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Embedding YouTube Videos

...as well as other dangerous active content
Filed under End-User
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HTML Purifier End-User Documentation

Clients like their YouTube videos. It gives them a warm fuzzy feeling when they see a neat little embedded video player on their websites that can play the latest clips from their documentary "Fido and the Bones of Spring". All joking aside, the ability to embed YouTube videos or other active content in their pages is something that a lot of people like.

This is a bad idea. The moment you embed anything untrusted, you will definitely be slammed by a manner of nasties that can be embedded in things from your run of the mill Flash movie to Quicktime movies. Even img tags, which HTML Purifier allows by default, can be dangerous. Be distrustful of anything that tells a browser to load content from another website automatically.

Luckily for us, however, whitelisting saves the day. Sure, letting users include any old random flash file could be dangerous, but if it's from a specific website, it probably is okay. If no amount of pleading will convince the people upstairs that they should just settle with just linking to their movies, you may find this technique very useful.

Looking in

Below is custom code that allows users to embed YouTube videos. This is not favoritism: this trick can easily be adapted for other forms of embeddable content.

Usually, websites like YouTube give us boilerplate code that you can insert into your documents. YouTube's code goes like this:

<object width="425" height="350">
  <param name="movie" value="http://www.youtube.com/v/AyPzM5WK8ys" />
  <param name="wmode" value="transparent" />
  <embed src="http://www.youtube.com/v/AyPzM5WK8ys"
         wmode="transparent" width="425" height="350" />

There are two things to note about this code:

  1. <embed> is not recognized by W3C, so if you want standards-compliant code, you'll have to get rid of it.
  2. The code is exactly the same for all instances, except for the identifier AyPzM5WK8ys which tells us which movie file to retrieve.

What point 2 means is that if we have code like <span class="youtube-embed">AyPzM5WK8ys</span> your application can reconstruct the full object from this small snippet that passes through HTML Purifier unharmed. Show me the code!

And the corresponding usage:

    $config->set('Filter.YouTube', true);

There is a bit going in the two code snippets, so let's explain.

  1. This is a Filter object, which intercepts the HTML that is coming into and out of the purifier. You can add as many filter objects as you like. preFilter() processes the code before it gets purified, and postFilter() processes the code afterwards. So, we'll use preFilter() to replace the object tag with a span, and postFilter() to restore it.
  2. The first preg_replace call replaces any YouTube code users may have embedded into the benign span tag. Span is used because it is inline, and objects are inline too. We are very careful to be extremely restrictive on what goes inside the span tag, as if an errant code gets in there it could get messy.
  3. The HTML is then purified as usual.
  4. Then, another preg_replace replaces the span tag with a fully fledged object. Note that the embed is removed, and, in its place, a data attribute was added to the object. This makes the tag standards compliant! It also breaks Internet Explorer, so we add in a bit of conditional comments with the old embed code to make it work again. It's all quite convoluted but works.


There are a number of possible problems with the code above, depending on how you look at it.

Cannot change width and height

The width and height of the final YouTube movie cannot be adjusted. This is because I am lazy. If you really insist on letting users change the size of the movie, what you need to do is package up the attributes inside the span tag (along with the movie ID). It gets complicated though: a malicious user can specify an outrageously large height and width and attempt to crash the user's operating system/browser. You need to either cap it by limiting the amount of digits allowed in the regex or using a callback to check the number.

Trusts media's host's security

By allowing this code onto our website, we are trusting that YouTube has tech-savvy enough people not to allow their users to inject malicious code into the Flash files. An exploit on YouTube means an exploit on your site. Even though YouTube is run by the reputable Google, it doesn't mean they are invulnerable. You're putting a certain measure of the job on an external provider (just as you have by entrusting your user input to HTML Purifier), and it is important that you are cognizant of the risk.

Poorly written adaptations compromise security

This should go without saying, but if you're going to adapt this code for Google Video or the like, make sure you do it right. It's extremely easy to allow a character too many in postFilter() and suddenly you're introducing XSS into HTML Purifier's XSS free output. HTML Purifier may be well written, but it cannot guard against vulnerabilities introduced after it has finished.

Help out!

If you write a filter for your favorite video destination (or anything like that, for that matter), send it over and it might get included with the core!