (Hi, Arne!):

    $ curl -I -H "User-Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (Macintosh; Intel Mac OS X 10.6; rv:7.0) Gecko/20100101 Firefox/7.0"
    HTTP/1.1 200 OK
    Date: Tue, 11 Oct 2011 19:09:28 GMT
    Server: hi
    Status: 200 OK
    ETag: "6f812aa05ca092e34fef322867230b3b"
    X-Frame-Options: SAMEORIGIN
    X-Content-Security-Policy: allow 'self'; img-src * * data:; media-src * *; style-src * *; frame-ancestors *; script-src * *; report-uri
    Content-Language: en
    Content-Type: text/html; charset=utf-8
    X-Runtime: 6
    X-XSS-Protection: 1; mode=block
    Content-Length: 3226
    Pragma: no-cache
    Expires: Mon, 01 Jan 1990 00:00:00 GMT
    Cache-Control: no-cache, no-store, max-age=0, must-revalidate
    Set-Cookie: k=; path=/; expires=Tue, 18-Oct-11 19:09:27 GMT;
    Set-Cookie: _mobile_sess=BAh7BzoQX2NzcmZfdG9rZW4iGTI4ODY1MDBjZTMxMTFjZmMyOTNmOg9zZXNzaW9uX2lkIiUwYTEwNjE1YjlkNDkzZmFiYzRhMWM4NWI3NTkyNGVhMg%3D%3D--a55f94a4b138aca8618b0bfbaf45bbe96f61450b; path=/; expires=Mon, 05-Dec-2011 22:22:00 GMT
    Vary: Accept-Encoding
    Connection: close

  2. Firefox is confident enough in the draft spec to use the canonical header, WebKit (and therefore Chrome) are a little more cautious, and have prefixed the header just in case: the details are the same. Both teams are working from the same spec, and both are pretty much feature complete. To follow their progress, CC yourself on either Bugzilla #663566, or WebKit #53572.

  3. Note the single-quotes around 'self' and 'none'. These are required. Without them, the policy would refer to a server with a hostname of self or none, which almost certainly isn’t what you mean.