[Fixed]-Is exposing a session's CSRF-protection token safe?


If you know you’re going to need the CSRF token for AJAX requests, you can always embed it in the HTML somewhere; then you can find it through Javascript by traversing the DOM. This way, you’ll still have access to the token, but you’re not exposing it via an API.

To put it another way: do it through Django’s templates — not through the URL dispatcher. It’s much more secure this way.


UPDATE: The below was true, and should be true if all browsers and plugins were properly implemented. Unfortunately, we now know that they aren’t, and that certain combinations of browser plugins and redirects can allow an attacker to provide arbitrary headers on a cross-domain request. Unfortunately, this means that even AJAX requests with the “X-Requested-With: XMLHttpRequest” header must now be CSRF-protected. As a result, Django no longer exempts Ajax requests from CSRF protection.

Original Answer

It’s worth mentioning that protecting AJAX requests from CSRF is unnecessary, since browsers do not allow cross-site AJAX requests. In fact, the Django CSRF middleware now automatically exempts AJAX requests from CSRF token scanning.

This is only valid if you are actually checking the X-Requested-With header server-side for the “XMLHttpRequest” value (which Django does), and only exempting real AJAX requests from CSRF scanning.


Cancel that, I was wrong. (See comments.) You can prevent the exploit by ensuring your JSON follows the spec: Always make sure you return an object literal as the top-level object. (I can’t guarantee there won’t be further exploits. Imagine a browser providing access to the failed code in its window.onerror events!)

You can’t rely on cross-site-scripting rules to keep AJAX responses private. For example, if you return the CSRF token as JSON, a malicious site could redefine the String or Array constructor and request the resource.

bigmattyh is correct: You need to embed the token somewhere in the markup. Alternatively, you could reject any POSTs that do have a referer that doesn’t match. That way, only people with overzealous software firewalls will be vulnerable to CSRF.

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