Many 'Hacker Safe' Web Sites Found Vulnerable

Computer scientists say that more than 60 sites certified as safe by McAfee's ScanAlert service have been vulnerable to cross-site scripting attacks.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

January 17, 2008

6 Min Read

More than 60 Web sites certified to be "Hacker Safe" by McAfee's ScanAlert service have been vulnerable to cross-site scripting (XSS) attacks over the past year, including the ScanAlert Web site itself. While the XSS hole in the ScanAlert site and others have been addressed, some apparently have not been, leaving visitors potentially vulnerable to client-side attacks.

Joseph Pierini, director of enterprise services for the ScanAlert "Hacker Safe" program, maintains that XSS vulnerabilities can't be used to hack a server.

Still, Kevin Fernandez and Dimitris Pagkalos, two computer scientists who maintain, a site that has been tracking XSS vulnerabilities since February 2007, provided InformationWeek with a list of 62 Web sites certified as "Hacker Safe" on which XSS holes have been reported. The list includes,,,,,, and, among other familiar brands.

The site tracks whether reported XSS flaws have been fixed, but such information may not be accurate if the site making the repairs, or the initial discoverer of the hole, fails to report the fix.

Fernandez said the sites on his list displayed a "Hacker Safe" badge at the time XSS holes were identified. While some of these vulnerabilities have since been addressed, security researchers report that some sites currently certified as "Hacker Safe" also are currently vulnerable to XSS attacks.

As of Wednesday,, a Web site certified to be "Hacker Safe" by McAfee's ScanAlert service, was one such site.

Russ McRee, a Seattle-based computer security researcher, on Wednesday published information on his blog detailing a cross-site-scripting vulnerability that affects the site.

Toastmasters International aims to help people overcome their fear of public speaking. An employee of the organization said that no one was immediately available to speak about the group's Web site. Further calls to the organization weren't returned.

McRee said that he alerted Toastmasters that its Web site was vulnerable.

Cross-site scripting is a type of Web application vulnerability. A successful cross-site scripting attack allows an attacker to inject HTML code or client-side scripts into a target Web page.

"XSS vulnerabilities do present a serious risk. However, to date their real-world use has been limited," said Oliver Friedrichs, director of Symantec Security Response in an e-mail. "XSS vulnerabilities can result in the theft of session cookies, Web site login credentials, and exploitation of trust. XSS vulnerabilities are site-specific, and therefore their life cycle is limited; they become extinct once they're discovered and repaired by the Web site owners."

Pierini maintains that XSS vulnerabilities aren't material to a site's certification. "Cross-site scripting can't be used to hack a server," he said. "You may be able to do other things with it. You may be able to do things that affect the end-user or the client. But the customer data protected with the server, in the database, isn't going to be compromised by a cross-site scripting attack, not directly."

Pierini dismisses the suggestion that certifying a site as "Hacker Safe" when it remains vulnerable to XSS attacks could be confusing to consumers. He insists that the meaning of the certification is clear and notes that his company's scanning service reports the XSS flaws it finds to its clients.

"We definitely identify this [XSS] and we definitely bring this to our customers' attention," he said." And we provide our customers with the information. Our customers are allowed to make the decision where to put their resources. I personally want them to put their resources where they're needed most, in things that can affect the confidentiality, the integrity, or the availability of that system that we're certifying. Cross-site scripting can be used to do a variety of things, but it's all on the client side. And that's an area that we don't have control over." In an e-mail, McRee countered that while that may be true, "this issue still indicates a shortcoming in the 'Hacker Safe' service." Pointing to ScanAlert's online explanation of its scanning procedure, which specifically identifies cross-site scripting among the flaws the service attempts to detect, he dismissed the company's "Hacker Safe" labeling as "a grandiose and inaccurate marketing claim."

"By [ScanAlert's] own claim, the Toastmasters site is scanned daily, yet this vulnerability has and continues to exist," said McRee. "This is really about ScanAlert accurately providing the service they claim to offer and aiding companies with online interests in following secure coding best practices."

The merits of the ScanAlert service came into question just over a week ago following the publication of a letter from the parent company of, a site also certified "Hacker Safe." The letter warned the site's customers of a data breach last December and said it was possible "that an unauthorized person may be in possession of your name, address, telephone number, e-mail address, credit card number, expiration date, and card verification number." In the letter, the company said it was still investigating the incident, "but it appears that an unauthorized individual may have accessed this information by hacking our eCommerce Web site."

ScanAlert spokesman Nigel Ravenhill subsequently asserted in an e-mail that "no one knows exactly what happened, or whether this breach occurred on the [] Web site or somewhere else." And he said, "There is no evidence that this Web site was hacked while it was certified 'Hacker Safe'."

To date, Genica, which runs, hasn't provided further details about last year's data breach. Peter Green, director of marketing at the company, said that the breach is still under investigation and that there is no further information beyond what has already been publicly disclosed. He said the company hopes to conclude its investigation in a week or two.

Someone posting under the name "kenleonard0" -- Ken Leonard is the name of the CEO of ScanAlert -- echoed Ravenhill's comments about the breach on the blog of Illinois-based IT consultant Rafal Los, who published an assessment of ScanAlert that's similar to McRee's. "There is no evidence that this Web site was hacked while it was certified 'Hacker Safe,' " the post says. "In fact, all of the information that ScanAlert has gathered so far indicates that this breach did not happen while was certified 'Hacker Safe.' "

Los contends that the issue isn't whether the site was breached while certified by ScanAlert. Rather, he sees the use of the label "Hacker Safe" as untenable given the realities of computer security. "I would argue that this service is obviously weak at best, and at worst puts a false sense of security into the minds of the unknowing end users who go to these sites," he said in a Jan. 8 blog post. "Making an outrageous claim like 'Hacker Safe' is akin to saying 'Yes, your system is secure' when we all know the only way that can happen is with all cables (network, power) cut and data destroyed with an atom-smasher."

Editor's Note: This story was modified Jan. 18 to clarify the extent to which sites were hackable while certified.

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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