Generation of Error Message Containing Sensitive Information

The software generates an error message that includes sensitive information about its environment, users, or associated data.


The sensitive information may be valuable information on its own (such as a password), or it may be useful for launching other, more serious attacks. The error message may be created in different ways:

self-generated: the source code explicitly constructs the error message and delivers it

externally-generated: the external environment, such as a language interpreter, handles the error and constructs its own message, whose contents are not under direct control by the programmer

An attacker may use the contents of error messages to help launch another, more focused attack. For example, an attempt to exploit a path traversal weakness (CWE-22) might yield the full pathname of the installed application. In turn, this could be used to select the proper number of ".." sequences to navigate to the targeted file. An attack using SQL injection (CWE-89) might not initially succeed, but an error message could reveal the malformed query, which would expose query logic and possibly even passwords or other sensitive information used within the query.


The following examples help to illustrate the nature of this weakness and describe methods or techniques which can be used to mitigate the risk.

Note that the examples here are by no means exhaustive and any given weakness may have many subtle varieties, each of which may require different detection methods or runtime controls.

Example One

In the following example, sensitive information might be printed depending on the exception that occurs.

try {
catch (Exception e) {

If an exception related to SQL is handled by the catch, then the output might contain sensitive information such as SQL query structure or private information. If this output is redirected to a web user, this may represent a security problem.

Example Two

This code tries to open a database connection, and prints any exceptions that occur.

try {
//print exception message that includes exception message and configuration file location
catch (Exception $e) {
  echo 'Caught exception: ', $e->getMessage(), '\n';
  echo 'Check credentials in config file at: ', $Mysql_config_location, '\n';

If an exception occurs, the printed message exposes the location of the configuration file the script is using. An attacker can use this information to target the configuration file (perhaps exploiting a Path Traversal weakness). If the file can be read, the attacker could gain credentials for accessing the database. The attacker may also be able to replace the file with a malicious one, causing the application to use an arbitrary database.

Example Three

The following code generates an error message that leaks the full pathname of the configuration file.

$ConfigDir = "/home/myprog/config";
$uname = GetUserInput("username");

# avoid CWE-22, CWE-78, others.
ExitError("Bad hacker!") if ($uname !~ /^\w+$/);
$file = "$ConfigDir/$uname.txt";
if (! (-e $file)) {
  ExitError("Error: $file does not exist");

If this code is running on a server, such as a web application, then the person making the request should not know what the full pathname of the configuration directory is. By submitting a username that does not produce a $file that exists, an attacker could get this pathname. It could then be used to exploit path traversal or symbolic link following problems that may exist elsewhere in the application.

Example Four

In the example below, the method getUserBankAccount retrieves a bank account object from a database using the supplied username and account number to query the database. If an SQLException is raised when querying the database, an error message is created and output to a log file.

public BankAccount getUserBankAccount(String username, String accountNumber) {

  BankAccount userAccount = null;
  String query = null;
  try {
    if (isAuthorizedUser(username)) {
      query = "SELECT * FROM accounts WHERE owner = "
      + username + " AND accountID = " + accountNumber;
      DatabaseManager dbManager = new DatabaseManager();
      Connection conn = dbManager.getConnection();
      Statement stmt = conn.createStatement();
      ResultSet queryResult = stmt.executeQuery(query);
      userAccount = (BankAccount)queryResult.getObject(accountNumber);
  } catch (SQLException ex) {
    String logMessage = "Unable to retrieve account information from database,\nquery: " + query;
    Logger.getLogger(BankManager.class.getName()).log(Level.SEVERE, logMessage, ex);
  return userAccount;


The error message that is created includes information about the database query that may contain sensitive information about the database or query logic. In this case, the error message will expose the table name and column names used in the database. This data could be used to simplify other attacks, such as SQL injection (CWE-89) to directly access the database.

See Also

OWASP Top Ten 2017 Category A6 - Security Misconfiguration

Weaknesses in this category are related to the A6 category in the OWASP Top Ten 2017.

Limit Access

Weaknesses in this category are related to the design and architecture of system resources. Frequently these deal with restricting the amount of resources that are acc...

SFP Secondary Cluster: Exposed Data

This category identifies Software Fault Patterns (SFPs) within the Exposed Data cluster (SFP23).

Comprehensive CWE Dictionary

This view (slice) covers all the elements in CWE.

CWE Cross-section

This view contains a selection of weaknesses that represent the variety of weaknesses that are captured in CWE, at a level of abstraction that is likely to be useful t...

Weaknesses Introduced During Implementation

This view (slice) lists weaknesses that can be introduced during implementation.

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