Process Control

Thank you for visiting We have migrated our community to a new web platform and regretably the content for this page needed to be programmatically ported from its previous wiki page. There’s still some work to be done.


Executing commands from an untrusted source or in an untrusted environment can cause an application to execute malicious commands on behalf of an attacker.

Process control vulnerabilities take two forms:

  • An attacker can change the command that the program executes: the attacker explicitly controls what the command is.
  • An attacker can change the environment in which the command executes: the attacker implicitly controls what the command means.

We will first consider the first scenario, the possibility that an attacker may be able to control the command that is executed. Process control vulnerabilities of this type occur when:

  1. Data enters the application from an untrusted source.
  2. The data is used as or as part of a string representing a command that is executed by the application.
  3. By executing the command, the application gives an attacker a privilege or capability that the attacker would not otherwise have.

Risk Factors



Example 1

The following Java code from a system utility uses the system property APPHOME to determine the directory in which it is installed and then executes an initialization script based on a relative path from the specified directory.

    String home = System.getProperty("APPHOME");
    String cmd = home + INITCMD;

The code in Example 1 allows an attacker to execute arbitrary commands with the elevated privilege of the application by modifying the system property APPHOME to point to a different path containing a malicious version of INITCMD. Because the program does not validate the value read from the environment, if an attacker can control the value of the system property APPHOME, then they can fool the application into running malicious code and take control of the system.

Example 2

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 "+btype+"&&c:\\utl\\cleanup.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 first 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.

Example 3

The C code below is from a web-based CGI utility that allows users to change their passwords. The password update process under NIS includes running make in the /var/yp directory. Note that since the program updates password records, it has been installed setuid root.

The program invokes make as follows:

    system("cd /var/yp && make &> /dev/null");

Unlike the previous examples, the command in this example is hardcoded, so an attacker cannot control the argument passed to system(). However, since the program does not specify an absolute path for make and does not scrub any environment variables prior to invoking the command, the attacker can modify their $PATH variable to point to a malicious binary named make and execute the CGI script from a shell prompt. And since the program has been installed setuid root, the attacker’s version of make now runs with root privileges.

The environment plays a powerful role in the execution of system commands within programs. Functions like system() and exec() use the environment of the program that calls them, and therefore attackers have a potential opportunity to influence the behavior of these calls.


Note: A reference to related CWE or CAPEC article should be added when exists. Eg:


Category:OWASP ASDR Project Category:Input Validation Vulnerability Category:Java Category:Code Snippet Category:Vulnerability