Improper Neutralization of Special Elements used in an OS Command ('OS Command Injection')

The product constructs all or part of an OS command using externally-influenced input from an upstream component, but it does not neutralize or incorrectly neutralizes special elements that could modify the intended OS command when it is sent to a downstream component.


This could allow attackers to execute unexpected, dangerous commands directly on the operating system. This weakness can lead to a vulnerability in environments in which the attacker does not have direct access to the operating system, such as in web applications. Alternately, if the weakness occurs in a privileged program, it could allow the attacker to specify commands that normally would not be accessible, or to call alternate commands with privileges that the attacker does not have. The problem is exacerbated if the compromised process does not follow the principle of least privilege, because the attacker-controlled commands may run with special system privileges that increases the amount of damage.

There are at least two subtypes of OS command injection:

The application intends to execute a single, fixed program that is under its own control. It intends to use externally-supplied inputs as arguments to that program. For example, the program might use system("nslookup [HOSTNAME]") to run nslookup and allow the user to supply a HOSTNAME, which is used as an argument. Attackers cannot prevent nslookup from executing. However, if the program does not remove command separators from the HOSTNAME argument, attackers could place the separators into the arguments, which allows them to execute their own program after nslookup has finished executing.

The application accepts an input that it uses to fully select which program to run, as well as which commands to use. The application simply redirects this entire command to the operating system. For example, the program might use "exec([COMMAND])" to execute the [COMMAND] that was supplied by the user. If the COMMAND is under attacker control, then the attacker can execute arbitrary commands or programs. If the command is being executed using functions like exec() and CreateProcess(), the attacker might not be able to combine multiple commands together in the same line.

From a weakness standpoint, these variants represent distinct programmer errors. In the first variant, the programmer clearly intends that input from untrusted parties will be part of the arguments in the command to be executed. In the second variant, the programmer does not intend for the command to be accessible to any untrusted party, but the programmer probably has not accounted for alternate ways in which malicious attackers can provide input.


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 example code intends to take the name of a user and list the contents of that user's home directory. It is subject to the first variant of OS command injection.

$userName = $_POST["user"];
$command = 'ls -l /home/' . $userName;

The $userName variable is not checked for malicious input. An attacker could set the $userName variable to an arbitrary OS command such as:

;rm -rf /

Which would result in $command being:

ls -l /home/;rm -rf /

Since the semi-colon is a command separator in Unix, the OS would first execute the ls command, then the rm command, deleting the entire file system.

Also note that this example code is vulnerable to Path Traversal (CWE-22) and Untrusted Search Path (CWE-426) attacks.

Example Two

The following simple program accepts a filename as a command line argument and displays the contents of the file back to the user. The program is installed setuid root because it is intended for use as a learning tool to allow system administrators in-training to inspect privileged system files without giving them the ability to modify them or damage the system.

int main(int argc, char** argv) {
  char cmd[CMD_MAX] = "/usr/bin/cat ";
  strcat(cmd, argv[1]);

Because the program runs with root privileges, the call to system() also executes with root privileges. If a user specifies a standard filename, the call works as expected. However, if an attacker passes a string of the form ";rm -rf /", then the call to system() fails to execute cat due to a lack of arguments and then plows on to recursively delete the contents of the root partition.

Note that if argv[1] is a very long argument, then this issue might also be subject to a buffer overflow (CWE-120).

Example Three

This example is a web application that intends to perform a DNS lookup of a user-supplied domain name. It is subject to the first variant of OS command injection.

use CGI qw(:standard);
$name = param('name');
$nslookup = "/path/to/nslookup";
print header;
if (open($fh, "$nslookup $name|")) {
  while (<$fh>) {
    print escapeHTML($_);
    print "<br>\n";

Suppose an attacker provides a domain name like this:

The "%3B" sequence decodes to the ";" character, and the %20 decodes to a space. The open() statement would then process a string like this:

/path/to/nslookup ; /bin/ls -l

As a result, the attacker executes the "/bin/ls -l" command and gets a list of all the files in the program's working directory. The input could be replaced with much more dangerous commands, such as installing a malicious program on the server.

Example Four

The example below reads the name of a shell script to execute from the system properties. It is subject to the second variant of OS command injection.

String script = System.getProperty("SCRIPTNAME");
if (script != null)

If an attacker has control over this property, then they could modify the property to point to a dangerous program.

Example Five

In the example below, a method is used to transform geographic coordinates from latitude and longitude format to UTM format. The method gets the input coordinates from a user through a HTTP request and executes a program local to the application server that performs the transformation. The method passes the latitude and longitude coordinates as a command-line option to the external program and will perform some processing to retrieve the results of the transformation and return the resulting UTM coordinates.

public String coordinateTransformLatLonToUTM(String coordinates)

  String utmCoords = null;
  try {

    String latlonCoords = coordinates;
    Runtime rt = Runtime.getRuntime();
    Process exec = rt.exec("cmd.exe /C latlon2utm.exe -" + latlonCoords);
    // process results of coordinate transform

    // ...

  catch(Exception e) {...}
  return utmCoords;


However, the method does not verify that the contents of the coordinates input parameter includes only correctly-formatted latitude and longitude coordinates. If the input coordinates were not validated prior to the call to this method, a malicious user could execute another program local to the application server by appending '&' followed by the command for another program to the end of the coordinate string. The '&' instructs the Windows operating system to execute another program.

Example Six

The following code is from an administrative web application designed to allow users to kick off a backup of an Oracle database using a batch-file wrapper around the rman utility and then run a cleanup.bat script to delete some temporary files. The script rmanDB.bat accepts a single command line parameter, which specifies what type of backup to perform. Because access to the database is restricted, the application runs the backup as a privileged user.

String btype = request.getParameter("backuptype");
String cmd = new String("cmd.exe /K \"
  c:\\util\\rmanDB.bat "


The problem here is that the program does not do any validation on the backuptype parameter read from the user. Typically the Runtime.exec() function will not execute multiple commands, but in this case the program first runs the cmd.exe shell in order to run multiple commands with a single call to Runtime.exec(). Once the shell is invoked, it will happily execute multiple commands separated by two ampersands. If an attacker passes a string of the form "& del c:\\dbms\\*.*", then the application will execute this command along with the others specified by the program. Because of the nature of the application, it runs with the privileges necessary to interact with the database, which means whatever command the attacker injects will run with those privileges as well.

See Also

Comprehensive Categorization: Injection

Weaknesses in this category are related to injection.

OWASP Top Ten 2021 Category A03:2021 - Injection

Weaknesses in this category are related to the A03 category "Injection" in the OWASP Top Ten 2021.

SEI CERT C Coding Standard - Guidelines 10. Environment (ENV)

Weaknesses in this category are related to the rules and recommendations in the Environment (ENV) section of the SEI CERT C Coding Standard.

Comprehensive CWE Dictionary

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

Weaknesses in the 2023 CWE Top 25 Most Dangerous Software Weaknesses

CWE entries in this view are listed in the 2023 CWE Top 25 Most Dangerous Software Weaknesses.

Weaknesses in the 2022 CWE Top 25 Most Dangerous Software Weaknesses

CWE entries in this view are listed in the 2022 CWE Top 25 Most Dangerous Software Weaknesses.

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