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.

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.


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.

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...

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 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...

Weaknesses Introduced During Implementation

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

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