HTTP Response Splitting

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HTTP response splitting occurs when:

  • Data enters a web application through an untrusted source, most frequently an HTTP request.
  • The data is included in an HTTP response header sent to a web user without being validated for malicious characters.

HTTP response splitting is a means to an end, not an end in itself. At its root, the attack is straightforward: an attacker passes malicious data to a vulnerable application, and the application includes the data in an HTTP response header.

To mount a successful exploit, the application must allow input that contains CR (carriage return, also given by %0d or \r) and LF (line feed, also given by %0a or \n)characters into the header AND the underlying platform must be vulnerable to the injection of such characters. These characters not only give attackers control of the remaining headers and body of the response the application intends to send, but also allow them to create additional responses entirely under their control.

The example below uses a Java example, but this issue has been fixed in virtually all modern Java EE application servers. If you are concerned about this risk, you should test on the platform of concern to see if the underlying platform allows for CR or LF characters to be injected into headers. We suspect that, in general, this vulnerability has been fixed in most modern application servers, regardless of what language the code has been written in.


The following code segment reads the name of the author of a weblog entry, author, from an HTTP request and sets it in a cookie header of an HTTP response.

String author = request.getParameter(AUTHOR_PARAM);
Cookie cookie = new Cookie("author", author);

Assuming a string consisting of standard alpha-numeric characters, such as “Jane Smith”, is submitted in the request the HTTP response including this cookie might take the following form:

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Set-Cookie: author=Jane Smith

However, because the value of the cookie is formed of unvalidated user input, the response will only maintain this form if the value submitted for AUTHOR_PARAM does not contain any CR and LF characters. If an attacker submits a malicious string, such as “Wiley Hacker\r\nContent-Length:999\r\n\r\n…”, then the HTTP response would be split into an imposter response followed by the original response, which is now ignored:

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Set-Cookie: author=Wiley Hacker
Content-Length: 999

<html>malicious content...</html> (to 999th character in this example)
Original content starting with character 1000, which is now ignored by the web browser...

The ability of the attacker to construct arbitrary HTTP responses permits a variety of resulting attacks, including: Cross-User Defacement, Cache Poisoning, Cross-site Scripting (XSS) and Page Hijacking.


Category: Attack