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Review Old, Backup and Unreferenced Files for Sensitive Information (OTG-CONFIG-004)

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OWASP Testing Guide v2 Table of Contents

Brief Summary

While most of the files within a web server are directly handled by the server itself it isn't uncommon to find unreferenced and/or forgotten files that can be used to obtain important information about either the infrastructure or the credentials.

Most common scenario include the presence of renamed old version of modified files, inclusion files that are loaded into the language of choice and can be downloaded as source or even automatic or manual backups in form of compressed archives.

All these files may grant the pentester access to inner workings, backdoors, administrative interfaces or even credentials to connect to the administrative interface or the database server.

Causes of old, backup and unreferenced files

An important source of vulnerability lies in files which have nothing to do with the application, but are created as a consequence of editing application files, or after creating on-the-fly backup copies, or by leaving in the web tree old files or unreferenced files. Performing in-place editing or other administrative actions on production web servers may inadvertently leave, as a consequence, backup copies (either generated automatically by the editor while editing files, or by the administrator who is zipping a set of files to create a spot backup).

It is particularly easy to forget such files, and this may pose a serious security threat to the application. That happens because backup copies may be generated with file extensions differing from those of the original files. A .tar, .zip or .gz archive that we generate (and forget...) has obviously a different extension, and the same happens with automatic copies created by many editors (for example, emacs generates a backup copy named file~ when editing file). Making a copy by hand may produce the same effect (think of copying file to file.old).

As a result, these activities generate files which a) are not needed by the application, b) may be handled differently than the original file by the web server. For example, if we make a copy of login.asp named login.asp.old, we are allowing users to download the source code of login.asp; this is because, due to its extension, login.asp.old will be typically served as text/plain, rather than being executed. In other words, accessing login.asp causes the execution of the server-side code of login.asp, while accessing login.asp.old causes the content of login.asp.old (which is, again, server-side code) to be plainly returned to the user – and displayed in the browser. This may pose security risks, since sensitive information may be revealed. Generally, exposing server side code is a bad idea; not only are you unnecessarily exposing business logic, but you may be unknowingly revealing application-related information which may help an attacker (pathnames, data structures, etc.); not to mention the fact that there are too many scripts with embedded username/password in clear text (which is a careless and very dangerous practice).

Other causes of unreferenced files are due to design or configuration choices when they allow diverse kind of application-related files such as data files, configuration files, log files, to be stored in filesystem directories that can be accessed by the web server. These files have normally no reason to be in a filesystem space which could be accessed via web, since they should be accessed only at the application level, by the application itself (and not by the casual user browsing around!).


Old, backup and unreferenced files present various threats to the security of a web application:

  • Unreferenced files may disclose sensitive information that can facilitate a focused attack against the application; for example include files containing database credentials, configuration files containing references to other hidden content, absolute file paths, etc.
  • Unreferenced pages may contain powerful functionality that can be used to attack the application; for example an administration page that is not linked from published content but can be accessed by any user who knows where to find it.
  • Old and backup files may contain vulnerabilities that have been fixed in more recent versions; for example viewdoc.old.jsp may contain a directory traversal vulnerability that has been fixed in viewdoc.jsp but can still be exploited by anyone who finds the old version.
  • Backup files may disclose the source code for pages designed to execute on the server; for example requesting viewdoc.bak may return the source code for viewdoc.jsp, which can be reviewed for vulnerabilities that may be difficult to find by making blind requests to the executable page. While this threat obviously applies to scripted languages, such as Perl, PHP, ASP, shell scripts, JSP, etc., it is not limited to them, as shown in the example provided in the next bullet.
  • Backup archives may contain copies of all files within (or even outside) the webroot. This allows an attacker to quickly enumerate the entire application, including unreferenced pages, source code, include files, etc. For example, if you forget a file named myservlets.jar.old file containing (a backup copy of) your servlet implementation classes, you are exposing a lot of sensitive information which is susceptible to decompilation and reverse engineering.
  • In some cases copying or editing a file does not modify the file extension, but modifies the filename. This happens for example in Windows environments, where file copying operations generate filenames prefixed with “Copy of “ or localized versions of this string. Since the file extension is left unchanged, this is not a case where an executable file is returned as plain text by the web server, and therefore not a case of source code disclosure. However, these files too are dangerous because there is a chance that they include obsolete and incorrect logic that, when invoked, could trigger application errors, which might yield valuable information to an attacker, if diagnostic message display is enabled.
  • Log files may contain sensitive information about the activities of application users, for example sensitive data passed in URL parameters, session IDs, URLs visited (which may disclose additional unreferenced content), etc. Other log files (e.g. ftp logs) may contain sensitive information about the maintenance of the application by system administrators.


To guarantee an effective protection strategy, testing should be compounded by a security policy which clearly forbids dangerous practices, such as:

  • Editing files in-place on the web server / application server filesystems. This is a particular bad habit, since it is likely to unwillingly generate backup files by the editors. It is amazing to see how often this is done, even in large organizations. If you absolutely need to edit files on a production system, do ensure that you don’t leave behind anything which is not explicitly intended, and consider that you are doing it at your own risk.
  • Check carefully any other activity performed on filesystems exposed by the web server, such as spot administration activities. For example, if you occasionally need to take a snapshot of a couple of directories (which you shouldn’t, on a production system...), you may be tempted to zip/tar them first. Be careful not to forget behind those archive files!
  • Appropriate configuration management policies should help not to leave around obsolete and unreferenced files.
  • Applications should be designed not to create (or rely on) files stored under the web directory trees served by the web server. Data files, log files, configuration files, etc. should be stored in directories not accessible by the web server, to counter the possibility of information disclosure (not to mention data modification if web directory permissions allow writing...).

How to Test

Black Box

Testing for unreferenced files uses both automated and manual techniques, and typically involves a combination of the following:

(i) Inference from the naming scheme used for published content

If not already done, enumerate all of the application’s pages and functionality. This can be done manually using a browser, or using an application spidering tool. Most applications use a recognisable naming scheme, and organise resources into pages and directories using words that describe their function. From the naming scheme used for published content, it is often possible to infer the name and location of unreferenced pages. For example, if a page viewuser.asp is found, then look also for edituser.asp, adduser.asp and deleteuser.asp. If a directory /app/user is found, then look also for /app/admin and /app/manager.

(ii) Other clues in published content

Many web applications leave clues in published content that can lead to the discovery of hidden pages and functionality. These clues often appear in the source code of HTML and JavaScript files. The source code for all published content should be manually reviewed to identify clues about other pages and functionality. For example:

Programmers’ comments and commented-out sections of source code may refer to hidden content:

<!-- <A HREF="uploadfile.jsp">Upload a document to the server</A> -->
<!-- Link removed while bugs in uploadfile.jsp are fixed          --> 

JavaScript may contain page links that are only rendered within the user’s GUI under certain circumstances:

var adminUser=false;
if (adminUser) menu.add (new menuItem ("Maintain users", "/admin/useradmin.jsp")); 

HTML pages may contain FORMs that have been hidden by disabling the SUBMIT element:

<FORM action="forgotPassword.jsp" method="post">
    <INPUT type="hidden" name="userID" value="123">
    <!-- <INPUT type="submit" value="Forgot Password"> -->

Another source of clues about unreferenced directories is the /robots.txt file used to provide instructions to web robots:

User-agent: *
Disallow: /Admin
Disallow: /uploads
Disallow: /backup
Disallow: /~jbloggs
Disallow: /include 

(iii) Blind guessing

In its simplest form, this involves running a list of common filenames through a request engine in an attempt to guess files and directories that exist on the server. The following netcat wrapper script will read a wordlist from stdin and perform a basic guessing attack:


while read url
echo -ne "$url\t"
echo -e "GET /$url HTTP/1.0\nHost: $server\n" | netcat $server $port | head -1
done | tee outputfile 

Depending upon the server, GET may be replaced with HEAD for faster results. The outputfile specified can be grepped for “interesting” response codes. The response code 200 (OK) usually indicates that a valid resource has been found (provided the server does not deliver a custom “not found” page using the 200 code). But also look out for 301 (Moved), 302 (Found), 401 (Unauthorized), 403 (Forbidden) and 500 (Internal error), which may also indicate resources or directories that are worthy of further investigation.

The basic guessing attack should be run against the webroot, and also against all directories that have been identified through other enumeration techniques. More advanced/effective guessing attacks can be performed as follows:

  • Identify the file extensions in use within known areas of the application (e.g. jsp, aspx, html), and use a basic wordlist appended with each of these extensions (or use a longer list of common extensions if resources permit).
  • For each file identified through other enumeration techniques, create a custom wordlist derived from that filename. Get a list of common file extensions (including ~, bak, txt, src, dev, old, inc, orig, copy, tmp, etc.) and use each extension before, after, and instead of, the extension of the actual filename.

Note: Windows file copying operations generate filenames prefixed with “Copy of “ or localized versions of this string, hence they do not change file extensions. While “Copy of ” files typically do not disclose source code when accessed, they might yield valuable information in case they cause errors when invoked.

(iv) Information obtained through server vulnerabilities and misconfiguration

The most obvious way in which a misconfigured server may disclose unreferenced pages is through directory listing. Request all enumerated directories to identify any which provide a directory listing. Numerous vulnerabilities have been found in individual web servers which allow an attacker to enumerate unreferenced content, for example:

  • Apache ?M=D directory listing vulnerability.
  • Various IIS script source disclosure vulnerabilities.
  • IIS WebDAV directory listing vulnerabilities.

(v) Use of publicly available information

Pages and functionality in Internet-facing web applications that are not referenced from within the application itself may be referenced from other public domain sources. There are various sources of these references:

  • Pages that used to be referenced may still appear in the archives of Internet search engines. For example, 1998results.asp may no longer be linked from a company’s website, but may remain on the server and in search engine databases. This old script may contain vulnerabilities that could be used to compromise the entire site. The site: Google search operator may be used to run a query only against your domain of choice, such as in: (Mis)using search engines in this way has lead to a broad array of techniques which you may find useful and that are described in the Google Hacking section of this Guide. Check it to hone your testing skills via Google. Backup files are not likely to be referenced by any other files and therefore may have not been indexed by Google, but if they lie in browsable directories the search engine might know about them.
  • In addition, Google and Yahoo keep cached versions of pages found by their robots. Even if 1998results.asp has been removed from the target server, a version of its output may still be stored by these search engines. The cached version may contain references to, or clues about, additional hidden content that still remains on the server.
  • Content that is not referenced from within a target application may be linked to by third-party websites. For example, an application which processes online payments on behalf of third-party traders may contain a variety of bespoke functionality which can (normally) only be found by following links within the web sites of its customers.

White Box

Performing white box testing against old and backup files requires examining the files contained in the directories belonging to the set of web directories served by the web server(s) of the web application infrastructure. Theoretically the examination, to be thorough, has to be done by hand; however, since in most cases copies of files or backup files tend to be created by using the same naming conventions, the search can be easily scripted (for example, editors do leave behind backup copies by naming them with a recognizable extension or ending; humans tend to leave behind files with a “.old” or similar predictable extensions, etc.). A good strategy is that of periodically scheduling a background job checking for files with extensions likely to identify them as copy/backup files, and performing manual checks as well on a longer time basis.


OWASP Testing Guide v2

Here is the OWASP Testing Guide v2 Table of Contents