CSRF (Cross-Site Request Forgery)

Cross-site request forgery, also known as one-click attack or session riding and abbreviated as CSRF (sometimes pronounced sea-surf) or XSRF, is a type of malicious exploit of a website where unauthorized commands are transmitted from a user that the web application trusts. There are many ways in which a malicious website can transmit such commands; specially-crafted image tags, hidden forms, and JavaScript XMLHttpRequests, for example, can all work without the user’s interaction or even knowledge. Unlike cross-site scripting (XSS), which exploits the trust a user has for a particular site, CSRF exploits the trust that a site has in a user’s browser.

Examples of CSRF

Attackers who can find a reproducible link that executes a specific action on the target page while the victim is logged in can embed such link on a page they control and trick the victim into opening it. The attack carrier link may be placed in a location that the victim is likely to visit while logged into the target site (for example, a discussion forum), or sent in an HTML email body or attachment. A real CSRF vulnerability in uTorrent (CVE-2008-6586) exploited the fact that its web console accessible at localhost:8080 allowed critical actions to be executed using a simple GET request:

Force a .torrent file download

Change uTorrent administrator password

Attacks were launched by placing malicious, automatic-action HTML image elements on forums and email spam, so that browsers visiting these pages would open them automatically, without much user action. People running vulnerable uTorrent version at the same time as opening these pages were susceptible to the attack.

CSRF attacks using image tags are often made from Internet forums, where users are allowed to post images but not JavaScript, for example using BBCode:


When accessing the attack link to the local uTorrent application at localhost:8080, the browser would also always automatically send any existing cookies for that domain. This general property of web browsers enables CSRF attacks to exploit their targeted vulnerabilities and execute hostile actions as long as the user is logged into the target website (in this example, the local uTorrent web interface) at the time of the attack. A cross-site request forgery is a confused deputy attack against a web browser.

Characteristics of CSRF

  • It involves sites that rely on a user’s identity.
  • It exploits the site’s trust in that identity.
  • It tricks the user’s browser into sending HTTP requests to a target site.
  • It involves HTTP requests that have side effects.

At risk are web applications that perform actions based on input from trusted and authenticated users without requiring the user to authorize the specific action. A user who is authenticated by a cookie saved in the user’s web browser could unknowingly send an HTTP request to a site that trusts the user and thereby causes an unwanted action.

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