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TUCoPS :: Web :: Apps :: cgisec.txt

CGI Vulnerabilities

This article will discuss the Common Gateway Interface, its relationship to
the World Wide Web and the Internet, and will endeavor to point out
vulnerabilities in system security exposed by its use. The UNIX operating
system will be the platform central to this discussion. Programming
techniques will be illustrated by examples using PERL.


The Common Gateway Interface (CGI) is an interface specification that
allows communication between client programs and information servers which
understand the Hyper-Text Transfer Protocol (HTTP). TCP/IP is the
communications protocol used by the CGI script and the server during the
communications. The default port for communications is port 80
(privileged), but other non-privileged ports may be specified.

CGI scripts can perform relatively simple processing on the client side. A
CGI script can be used to format Hyper-Text Markup Language (HTML)
documents, dynamically create HTML documents, and dynamically generate
graphical images. CGI can also perform transaction recording using standard
input and standard output. CGI stores information in system environment
variables that can be accessed through the CGI scripts. CGI scripts can
also accept command line arguments. CGI scripts operate in two basic modes:

   * In the first mode, the CGI script performs rudimentary data processing
     on the input passed to it. An example of data processing is the
     popular web lint page that checks the syntax of HTML documents.

   * The second mode is where the CGI script acts as a conduit for data
     being passed from the client program to the server, and back from the
     server to the client. For example, a CGI script can be used as a front
     end to a database program running on the server.

CGI scripts can be written using compiled programming languages,
interpreted programming languages, and scripting languages. The only real
advantage that exists for one type of development tool over the other is
that compiled programs tend to execute more quickly than interpreted
programs. Interpreted languages such as AppleScript, TCL, PERL and UNIX
shell scripts afford the possibility of acquiring and modifying the source
(discussed later), and are generally faster to develop than compiled

The set of common methods available to CGI programs is defined in the HTTP
1.0 specification. The three methods pertinent to this discussion are the
`Get` method, the `Post` method, and the `Put` method. The `Get` method
retrieves information from the server to the client. The `Post` method asks
the server to accept information passed from the client as input to the
specified target. The `Put` method asks the server to accept information
passed from the client as a replacement for the specified target.


The vulnerabilities caused by the use of CGI scripts are not weaknesses in
CGI itself, but are weaknesses inherent in the HTTP specification and in
various system programs. CGI simply allows access to those vulnerabilities.
There are other ways to exploit the system security. For example, insecure
file permissions can be exploited using FTP or telnet. CGI simply provides
more opportunities to exploit these and other security flaws.

The CGI specification provides opportunities to read files, acquire shell
access, and corrupt file systems on server machines and their attached
hosts. Means of gaining access include: exploiting assumptions of the
script, exploiting weaknesses in the server environment, and exploiting
weaknesses in other programs and system calls. The primary weakness in CGI
scripts is insufficient input validation.

According to the HTTP 1.0 specification, data passed to a CGI script must
be encoded so that it can work on any hardware or software platform. Data
passed by a CGI script using the Get method is appended to the end of a
Universal Resource Locator (URL). This data can be accessed by the CGI
script as an environment variable named QUERY_STRING. Data is passed as
tokens of the form variable=value, with the tokens separated by ampersands
(&). Actual ampersands, and other non-alphanumeric characters, must be
escaped, meaning that they are encoded as two-digit hexadecimal values.
Escaped characters are preceded by a percent sign (%) in the encoded URL.
It is the responsibility of the CGI script to escape or remove characters
in user supplied input data. Characters such as '<' and '>', the delimiters
for HTML tags, are usually removed using a simple search and replace
operation, such as the following:

# Process input values
{$NAME, $VALUE) = split(/=/, $_);       # split up each variable=value pair
$VALUE =~ s/\+/ /g;                     # Replace '+' with ' '
$VALUE =~ s/%([0-9|A-F]{2})/pack(C,hex,{$1}}/eg;  # Replace %xx characters with ASCII
# Escape metacharacters
$VALUE =~ s/([;<>\*\|'&\$!#\(\)\[\]\{\}:"])/\\$1/g;# remove unwanted special characters
$MYDATA[$NAME} = $VALUE;        # Assign the value to the associative array

This example removes special characters such as the semi-colon character,
which is interpreted by the shell as a command separator. Inclusion of a
semi-colon in the input data allows for the possibility of appending an
additional command to the input. Take note of the forward slash characters
that precede the characters being substituted. In PERL, a backslash is
required to tell the interpreter not to process the following character.*

The above example is incomplete since it does not address the possibility
of the new line character '%0a', which can be used to execute commands
other than those provided by the script. Therefore it is possible to append
a string to a URL to perform functions outside of the script. For example,
the following URL requests a copy of /etc/passwd from the server machine:

The strings '%0a" and '%20' are ASCII line feed and blank respectively.

The front end interface to a CGI program is an HTML document called a form.
Forms include the HTML tag <INPUT>. Each <INPUT> tag has a variable name
associated with it. This is the variable name that forms the left hand side
of the previously mentioned variable=value token. The contents of the
variable forms the value portion of the token. Actual CGI scripts may
perform input filtering on the contents of the <INPUT> field. However if
the CGI script does not filter special characters, then a situation
analogous to the above example exists. Interpreted CGI scripts that fail to
validate the <INPUT> data will pass the data directly to the interpreter.

Another HTML tag sometime seen in forms is the <SELECT> tag. <SELECT> tags
allow the user on the client side to select from a finite set of choices.
The selection becomes the right hand side of the variable=value token
passed to the CGI script. CGI script often fail to validate the input from
a <SELECT> field, assuming that the field will contain only pre-defined
data. Again, this data is passed directly to the interpreter for
interpreted languages. Compiled programs which do not perform input
validation and/or escape special characters may also be vulnerable.

A shell script or PERL script that invokes the UNIX mail program may be
vulnerable to a shell escape. Mail accepts commands of the form '~!command'
and forks a shell to execute the command. If the CGI script does not filter
out the '~!' sequence, the system is vulnerable. Sendmail holes can
likewise be exploited in this manner. Again, the key is to find a script
that does not properly filter input characters.

If you can find a CGI script that contains a UNIX system() call with only
one argument, then you have found a doorway into the system. When the
system() function is invoked with only one argument, the system forks a
separate shell to handle the request. When this happens, it is possible to
append data to the input and generate unexpected results. For example, a
PERL script containing the following:

system("/usr/bin/sendmail -t %s < %s", $mailto_address < $input_file");

is designed to mail a copy of $input_file to the mail address specified in
the $mailto_address variable. By calling system() with one argument, the
program causes a separate shell to be forked. By copying and modifying the
input to the form:

<INPUT TYPE="HIDDEN" NAME="mailto_address" VALUE=";mail < /etc/passwd">

we can exploit this weakness and obtain the password file from the server.

The system() function is not the only command that will fork a new shell.
the exec() function with a single argument also provides the same exposure.
Opening a file and piping the result also forks a separate shell. In PERL,
the function:

open(FILE, "| program_name $ARGS");

will open FILE and pipe the contents to program_name, which will run as a
separate shell.

In PERL, the eval command parses and executes whatever argument is passed
to it. CGI scripts that pass arbitrary user input to the eval command can
be used to execute anything the user desires. For example,

$_ = $VALUE;
s/"/\\"/g               # Escape double quotes
$RESULT = eval qq/"$_"/;        # evaluate the correctly quoted input

would pass the data from $VALUE to eval essentially unchanged, except for
ensuring that the double quote don't confuse the interpreter (how nice of
them). If $VALUE contains "rm -rf *", the results will be disastrous. File
permissions should be examined carefully. CGI scripts that are world
readable can be copied, modified, and replaced. In addition, PERL scripts
that include lines such as the following:

require "cgi-lib";

are including a library file named cgi-lib. If this file's permissions are
insecure, the script is vulnerable. To check file permissions, the string
'%0a/bin/ls%20-la%20/usr/src/include" could be appended to the URL of a CGI
script using the Get method.

Copying, modifying, and replacing the library file will allow users to
execute command or routines inside the library file. Also, if the PERL
interpreter, which usually resides in /usr/bin, runs as SETUID root, it is
possible to modify file permissions by passing a command directly to the
system through the interpreter. The eval command example above would permit
the execution of :

$_ = "chmod 666 \/etc\/passwd"
$RESULT = eval qq/"$_"/;

which would make the password file world writable.

There is a feature supported under some HTTPD servers called Server Side
Includes (SSI). This is a mechanism that allows the server to modify the
outgoing document before sending it to the client browser. SSI is a *huge*
security hole, and most everyone except the most inexperienced sysadmin has
it disabled. However, in the event that you discover a site that enables
SSI,, the syntax of commands is:

<!--#command variable="value" -->

Both command and 'tag' must be lowercase. If the script source does not
correctly filter input,input such as:

<!--#exec cmd="chmod 666 /etc/passwd"-->

All SSI commands start with a pound sign (#) followed by a keyword. "exec
cmd" launches a shell that executes a command enclosed in the double
quotes. If this option is turned on, you have enormous flexibility with
what you can do on the target machine.


The improper use of CGI scripts affords users a number of vulnerabilities
in system security. Failure to validate user input, poorly chosen function
calls, and insufficient file permissions can all be exploited through the
misuse of CGI.

*   Adapted from Mudry, R. J., Serving The Web, Coriolis Group Books, p. 192
**  Jennifer Myers, Usenet posting
*** Adapted from Phillips, P., Safe CGI Programming,


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