FortiGuard Labs Threat Research

Anatomy of Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) Attack Surface on the Web

By Thanh Nguyen Nguyen | November 07, 2019

A FortiGuard Labs Threat Research Report


Over the past few weeks, Fortinet's FortiGuard Labs has been assessing web applications with embedded SVG images. As a result, we found a number of common issues in the web applications that we have examined. In this blog post, we will briefly talk about the nature of SVG and the common attack surfaces for SVG images that we have seen so far.

The following list is a summary of the common SVG attack vectors that we have observed over time:

  • Cross-Site Scripting
  • HTML Injection
  • XML Entity Processing – Billion Laughs Attack
  • Denial of Service – The New SVG Billion Laughs Attack

SVG on the Web

SVG, which stands for Scalable Vector Graphics[1], is an XML-based vector image format for two-dimensional graphics with support for interactivity and animation. SVG images and their behaviors are defined in XML text files. They can be created and edited with any text editor, as well as with drawing software. All major modern web browsers have SVG rendering support.

Let’s look at an example to get a better understanding of SVG images. Below, we have written some code to render an SVG image:

Figure 1: Code snippet of simple.svg

We then saved this image as simple.svg that can then be opened directly or included in an img/image/object/embed HTML tag:

Figure 2: Image rendered from code

Figure 2 shows the image generated via the code shown in Figure 1. It is a rect element that tells the browser to render a red rectangle in position x, y (100, 100) – i.e. width and height.

SVG in the Wild

Though SVG provides flexibility that enables the creation of more dynamic web content, it also introduces additional security risks. In this next section we will discuss the common attack vectors that we observed in a number of major websites we encountered online.

1. Cross-Site Scripting

All aspects of an SVG document can be accessed and manipulated using scripts in a way similar to HTML. The default scripting language is ECMAScript (closely related to JavaScript) and there are defined Document Object Model (DOM) objects for every SVG element and attribute. Scripts are enclosed in <script> elements.

This means that if a web server allows a user to upload an arbitrary SVG image, it is then vulnerable to a Cross-Site Scripting[2] attack. Here we have put the script inside the image:

Figure 3: Code snippet of xss.svg

Here is the compromised image that we saved as xss.svg and then opened directly:

Figure 4: Cross-Site Scripting triggered via directly accessing file

Here is what happens when it is linked to an html page:

Figure 5: Cross-Site Scripting triggered via link file

The Javascript code is executed within browser context, which means an attacker can use this compromised file to perform malicious activities, such as stealing your information.

2. HTML Injection

In some contexts, the XSS payload is sanitized. However, an SVG image still has a feature that allows us to inject HTML code. As mentioned before, the SVG is an XML-based vector image so we cannot simply put HTML into it as the syntax of the XML will be broken.

To avoid this, SVG has an element known as foreignObject that allows the inclusion of elements from a different XML namespace. In the context of a browser, this would most likely be (X)HTML.

Let’s take a look at the html.svg image:

Figure 6: Code snippet of html.svg

When we add the body tag along with an XHTML namespace inside a foreignObject, the namespace declaration is provided by the xmlns attribute. As a result, the body tag and all its child tags are interpreted by the user agent as belonging to XHTML. Therefore, we are able to render any XHTML code from the SVG to the page:

Figure 7: HTML Injection vulnerability

This ability to run any HTML code means we can simply perform an attack like phishing, bypass same-origin, CSRF, etc. from inside the compromised SVG image.

3. XML Entity Processing – Billion Laughs Attack

Since SVG is an XML-based vector image, it therefore allows the Entity to be included function. Entities are used to define shortcuts to special characters and can be declared to be internal or external.

An Internal Entity can be declared via the following syntax:

<!ENTITY entity-name "entity-value">

An External Entity can be declared via the following syntax:

<!ENTITY entity-name SYSTEM "URI/URL">

This External Entity function can be abused to leak internal data in the case of a file being parsed by a defective XML parser. Since we mostly work with modern browsers, we assumed that any available parser has already been well tested by fuzzers and should therefore be less vulnerable. Because of this, we will only talk about the abuse of an Internal Entity instead.

Inside entity.svg

Figure 8: Code snippet of entity.svg

As seen above, we defined the Entity lab at line 2 and then we call it inside the SVG element. Figure 9 shows the result:

Figure 9: Entity lab loaded into the page

It works! Let try another example – entity_2.svg:

Figure 10: Code snippet of entity_2.svg

Here is the result:

Figure 11: Entity lab2 loaded into the page

As can be seen, the text is being duplicated, which indicates that we can perform The Billion Laughs attack using an Entity tag!

The Billion Laughs Attack[3] is a type of denial-of-service (DoS) attack which is aimed at parsers of XML documents. It is also referred to as an XML bomb or exponential entity expansion attack.

Figure 12: Code snippet of billion_laughs.svg

Our browser took 4-5 seconds to response when parsing this billion_laughs.svg. That’s because most modern browsers are already aware of this attack and can address it during rendering so it does not pose a security risk.

4. Denial of Service – The New SVG Billion Laughs Attack

As seen in the previous section, the Billion Laughs Attack slows down the browser for around 4-5 secs to address the attack. Unfortunately, there is another way to perform the Billion Laughs via SVG image that can bypass those defenses

This time, we will use xlink:href instead of XML Entity. Let’s look at the payload for xlink_laughs.svg:

Figure 13: Code snippet of xlink_laughs.svg

The xlink:href attribute defines a reference to a resource as a reference IRI. The exact meaning of that link depends on the context of each element using it.

The <use> element takes nodes from within the SVG document and duplicates them somewhere else.

By defining the circle element in a0, we call the <use> element with the attribute xlink:href in a1, a2, a3… to clone the circle again, again, and again. Here is the result:

Figure 14: Billion Laughs Attack via xlink:href when parsing the malicious SVG

Note that in a worst case scenario, most modern browsers can be crashed, or at least become unresponsive when trying to render this SVG image as an avatar, image, chat, etc. on a website.

Interestingly, the SVG image shown in Figure 13 is also not caught by some open source SVG/XML sanitizers when we tested them. As a result, this is lesser known malformed SVG is likely to be able to trigger a denial-of-service.


In conclusion, SVGs are more like HTML than simply being an image. As a result, we recommend that web developers not load any SVG as an object or iframe if possible. The web administrator should also limit the file types that can be uploaded.

Otherwise, any untrusted SVG should be sanitized before being uploaded onto the server:

  • Restrict dangerous tags, such as script, foreignObject, etc.
  • Restrict loading resources from an external link inside an SVG image
  • Limit expansion inside an SVG image

The following table compares browser vulnerabilities to malicious SVG files when those files are opened directly.

The SVG samples used in this report can be found at our Github site:


FortiGuard Labs has released the following IPS signatures that cover the vulnerabilities mentioned:





-== FortiGuard Lion Team ==-

Learn more about FortiGuard Labs and the FortiGuard Security Services portfolioSign up for our weekly FortiGuard Threat Brief.

Read about the FortiGuard Security Rating Service, which provides security audits and best practices.


[1] W3C, “Scalable Vector Graphics” (02 September, 2019)
[2] OWASP, “The Image that called me” (02 September, 2019)
[3] Blackhat, “Exploiting Browsers without Image Parsing Bugs” (02 September, 2019)