Literals in script


HTML's DOM offers a number of mechanisms to turn arbitrary strings into markup (.innerHTML = ...) or code (scriptEl.innerText = ..., el.onclick = ..., etc). Each of these mechanisms can serve as an XSS sink, giving an attacker the ability to feed code into a context that wasn't expecting it, leading to a class of DOM-based XSS attacks that we'd very much like to avoid.

One way of addressing this issue that's worked well in companies like Google is to move away from the string-based APIs, towards a more strongly-typed interface that could enforce some degree of validation and sanitization at the point at which a string enters into the application. If developers can lock themselves into such a system, then they can reduce the necessity to deeply audit each usage of a known XSS sink, and instead focus on the code that generates typed objects like SafeHtml or SafeUrl. The Trusted Types proposal aims to do just that.

For the most part, this mechanism is quite possible to implement entirely in DOM and WebIDL, without touching the underlying language at all. However, one distinction that security reviewers inside Google have found critical isn't currently possible to replicate on the web without some language-level hooks.

The Closure compiler can distinguish between strings that are embedded into a program as literals, and those that are the result of some operation (method call, property getter, etc). It enforces constraints on goog.string.Const which ensure that such objects can only be constructed from literals, which a) is apparently quite common in production code at Google, and b) provably safe (attacker cannot control the value of the literal without injecting directly into the script creating such literal).

That is, developers might create a SafeUrl object by first creating a goog.string.Const, and then using it in a factory method, like:

const url = goog.string.Const.from("https://safe.test/totally/safe/url");
return SafeUrl.fromConstant(url);

It would be lovely if we could make this assertion in the platform, rather than relying entirely on build-time checks. Client-side assertions could increase the robustness of the checks, providing defense in depth, and a safety net for the cases where code sneaks its way through the release process without being compiled.


I honestly don't have enough context with the innards of the language to make defensible proposals. Instead, I have the use cases above, and vague sketches of what I'd like to see from the platform side. I'd love to get feedback from folks who actually know things about the language with regard to the details of what the language might be willing and able to provide.

With that in mind: wild speculation about what might or might not be reasonable follows!

A Literal String Type

One way of providing this capability would be to expose a new string type corresponding to literal strings, which WebIDL could build on top of in order to distinguish literals when performing type checks. That is, today, we can produce something like the following WebIDL snippet:

interface TrustedHTML {
  static TrustedHTML escape(DOMString html);

This can be called as TrustedHTML.escape("Literal string!") and as TrustedHTML.escape(formField.value), escaping the string as necessary.

It would be ideal if we could add something like:

interface TrustedHTML {
  static TrustedHTML createFromLiteral(LiteralString html);

This could be called as TrustedHTML.createFromLiteral("Literal string!"), but calling TrustedHTML.createFromLiteral(formField.value) would throw a TypeError.

Also ideally, we'd allow literals to be combined with other literals (which is commonplace in codebases with agreed-upon line-length limits). That is, we'd allow the following:

TrustedHTML.createFromLiteral("A marginally longer literal string that seems to keep going " +
                              "and going and going and going. Wow, what a long string.");

Equally ideally, we'd keep track of a string's literalness. That is, we'd allow the following:

let a = "Literal string!";

let b = "Another literal!";
TrustedHTML.createFromLiteral(a + b);

let c = a + b;

Strict Tag Functions

One alternative which comes to mind would be to build a similar system on top of tagged template strings. That is, you could imagine something like:

function trustedUrlizer(templateString) {
  return TrustedUrl.unsafelyCreate(templateString);

return trustedUrlizer`https://safe.test/totally/safe/url`;

This would be pretty great iff we also had a mechanism to ensure that the tag function would only accept template strings. That is, trustedUrlizer(formField.value) would fail, perhaps throwing a TypeError.

Daniel Ehrenberg refined this a bit in mikewest/tc39-proposal-literals#2, suggesting:

Here's the API surface I'm imagining: the first argument to a template tag would have an additional property, literal, which indicates whether the string provided as an argument to the template was a literal. We could make this unforgeable by representing this as an internal slot, with literal as an own getter, so you could do something like this to prevent an attacker from calling your template with any old object that has a literal: true property:

// Un-monkey-patchable way to get the getter
let getLiteral = Object.getOwnPropertyDescriptor((_ => _)``, "literal").get; 

function literalString(strings, ...keys) {
  if (! throw new Error();
  return String.raw(strings, ...keys);

This literalString template tag is like String.raw but would throw an exception if you don't pass a literal. It outputs a normal string, with no trace any more that it was literal. This two-liner could be the recommended way to set off a call to something that requires a literal string. It's not possible to compromise the string literal contents because the strings object (and its inner raw object) are frozen.

To that, I'd only add that we'd want to be sure the literalness was exposed in a way that we could make use of in WebIDL so that we could enforce this kind of type-checking on built-in tag functions, but that would seem to naturally fall out of the proposal.


  • Can't folks just do this themselves with Closure, or other build-time checks?

    Yes, and in fact Google is doing this today internally. Folks involved in that build process would like to make it more robust by layering client-side checks on top of the build-time analysis they're already doing. The Trusted Types proposal mentioned above would also benefit from a fromLiteral construction mechanism, as the anecdata from Google's codebase shows that that mechanism is both safe and widely usable.

  • To what extent would we need to track literalness for the first proposal?

    An excellent question! I'm flexible!

    One thing we don't need to track would be something like using a literal as an object key. That is, I'm perfectly happy treating { "a": "value" } and { a: "value" }, and obj["a"] = "value" as having a value whose key is the same.

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