Uncontrolled Search Path Element

The product uses a fixed or controlled search path to find resources, but one or more locations in that path can be under the control of unintended actors.


Although this weakness can occur with any type of resource, it is frequently introduced when a product uses a directory search path to find executables or code libraries, but the path contains a directory that can be modified by an attacker, such as "/tmp" or the current working directory.

In Windows-based systems, when the LoadLibrary or LoadLibraryEx function is called with a DLL name that does not contain a fully qualified path, the function follows a search order that includes two path elements that might be uncontrolled:

the directory from which the program has been loaded

the current working directory

In some cases, the attack can be conducted remotely, such as when SMB or WebDAV network shares are used.

One or more locations in that path could include the Windows drive root or its subdirectories. This often exists in Linux-based code assuming the controlled nature of the root directory (/) or its subdirectories (/etc, etc), or a code that recursively accesses the parent directory. In Windows, the drive root and some of its subdirectories have weak permissions by default, which makes them uncontrolled.

In some Unix-based systems, a PATH might be created that contains an empty element, e.g. by splicing an empty variable into the PATH. This empty element can be interpreted as equivalent to the current working directory, which might be an untrusted search element.

In software package management frameworks (e.g., npm, RubyGems, or PyPi), the framework may identify dependencies on third-party libraries or other packages, then consult a repository that contains the desired package. The framework may search a public repository before a private repository. This could be exploited by attackers by placing a malicious package in the public repository that has the same name as a package from the private repository. The search path might not be directly under control of the developer relying on the framework, but this search order effectively contains an untrusted element.


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

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.

Example Two

In versions of Go prior to v1.19, the LookPath function would follow the conventions of the runtime OS and look for a program in the directiories listed in the current path [REF-1325].

Therefore, Go would prioritize searching the current directory when the provided command name does not contain a directory separator and continued to search for programs even when the specified program name is empty.

Consider the following where an application executes a git command to run on the system.

func ExecuteGitCommand(name string, arg []string) error {
  c := exec.Command(name, arg...)
  var err error
  c.Path, err = exec.LookPath(name)
  if err != nil {

    return err


An attacker could create a malicious repository with a file named ..exe and another file named git.exe. If git.exe is not found in the system PATH, then ..exe would execute [REF-1326].

Example Three

In February 2021 [REF-1169], a researcher was able to demonstrate the ability to breach major technology companies by using "dependency confusion" where the companies would download and execute untrusted packages.

The researcher discovered the names of some internal, private packages by looking at dependency lists in public source code, such as package.json. The researcher then created new, untrusted packages with the same name as the internal packages, then uploaded them to package hosting services. These services included the npm registry for Node, PyPi for Python, and RubyGems. In affected companies, their dependency resolution would search the public hosting services first before consulting their internal service, causing the untrusted packages to be automatically downloaded and executed.

See Also

Comprehensive Categorization: Exposed Resource

Weaknesses in this category are related to exposed resource.

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...

SFP Secondary Cluster: Tainted Input to Environment

This category identifies Software Fault Patterns (SFPs) within the Tainted Input to Environment cluster (SFP27).

Comprehensive CWE Dictionary

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

Weaknesses Introduced During Implementation

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

Weakness Base Elements

This view (slice) displays only weakness base elements.

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