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File System

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Development Guide Table of Contents


To ensure that access to the local file system of any of the systems is protected from unauthorized creation, modification, or deletion.

Environments Affected


Relevant COBIT Topics

DS11 – Manage Data – All sections should be reviewed

DS11.9 – Data processing integrity

DS11.20 – Continued integrity of stored data


The file system is a fertile ground for average attackers and script kiddies alike. Attacks can be devastating for the average site, and they are often some of the easiest attacks to perform.

Best Practices

  • Use of virtual jail environments on Unix platforms.
  • Follow the principle of least privilege - every module must be able to access only the information and resources necessary to its legitimate purpose.
  • Follow the principle of least user access or least-privileged user account (LUA), the concept that all users and modules at all times should run with as few privileges as possible.
  • Consider the use of read-only file systems (such as CD-ROM or locked USB key) if practical.
  • Use built in file permissions, if possible, to prevent the user id that your web server runs under from having write permission to file and directory paths inside the web root.
  • On a Windows web server system, make sure that the web root is not on the same disk as the %systemroot%, which is usually the boot disk, C:\. If the web application is on the physical path D:\, it won't be possible to traverse (ex: ../../windows/system32/cmd.exe?) to system disk paths.

Path traversal

All but the most simple web applications have to include local resources, such as images, themes, other scripts, and so on. Every time a resource or file is included by the application, there is a risk that an attacker may be able to include a file or remote resource you didn’t authorize.

How to identify if you are vulnerable

  • Be sure you understand how the underlying operating system will process filenames handed off to it.
  • Don't store sensitive configuration files inside the web root
  • For Windows IIS servers, the web root should not be on the system disk, to prevent recursive traversal back to system directories.

How to protect yourself

  • Prefer working without user input when using file system calls
  • Use indexes rather than actual portions of file names when templating or using language files (ie value 5 from the user submission = Czechoslovakian, rather than expecting the user to return “Czechoslovakian”)
  • Ensure the user cannot supply all parts of the path – surround it with your path code
  • Validate the user’s input by only accepting known good – do not sanitize the data
  • Use chrooted jails and code access policies to restrict where the files can be obtained or saved to

See the OWASP article on Path Traversal for a description of the attack.

Insecure permissions

Many developers take short cuts to get their applications to work, and often many system administrators do not fully understand the risks of permissive file system ACLs

How to identify if you are vulnerable

  • Can other local users on the system read, modify, or delete files used by the web application?

If so, it is highly likely that the application is vulnerable to local and remote attack.

How to protect yourself

  • Use the tighest possible permissions when developing and deploying web applications
  • Many web applications can be deployed on read-only media, such as CD-ROMs
  • Consider using chroot jails and code access security policies to restrict and control the location and type of file operations even if the system is misconfigured
  • Remove all “Everyone:Full Control” ACLs on Windows, and all mode 777 (world writeable directories) or mode 666 files (world writeable files) on Unix systems
  • Strongly consider removing “Guest”, “everyone,” and world readable permissions wherever possible

Insecure Indexing

Indexable directories allow an attacker to easily discover the existence of content on your web server that should remain private. For more information, see the OWASP page about Forced_browsing

How to determine if you are vulnerable

  • If a file is found, your application is at risk.

How to protect yourself

  • Use robots.txt – this will prevent most search engines looking any further than what you have in mind, but be aware that attackers can view the contents of this directory and fuzz it for content, as well.
  • Tightly control the activities of any search engine you run for your site, such as the IIS Search Engine, Sharepoint, Google appliance, and so on.
  • If you don’t need an searchable index to your web site, disable any search functionality which may be enabled.

Unmapped files

Web application frameworks will interpret only their own files to the user, and render all other content as HTML or as plain text. This may disclose secrets and configuration which an attacker may be able to use to successfully attack the application.

How to identify if you are vulnerable

Upload a file that is not normally visible, such as a configuration file such as config.xml or similar, and request it using a web browser. If the file’s contents are rendered or exposed, then the application is at risk.

How to protect yourself

  • Remove or move all files that do not belong in the web root.
  • Rename include files to be normal extension (such as ? foo.jsp or foo.aspx).
  • Map all files that need to remain, such as .xml or .cfg to an error handler or a renderer that will not disclose the file contents. This may need to be done in both the web application framework’s configuration area or the web server’s configuration.

Temporary files

Applications occasionally need to write results or reports to disk. Temporary files, if exposed to unauthorized users, may expose private and confidential information, or allow an attacker to become an authorized user depending on the level of vulnerability.

How to identify if you are vulnerable

Determine if your application uses temporary files. If it does, check the following:

  • Are the files within the web root? If so, can they be retrieved using just a browser? If so, can the files be retrieved without being logged on?
  • Are old files exposed? Is there a garbage collector or other mechanism deleting old files?
  • Does retrieval of the files expose the application’s workings, or expose private data?

The level of vulnerability is derived from the asset classification assigned to the data.

How to protect yourself

Temporary file usage is not always important to protect from unauthorized access. For medium to high-risk usage, particularly if the files expose the inner workings of your application or exposes private user data, the following controls should be considered:

  • The temporary file routines could be re-written to generate the content on the fly rather than storing on the file system.
  • Ensure that all resources are not retrievable by unauthenticated users, and that users are authorized to retrieve only their own files.
  • Use a “garbage collector” to delete old temporary files, either at the end of a session or within a timeout period, such as 20 minutes.
  • If deployed under Unix-like operating systems, use chroot jails to isolate the application from the primary operating system. On Windows, use the inbuilt ACL support to prevent the IIS users from retrieving or overwriting the files directly.
  • Move the files to outside the web root to prevent browser-only attacks.
  • Use random file names to decrease the likelihood of a brute force pharming attack.


Includes and Remote files

The PHP functions include() and require() provide an easy way of including and evaluating files. When a file is included, the code it contains inherits the variable scope of the line on which the include statement was executed. All variables available at that line will be available within the included file. And the other way around, variables defined in the included file will be available to the calling page within the current scope. The included file does not have to be a file on the local computer. If the allow_url_fopen directive is enabled in php.ini you can specify the file to be included using an URL.

PHP will get it via HTTP instead of a local pathname. While this is a nice feature it can also be a big security risk.

Note: The allow_url_fopen directive is enabled by default.

A common mistake is not considering that every file can be called directly, that is a file written to be included is called directly by a malicious user. An example:

// file.php

$sIncludePath = '/inc/'; 

include($sIncludePath . 'functions.php'); 


// functions.php

include($sIncludePath . 'datetime.php');

include($sIncludePath . 'filesystem.php');

In the above example, functions.php is not meant to be called directly, so it assumes the calling page sets $sIncludePath. By creating a file called datetime.php or filesystem.php on another server (and turning off PHP processing on that server) we could call functions.php like the following:


PHP would nicely download datetime.php from the other server and execute it, which means a malicious user could execute code of his/her choice in functions.php. I would recommend against includes within includes (as the example above). In my opinion, it makes it harder to understand and get an overview of the code. Right now, we want to make the above code safe and to do that we make sure that functions.php really is called from file.php. The code below shows one solution:

// file.php

define('SECURITY_CHECK', true);

$sIncludePath = '/inc/'; 

include($sIncludePath . 'functions.php'); 


// functions.php

if ( !defined('SECURITY_CHECK') ) {

// Output error message and exit. 	   



include($sIncludePath . 'datetime.php');

include($sIncludePath . 'filesystem.php'); 	  

The function define() defines a constant. Constants are not prefixed by a dollar sign ($) and thus we cannot break this by something like: functions.php?SECURITY_CHECK=1. Although not so common these days, you can still come across PHP files with the .inc extension. These files are only meant to be included by other files. What is often overlooked is that these files, if called directly, do not go through the PHP preprocessor, and thus are sent in clear text. We should be consistent and stick with one extension that we know is processed by PHP. The .php extension is recommended.

File upload

PHP is a feature rich language and one of its built in features is automatic handling of file uploads. When a file is uploaded to a PHP page, it is automatically saved to a temporary directory. New global variables describing the uploaded file will be available within the page. Consider the following HTML code presenting a user with an upload form:

<form action= “page.php “ method= “POST “ enctype= “multipart/form-data “> 	  <input type= “file “ name= “testfile “ />

<input type= “submit “ value= “Upload file “ />


After submitting the above form, new variables will be available to page.php based on the “testfile” name.

// Variables set by PHP and what they will contain: 

// A temporary path/filename generated by PHP. This is where the file is

// saved until we move it or it is removed by PHP if we choose not to do anything with it. 


// The original name/path of the file on the client's system. 


// The size of the uploaded file in bytes. 	


// The mime type of the file if the browser provided this information. For example:  “image/jpeg”. 	


A common approach is to check if $testfile is set and if it is, start working on it right away, maybe copying it to a public directory, accessible from any browser. You probably already guessed it; this is a very insecure way of working with uploaded files. The $testfile variable does not have to be a path/file to an uploaded file. It could come from GET, POST, and COOKIE etc. A malicious user could make us work on any file on the server, which is not very pleasant. We should not assume anything about the register_globals directive, it could be on or off for all we care, our code should work with or without it and most importantly it will be just as secure regardless of configuration settings. So the first thing we should do is to use the $_FILES array:

// The temporary filename generated by PHP 


// The original name/path of the file on the client's system. $_FILES['testfile']['name'] 

// The mime type of the file if the browser provided this information. 

// For example:  “image/jpeg “. 	


// The size of the uploaded file in bytes.


The built in functions is_uploaded_file() and/or move_uploaded_file() should be called with $_FILES['testfile']['tmp_name'] to make sure that the file really was uploaded by HTTP POST. The following example shows a straightforward way of working with uploaded files:

if ( is_uploaded_file($_FILES['testfile']['tmp_name']) ) {

// Check if the file size is what we expect (optional) 

if ( $_FILES['sImageData']['size'] > 102400 ) {

// The size can not be over 100kB, output error message and exit. 	        ...


// Validate the file name and extension based on the original name in $_FILES['testfile']['name'], 

// we do not want anyone to be able to upload .php files for example. 	   ...

// Everything is okay so far, move the file with move_uploaded_file 	  



Note: We should always check if a variable in the superglobals arrays is set with isset() before accessing it. I choose not to do that in the above examples because I wanted to keep them as simple as possible.

Old, unreferenced files

It is common for system administrators and developers to use editors and other tools which create temporary old files. If the file extensions or access control permissions change, an attacker may be able to read source or configuration data.

How to identify if you are vulnerable

Check the file system for:

  • Temporary files (such as core, ~foo, blah.tmp, and so on) created by editors or crashed programs
  • Folders called “backup” “old” or “Copy of …”
  • Files with additional extensions, such as foo.php.old
  • Temporary folders with intermediate results or cache templates

How to protect yourself

  • Use source code control to prevent the need to keep old copies of files around
  • Periodically ensure that all files in the web root are actually required
  • Ensure that the application’s temporary files are not accessible from the web root

Second Order Injection

If the web application creates a file that is operated on by another process, typically a batch or scheduled process, the second process may be vulnerable to attack. It is a rare application that ensures input to background processes is validated prior to first use.

How to identify if you are vulnerable

  • Does the application use background / batch / scheduled processes to work on user supplied data?
  • Does this program validate the user input prior to operating on it?
  • Does this program communicate with other business significant processes or otherwise approve transactions?

How to protect yourself

  • Ensure that all behind the scenes programs check user input prior to operating on it
  • Run the application with the least privilege – in particular, the batch application should not require write privileges to any front end files, the network, or similar
  • Use inbuilt language or operating system features to curtail the resources and features which the background application may use. For example, batch programs rarely if ever require network access.
  • Consider the use of host based intrusion detection systems and anti-virus systems to detect unauthorized file creation.

Further Reading

  • Klein, A., Insecure Indexing

  • MySQL world readable log files

  • Oracle 8i and 9i Servlet allows remote file viewing

File System

Even with an authentication system in place to protect your content, if file permissions are set incorrectly an attacker could browse directly to your application source code or protected documents. The section below gives guidance in reducing your exposure to risk.

Best Practice

  • Disable directory browsing
  • Manually review web directory contents for unnecessary files which could be discovered by an attacker, such as documentation, template, example files, which could be used by an attacker to identify attackable surface area.

File Upload

  • Upload files to a destination outside of the web application directory.
  • Enable virus scan on the destination directory.
  • Do not allow user input to specify the destination directory or file name of uploaded documents. Save the document outside the webroot, and programmatically modify it's name.

File Permissions

Cold Fusion specific:

  • Restrict access of the \CFIDE directory to specific IP address and user group/account.
  • Remove the \cfdocs directory. Sample applications are installed by default in the cfdocs directory and are accessible to anyone. These applications should never be available on a production server.

Ensure that proper access controls are set on web application content. The following settings assume a user account called “cfuser” has been created to run the ColdFusion service. In addition, if you are using a directory or operating system authentication service these setting may need to be adjusted.

  • File types: Scripts (.cfm, .cfml, .cfc, .jsp, and others)
  • ACLs: cfuser (Execute); Administrators (Full)
  • File types: Static content (.txt, .gif, .jpg, .html, .xml)
  • ACLs: cfuser (Read); Administrators (Full)


Development Guide Table of Contents