A directory traversal attack aims to access files and directories that are stored outside the intended folder. By manipulating files with "dot-dot-slash (../)" sequences and its variations, or by using absolute file paths, it may be possible to access arbitrary files and directories stored on the filesystem; including application source code, configuration, and other critical system files.
In this lesson, you will learn how directory traversal works and how to mitigate it in your application. You will first use a directory traversal attack to hack a vulnerable web server. We will then explain directory traversal by showing you the backend code of that vulnerable server. Finally, we will teach you how to prevent directory traversal from affecting your code.
Ready to learn? Buckle your seat belts, put on your hacker's hat, and let's get started!
The directory traversal vulnerability wears many faces. Some people also call it path traversal, path manipulation, dot-dot-slash, directory climbing, or the backtracking vulnerability. All of these are actually the same vulnerability.
To increase revenue and survive until the next funding round, a company called startup.io decided to create a side product. Since the market for image hosting platforms has recently become a bit saturated, the firm made a call to build an app for managing to-do lists instead.
Sadly, their to-do app is vulnerable to directory traversal attack. Let's use a terminal window and
curl to exploit the vulnerability. Our goal is to view the
/etc/passwd stored on the backend server.
The application is hosted on
https://todoapp.startup.io. First, let's try to curl a page we should have access to by running the following in the terminal:
We see the
about.html page returned, which is to be expected. Notice that this HTML page is being served from the public directory.
Essentially, the attack is accomplished by adding characters such as
../ into a URL that serves content from a directory structure. The content is usually served from a base directory, such as
/public. An attacker can supply filenames that contain
../ or a URL encoded equivalent
%2e%2e%2f. These URLs allow the attacker to break out of the base directory and view files stored in other folders on the filesystem.
A directory traversal attack which shows a hacker sending malicious payload to a server and accessing files which shouldn't be publicly accessible
To illustrate this, let's jump into the code. Below you will find the a function, which constructs a filesystem path from the URL. All files and directories returned by the function are served statically by the web server.
The most robust way to prevent directory traversal attacks is to avoid relying on user-supplied input when dealing with the filesystem APIs. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done and might require rewriting a considerable chunk of your application.
A more realistic mitigation mechanism is to prevent the user-supplied directory from being higher up on the filesystem than the directory used to serve static content.
For example, if an application serves files from
/wwwroot/public/, any canonical representation of the user requested path must start with
/wwwroot/public/. Otherwise, the request could break out of the target directory.
The code example below shows how to normalize the user-supplied path and check whether it starts in the expected directory. To achieve this in Java, use Path.normalize or similar.
A directory traversal attack which shows a hacker sending malicious payload to a server, but the malicious access is prevented by verification of the canonical path
The path normalization will deal with malicious inputs such as
https://todoapp.startup.io/public/../. However, we can still trick it by encoding the
. character as
%2e. To be fully protected, you need to sanitize your user-supplied data and get rid of unexpected inputs, for instance:
If the above measures are impractical, consider disallowing dangerous characters explicitly. For example, the below code removes the URL-encoded characters from the user-supplied input.
Correct sanitization of user input is hard work and requires constant verification against newly discovered ways to bypass known protection methods. In almost all cases, it is a better choice to use a well-maintained open-source library.
For instance, consider building your web application with Spring Boot, which has built-in support for serving static content.
To decide which libraries to trust, use Snyk Advisor! Snyk Advisor provides information on a given package's popularity, community support, and security. Also, check your open source libraries with vulnerability scanners such as Snyk, which will notify you about all new vulnerabilities discovered in any libraries you are using, and will help you mitigate them easily.
To recap, to mitigate directory traversal in your codebase, avoid calling filesystem APIs with user-supplied data as input. If that is not practical, validate that the user-supplied path is a child of the directory which the application serves from. Remember to sanitize the input to prevent malicious payloads from tricking you through techniques such as URL encoding. Finally, instead of writing all the logic yourself, consider using popular open-source libraries which handle things for you.
As presented in this lesson, directory traversal is a read-only vulnerability: it allows the attacker to read sensitive files. However, there is a more dangerous cousin in the directory traversal family tree. That cousin is called Zip Slip, and it allows the attacker to execute commands by overwriting files on a remote server. Sounds scary? It is! Check out more about Zip Slip on Snyk's Zip Slip research page.
To learn more about directory traversal, check out some other great content produced by Snyk:
Read our white paper on Zip Slip, a directory traversal vulnerability that results in remote code execution.
If the white paper got you worried, learn how to mitigate Zip Slip in your code-base with our cheat sheet.
Have a look at our YouTube video which further explains directory traversal and digs into a real-world example of directory traversal affecting a well-known open-source library.
You’ve learned what directory traversal is and how to protect your systems from it. We hope you will apply your new knowledge wisely and make your code much safer. Feel free to rate how valuable this lesson was for you and provide feedback to make it even better! Also, make sure to check out our lessons on other common vulnerabilities.