Untrusted Search Path

The application searches for critical resources using an externally-supplied search path that can point to resources that are not under the application's direct control.


This might allow attackers to execute their own programs, access unauthorized data files, or modify configuration in unexpected ways. If the application uses a search path to locate critical resources such as programs, then an attacker could modify that search path to point to a malicious program, which the targeted application would then execute. The problem extends to any type of critical resource that the application trusts.

Some of the most common variants of untrusted search path are:

In various UNIX and Linux-based systems, the PATH environment variable may be consulted to locate executable programs, and LD_PRELOAD may be used to locate a separate library.

In various Microsoft-based systems, the PATH environment variable is consulted to locate a DLL, if the DLL is not found in other paths that appear earlier in the search order.


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

This program is intended to execute a command that lists the contents of a restricted directory, then performs other actions. Assume that it runs with setuid privileges in order to bypass the permissions check by the operating system.

#define DIR "/restricted/directory"

char cmd[500];
sprintf(cmd, "ls -l %480s", DIR);
/* Raise privileges to those needed for accessing DIR. */


This code may look harmless at first, since both the directory and the command are set to fixed values that the attacker can't control. The attacker can only see the contents for DIR, which is the intended program behavior. Finally, the programmer is also careful to limit the code that executes with raised privileges.

However, because the program does not modify the PATH environment variable, the following attack would work:

The user sets the PATH to reference a directory under the attacker's control, such as "/my/dir/".The attacker creates a malicious program called "ls", and puts that program in /my/dirThe user executes the program.When system() is executed, the shell consults the PATH to find the ls programThe program finds the attacker's malicious program, "/my/dir/ls". It doesn't find "/bin/ls" because PATH does not contain "/bin/".The program executes the attacker's malicious program with the raised privileges.

Example Two

This code prints all of the running processes belonging to the current user.

//assume getCurrentUser() returns a username that is guaranteed to be alphanumeric (CWE-78)
$userName = getCurrentUser();
$command = 'ps aux | grep ' . $userName;

This program is also vulnerable to a PATH based attack, as an attacker may be able to create malicious versions of the ps or grep commands. While the program does not explicitly raise privileges to run the system commands, the PHP interpreter may by default be running with higher privileges than users.

Example Three

The following code is from a web application that allows users access to an interface through which they can update their password on the system. In this environment, user passwords can be managed using the Network Information System (NIS), which is commonly used on UNIX systems. When performing NIS updates, part of the process for updating passwords is to run a make command in the /var/yp directory. Performing NIS updates requires extra privileges.


The problem here is that the program does not specify an absolute path for make and does not clean its environment prior to executing the call to Runtime.exec(). If an attacker can modify the $PATH variable to point to a malicious binary called make and cause the program to be executed in their environment, then the malicious binary will be loaded instead of the one intended. Because of the nature of the application, it runs with the privileges necessary to perform system operations, which means the attacker's make will now be run with these privileges, possibly giving the attacker complete control of the system.

See Also

File Handling Issues

Weaknesses in this category are related to the handling of files within a software system. Files, directories, and folders are so central to information technology tha...

Authorize Actors

Weaknesses in this category are related to the design and architecture of a system's authorization components. Frequently these deal with enforcing that agents have th...

CERT C++ Secure Coding Section 10 - Environment (ENV)

Weaknesses in this category are related to rules in the Environment (ENV) section of the CERT C++ Secure Coding Standard. Since not all rules map to specific weaknesse...

Comprehensive CWE Dictionary

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

Weaknesses in the 2019 CWE Top 25 Most Dangerous Software Errors

CWE entries in this view are listed in the 2019 CWE Top 25 Most Dangerous Software Errors.

Weaknesses without Software Fault Patterns

CWE identifiers in this view are weaknesses that do not have associated Software Fault Patterns (SFPs), as covered by the CWE-888 view. As such, they represent gaps in...

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