Improper Neutralization of Argument Delimiters in a Command ('Argument Injection')

The product constructs a string for a command to be executed by a separate component in another control sphere, but it does not properly delimit the intended arguments, options, or switches within that command string.


When creating commands using interpolation into a string, developers may assume that only the arguments/options that they specify will be processed. This assumption may be even stronger when the programmer has encoded the command in a way that prevents separate commands from being provided maliciously, e.g. in the case of shell metacharacters. When constructing the command, the developer may use whitespace or other delimiters that are required to separate arguments when the command. However, if an attacker can provide an untrusted input that contains argument-separating delimiters, then the resulting command will have more arguments than intended by the developer. The attacker may then be able to change the behavior of the command. Depending on the functionality supported by the extraneous arguments, this may have security-relevant consequences.


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

Consider the following program. It intends to perform an "ls -l" on an input filename. The validate_name() subroutine performs validation on the input to make sure that only alphanumeric and "-" characters are allowed, which avoids path traversal (CWE-22) and OS command injection (CWE-78) weaknesses. Only filenames like "abc" or "d-e-f" are intended to be allowed.

my $arg = GetArgument("filename");

  sub do_listing {

    my($fname) = @_;
    if (! validate_name($fname)) {

      print "Error: name is not well-formed!\n";

    # build command
    my $cmd = "/bin/ls -l $fname";


  sub validate_name {

    my($name) = @_;
    if ($name =~ /^[\w\-]+$/) {


    else {




However, validate_name() allows filenames that begin with a "-". An adversary could supply a filename like "-aR", producing the "ls -l -aR" command (CWE-88), thereby getting a full recursive listing of the entire directory and all of its sub-directories.

There are a couple possible mitigations for this weakness. One would be to refactor the code to avoid using system() altogether, instead relying on internal functions.

Another option could be to add a "--" argument to the ls command, such as "ls -l --", so that any remaining arguments are treated as filenames, causing any leading "-" to be treated as part of a filename instead of another option.

Another fix might be to change the regular expression used in validate_name to force the first character of the filename to be a letter or number, such as:

if ($name =~ /^\w[\w\-]+$/) ...

Example Two

CVE-2016-10033 / [REF-1249] provides a useful real-world example of this weakness within PHPMailer.

The program calls PHP's mail() function to compose and send mail. The fifth argument to mail() is a set of parameters. The program intends to provide a "-fSENDER" parameter, where SENDER is expected to be a well-formed email address. The program has already validated the e-mail address before invoking mail(), but there is a lot of flexibility in what constitutes a well-formed email address, including whitespace. With some additional allowed characters to perform some escaping, the adversary can specify an additional "-o" argument (listing an output file) and a "-X" argument (giving a program to execute). Additional details for this kind of exploit are in [REF-1250].

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

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CWE Cross-section

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Weaknesses Introduced During Implementation

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