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99% of Websites at Risk of Attack Via JavaScript Plug-ins

The average website includes content from 32 different third-party JavaScript programs, new study finds.

Third-party programs such as Google Analytics and other plug-ins expose websites to Magecart, formjacking, cross-site scripting, and credit-card skimming, and other attacks, new research shows.

A report released today by Tala Security found that these kind of attacks exploit vulnerable JavaScript integrations running on some 99% of the world's websites. And while 30% of the websites analyzed implemented new security policies – a 10% increase over 2019 – only 1.1% of websites were found to have effective security in place, an 11% decline from 2019. 

"This indicates that while deployment volume went up, effectiveness declined steeply," says Aanand Krishnan, founder and CEO of Tala Security. "The attackers have the upper hand largely because we are not playing effective defense."

Krishnan adds that without effective policy controls, every piece of code running on most websites can modify, steal, or leak information via client-side attacks executed by JavaScript. These attacks are powerful for hackers because once they attack a third-party tool, they can exploit it on any other website where that tool gets deployed. 

"In many cases, this data leakage takes place via whitelisted, legitimate applications, without the website owner's knowledge," Krishnan says. "Our report found that data risk is everywhere and effective controls are rarely applied. But just like the security business fixed network security issues with SSL and TLS, we'll do the same with these third-party integrations by deploying better security controls and working with the industry to develop standards-based solutions."

The report, which tracked the security posture of the Alexa top 1,000 websites, found that the average website includes content from 32 different third-party JavaScript programs, up slightly from 2019.

Of great concern: Despite increasing numbers of high-profile breaches, the forms used to complete orders on 92% of websites expose data to an average of 17 domains.

"So this means that data doesn't just get exposed on the main website, the shipper's site, or at the payment clearing house, an average of 15 other domains are exposed, which dramatically exposes risk," says Mark Bermingham, vice president of marketing at Tala. "We've seen cases where the hackers have changed code and even taken down entire websites."

The nature of the threat underscores that third-party JavaScript vendors are open to attack, he says, and these same third-party vendors have been very aggressive about collecting user data - something that should concern major e-commerce companies because they are now subject to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and could get hit with a hefty fine.

Hank Schless, senior manager of security solutions at Lookout, notes that the data shows that opening a company's platforms to third parties introduces more risk, especially in terms of exposure to GDPR and CCPA.

"With privacy being the main focus these days, security teams need to properly evaluate the security posture of any third-party integrator before giving them access to customer data," Schless says. "On the flip side, integrators understand that they need proper security controls in place if they want to succeed in such a climate."

Thomas Hatch, co-founder and CTO of SaltStack, says he's concerned about the reported declines in effective security management.

"When we see declines of this nature, it highlights that there are fundamental issues with how cybersecurity is being managed today," Hatch says. "These types of attacks and vulnerabilities are not new, yet they are more present than ever. If we want to overcome these issues we need to rethink how we deploy our applications, rethink how we secure our applications, and rethink how we manage, contribute to, and support the vast array of open source projects that the modern Web is built on top of."

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