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Category:OWASP JSP Testing Tool Project

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Project Name OWASP JSP Testing Tool Project
Short Project Description The goal of this project is to create an easy to use, freely available tool that can be used to quickly ascertain the level of protection that each component of a JSP tag library offers. This information can serve two purposes:
  1. It provides a means for projects to create a coding standard. By identifying which components are safe or unsafe, a project can establish a preference order of useable components. For those components identified as unsafe, extra security requirements can be imposed on any pages using those components
  2. It provides tag library providers development guidance. Providers can target security enhancements to the components that are most susceptible to cross-site scripting attacks. They can also use these results to demonstrate their performance relative to other competing tag libraries. It also provides feedback for developers that create small custom tag libraries for internal development usage.
Short Project Description Jason Li Project Contributors
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This project started as part of the Summer of Code 2008. The original proposal can be found here (much of it is duplicated below).

Project Motivation

Cross-site scripting is one of the most pervasive web application security vulnerabilities present in today's applications, ranking at the top of the most recent OWASP Top Ten (2007). Recently, UI frameworks have emerged that allow application developers to create web components quickly and effortlessly. Java EE facilitates this ability by providing JSP tags that can be conglomerated as a tag library, such as was done with Java Server Faces (JSF). These tags allow developers to create rich user interfaces by parameterizing attributes of the web component. With the advent of this design, a unique opportunity arises to prevent cross-site scripting. If tag libraries offered built-in protection from cross-site scripting, then using parameterized web components to prevent cross-site scripting could become analogous to using parameterized queries to prevent SQL injection. However, security is not always in mind when such tag libraries are developed and thus it is not clear which libraries, if any, offer such built-in protection. This project would allow developers to quickly determine the protection mechanisms provided by any tag libraries they develop or of any third-party tag libraries they are considering using for their application. This will enable a push to parameterize web components which will serve to make web applications safer.

Project Background

This project was born out of an idea while supporting a client. The client had created their own custom UI components based on the core JSF components. Developers were encouraged to use this custom library as it was thought to be “safe” from cross-site scripting. After the library gained popularity internally, the client decided they should verify the library did indeed protect web developers from cross-site scripting. This testing required a lot of manual generation of test pages in order to instantiate the various tags and thoroughly exercise each of the various attributes. We realized that the concept of having a safe UI component library is a sound idea and potentially popular across many organizations. Hence, the idea was born to create a tool that could test custom UI tag libraries to measure the level of protection from cross-site scripting offered by the library. This project is the implementation of that idea.

About the Author

Jason is an Application Security Engineer at Aspect Security during which time he has performed code reviews, penetration testing and training at a variety of financial, commercial, and government institutions. He is a certified GIAC Secure Software Programmer in Java and before joining Aspect, he was a Java Software Developer at a telecommunications company and a Java course instructor for Johns Hopkins University. He is a core developer on the OWASP AntiSamy Project. Jason earned his Post-Master's in Computer Science with a concentration in Information Security from Johns Hopkins University. He previously earned his his Master's and B.S from Cornell University (both in Computer Science).


This project uses a report in order to show the level of protection offered by a library. The goal of the report is for developers to quickly ascertain what protections a custom tag library offers. In addition, the report can be used to identify specific tags or attributes that are not safe and need a different protection mechanism (for example, enforcing a particular code pattern or practice).

This information is displayed in tabular format with each individual tag having its own table. Each row is an attribute of the tag, except for the first row which is reserved for testing the text content of a tag (for example, content). Each column is a test attack that is attempted within the tag. Each corresponding cell’s color indicates the status of that particular attribute against that test attack with red indicating the test failed, green indicating the test passed and yellow indicating an error occurred during testing.

How the Report Works

The report is a combination of JSPs, HTML and JavaScript. Each (tag, attribute, attack) tuple is tested in a separately generated JSP page (based on testcase.vm) to provide isolation. Each test attack attempts to execute a script function named x() that is defined on the test page. The function populates an element on the page with an indicator that the test either passed or failed. The overall report page is a generated HTML page that contains the table described above and hidden IFRAME with every test page. Once the pages load, the report page evaluates the status indicated in the frame and changes the color of the corresponding table cell accordingly. Note that clicking on any table cell will toggle the visibility of the corresponding test case's IFRAME.

Handling Special Case Tags

Tag libraries often have requirements or dependencies that cannot be encapsulated in the standard TLD. For example, an attribute may be of type java.lang.String, but in reality the implementation limits the attribute to a choice of select values. Another example is that the tag may have to be embedded in another tag (for example, a tag representing a selection option may have to be embedded in a combo box tag). To account for these special cases, the code utilizes a tag properties configuration file that allows users to specify values to be used in required attributes or to configure special prefixes and suffixes to enclose tags. A graphical user interface (see below) is provided as part of this tool to facilitate the creation of a configuration file for this purpose.

Handling Errors

The web application configures an error page (error.jsp) which handles the inevitable application errors from improper usage of custom tags. The error page generates a status indicator that includes the exception stack trace, both of which can be read by the containing report page. In addition to appearing yellow, the title attribute of the corresponding table cell is populated with the exception stack trace and will appear in most browsers as a tooltip. As the project matures, some mechanism will be provided to address tag generation errors (see later section).

Handling OnEvents

One of the many ways JavaScript can be executed is through event handlers such as onblur or onmouseover. To handle this, at the end of each test page is a script which examines all the HTML tags generated by the custom JSP tag and looks for any attributes matching one of the defined JavaScript event handlers. Upon finding any event handlers, the script invokes the handler to test if the attack is propagated. This simulates the attack being triggered by a user event.

Browser Differences

Note that because this report strategy relies heavily on a web browser, the results may differ from browser to browser. For example, the CSS based attack renders successfully in Internet Explorer but not in Firefox. The report could be made browser agnostic by instead searching through the generated JSP content. That approach has tradeoffs as it raises the possibility of false positives. By keeping the browser involved, organizations can test against browsers they support and be assured that if the attack test case executed, it is an issue.

How the Report is Generated

The report generation is broken down into three phases:

  1. Parsing of the Tag Library Document (TLD)
  2. Generation of Test Pages
  3. Serializing the Report

Parsing of the Tag Library Document

Ideally, this project would have leveraged existing code to parse TLDs. Application servers routinely parse TLDs in order to compile JSPs that use tag libraries and several application servers are open source (Tomcat, JBoss, etc). However, upon further investigation, most existing implementations were tightly intertwined with the rest of the application server. Nonetheless, the core Java EE API includes several classes to encapsulate tag information (see the javax.servlet.jsp.tagext package). This project used as many of these existing classes as possible to both mitigate the volume of work and also to permit leveraging existing application server code in the future. The code uses JAXP, which has been implemented in standard Java since version 1.4, to parse TLD documents.

Generation of Test Pages

The code uses a report and test case template that is populated using Apache Velocity. Using the encapsulated TLD metadata from the parsed TLD, the code iterates through all tags and attributes to construct test case pages for each test attack. The test attacks come from an XML file (attacks.xml) which represents a repository of various cross-site scripting attacks that invoke the x() function.

Serializing the Report

After the report HTML and test case JSPs are generated, they must be deployed to a JSP container in order to be rendered. The code uses an embedded instance of Tomcat to deploy the test case JSPs and then serializes them by retrieving the rendered response from Tomcat and writing it to a local file.

The section below outlines the system requirements and procedures for running the tool. The tool was written with Java 1.4 compatibility in mind, though execution in this environment has not been tested.


The tool requires that an appropriate Java Development Kit is installed along with an Apache Tomcat Runtime (>=6.0.16). In addition, the following third-party libraries are required:

Older versions of the runtimes and libraries may be compatible, but were not tested.

Project Layout

The project source tree is laid out in the following directories:

  • src/
  • docs/
  • lib/
  • resources/
  • standalone/
  • template/

Using the Tool

The source tree includes an Ant build file to compile and run the project. To make use of the included build file, the required libraries enumerated above should be placed in the lib directory. In addition, the tomcat.home (Tomcat runtime directory) and jdk.home (JDK home directory) properties should be set in the build file. The build file defines three tasks relevant to running the tool: run-tag-report, run-full-report and run-gui.


This task creates a report on a specific tag from a tag library. This is useful for retesting a specific tag's status after modifications of the tag implementation have been made. The parameters for this task are:

  • the location of the tag library definition file
  • the location of the tag properties configuration file
  • the location of the output directory
  • the name of the tag to test


This task creates a report on an entire tag library. Note that this task can take an extremely long time to execute. For example, this task run on the the JSF HTML Basic tag library ran for over 24 hours on an average desktop machine. The parameters for this task are:

  • the location of the tag library definition file
  • the location of the tag properties configuration file
  • the location of the output directory
  • the name of the tag to test


This task runs the graphical user interface for creating tag properties configuration files. The parameters for this task are:

  • the location of the tag properties configuration file
  • the location of the tag library definition file

While tag libraries offer a means to parameterize web components and potentially better protection from XSS, there are still applications that use raw JSPs and scriptlets. With the insight gained from generating test cases, the JSP Testing Tool should be enhanced to test not only pages using JSP tag libraries, but also basic JSPs as well. One possible strategy is to create a wrapper HttpServletRequest class that overrides methods to provide input directly from test cases generated from the earlier stages of this project. A similar wrapper HttpServletResponse class can then be used to test the results. The tool could then be used to quickly test the XSS protection level of any Java EE application that uses JSP technology. Unlike automated web scanners, this tool enhancement would have the benefit of internal insight to the application to determine injectable parameters. Additionally, this tool enhancement would be an improvement to static code analysis as it could reduce the number of false positives with the ability to invoke actual rendering of the HTTP response.

Feature Enhancements

These ideas are features that are recognized as desirable but will not be considered until the tool can test a reasonable JSP tag library. Currently, that measuring stick is the JSF Core library.

Programmatic Tag Generation

One of the limitations in the current tag generation is that tags are generated relatively blindly. This strategy can result in errors when supplied tag attributes do not conform to required formats. One possible strategy is to integrate a JSP/Servlet container where tags can be generated and rendered programmatically. This approach was deemed too complicated for the first iteration of this tool.

Attribute Permutation

Another issue is that different permutations of attributes may result in different behavior which can affect the outcome of a test case. This issue can be resolved by generating multiple permutations of attributes, but this becomes infeasible as the number of attributes grows.

Project Identification

What does this OWASP project offer you?
what is this project?
JSP Testing Tool

Purpose: an easy to use, freely available tool that can be used to quickly ascertain the level of protection that each component of a JSP tag library offers

License: N/A

who is working on this project?
Project Leader: Jason Li @

Project Maintainer: Jason Li @

Project Contributor(s): N/A

how can you learn more?
Project Pamphlet: N/A

3x slide Project Presentation: N/A

Mailing list: Subscribe or read the archives

Project Roadmap: To view, click here

Main links: N/A

Project Health: Yellow button.JPG Not Reviewed (Provisional)
To be reviewed under Assessment Criteria v2.0

Key Contacts
  • Contact Jason Li @ to contribute, review or sponsor this project
  • Contact the GPC to report a problem or concern about this project or to update information.

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