Improper Limitation of a Pathname to a Restricted Directory ('Path Traversal')
Weakness ID: 22 (Weakness Class)Status: Draft
+ Description

Description Summary

The software uses external input to construct a pathname that is intended to identify a file or directory that is located underneath a restricted parent directory, but the software does not properly sanitize special elements that can resolve to a location that is outside of the restricted directory.

Extended Description

Many file operations are intended to take place within a restricted directory. By using special elements such as ".." and "/" separators, attackers can escape outside of the restricted location to access files or directories that are elsewhere on the system. One of the most common special elements is the "../" sequence, which in most modern operating systems is interpreted as the parent directory of the current location. This is referred to as relative path traversal. Path traversal also covers the use of absolute pathnames such as "/usr/local/bin", which may also be useful in accessing unexpected files. This is referred to as absolute path traversal.

In many programming languages, the injection of a null byte (the 0 or NUL) may allow an attacker to truncate a generated filename to widen the scope of attack. For example, the software may add ".txt" to any pathname, thus limiting the attacker to text files, but a null injection may effectively remove this restriction.

+ Alternate Terms
Directory traversal
Path traversal:

"Path traversal" is preferred over "directory traversal," but both terms are attack-focused.

+ Terminology Notes

Like other weaknesses, terminology is often based on the types of manipulations used, instead of the underlying weaknesses. Some people use "directory traversal" only to refer to the injection of ".." and equivalent sequences whose specific meaning is to traverse directories.

Other variants like "absolute pathname" and "drive letter" have the *effect* of directory traversal, but some people may not call it such, since it doesn't involve ".." or equivalent.

+ Time of Introduction
  • Architecture and Design
  • Implementation
+ Applicable Platforms



+ Common Consequences

Technical Impact: Execute unauthorized code or commands

The attacker may be able to create or overwrite critical files that are used to execute code, such as programs or libraries.


Technical Impact: Read / write files or directories

The attacker may be able to overwrite or create critical files, such as programs, libraries, or important data. If the targeted file is used for a security mechanism, then the attacker may be able to bypass that mechanism. For example, appending a new account at the end of a password file may allow an attacker to bypass authentication.


Technical Impact: Read / write files or directories

The attacker may be able read the contents of unexpected files and expose sensitive data. If the targeted file is used for a security mechanism, then the attacker may be able to bypass that mechanism. For example, by reading a password file, the attacker could conduct brute force password guessing attacks in order to break into an account on the system.


The attacker may be able to overwrite, delete, or corrupt unexpected critical files such as programs, libraries, or important data. This may prevent the software from working at all and in the case of a protection mechanisms such as authentication, it has the potential to lockout every user of the software.

+ Likelihood of Exploit

High to Very High

+ Detection Methods

Automated Static Analysis

Automated techniques can find areas where path traversal weaknesses exist. However, tuning or customization may be required to filter path-traversal problems that are only exploitable by the software's administrator - or other privileged users - and thus potentially valid behavior or, at worst, a bug instead of a vulnerability.

Effectiveness: High

Manual Static Analysis

Manual white box techniques may be able to provide sufficient code coverage and reduction of false positives if all file access operations can be assessed within limited time constraints.

Effectiveness: High

+ Demonstrative Examples

Example 1

The following code could be for a social networking application in which each user's profile information is stored in a separate file. All files are stored in a single directory.

(Bad Code)
Example Language: Perl 
my $dataPath = "/users/cwe/profiles";
my $username = param("user");
my $profilePath = $dataPath . "/" . $username;

open(my $fh, "<$profilePath") || ExitError("profile read error: $profilePath");
print "<ul>\n";
while (<$fh>) {
print "<li>$_</li>\n";
print "</ul>\n";

While the programmer intends to access files such as "/users/cwe/profiles/alice" or "/users/cwe/profiles/bob", there is no verification of the incoming user parameter. An attacker could provide a string such as:


The program would generate a profile pathname like this:


When the file is opened, the operating system resolves the "../" during path canonicalization and actually accesses this file:


As a result, the attacker could read the entire text of the password file.

Notice how this code also contains an error message information leak (CWE-209) if the user parameter does not produce a file that exists: the full pathname is provided. Because of the lack of output encoding of the file that is retrieved, there might also be a cross-site scripting problem (CWE-79) if profile contains any HTML, but other code would need to be examined.

Example 2

In the example below, the path to a dictionary file is read from a system property and used to initialize a File object.

(Bad Code)
Example Language: Java 
String filename = System.getProperty("com.domain.application.dictionaryFile");
File dictionaryFile = new File(filename);

However, the path is not sanitized before creating the File object. This allows anyone who can control the system property to determine what file is used. Ideally, the path should be resolved relative to some kind of application or user home directory.

Example 3

The following code takes untrusted input and uses a regular expression to filter "../" from the input. It then appends this result to the /home/user/ directory and attempts to read the file in the final resulting path.

(Bad Code)
Example Language: Perl 
my $Username = GetUntrustedInput();
$Username =~ s/\.\.\///;
my $filename = "/home/user/" . $Username;

Since the regular expression does not have the /g global match modifier, it only removes the first instance of "../" it comes across. So an input value such as:


will have the first "../" stripped, resulting in:


This value is then concatenated with the /home/user/ directory:


which causes the /etc/passwd file to be retrieved once the operating system has resolved the ../ sequences in the pathname. This leads to relative path traversal (CWE-23).

Example 4

The following code attempts to validate a given input path by checking it against a white list and once validated delete the given file. In this specific case, the path is considered valid if it starts with the string "/safe_dir/".

(Bad Code)
Example Language: Java 
String path = getInputPath();
if (path.startsWith("/safe_dir/"))
File f = new File(path);

An attacker could provide an input such as this:


The software assumes that the path is valid because it starts with the "/safe_path/" sequence, but the "../" sequence will cause the program to delete the important.dat file in the parent directory

Example 5

The following code demonstrates the unrestricted upload of a file with a Java servlet and a path traversal vulnerability. The HTML code is the same as in the previous example with the action attribute of the form sending the upload file request to the Java servlet instead of the PHP code.

(Good Code)
Example Language: HTML 
<form action="FileUploadServlet" method="post" enctype="multipart/form-data">

Choose a file to upload:
<input type="file" name="filename"/>
<input type="submit" name="submit" value="Submit"/>


When submitted the Java servlet's doPost method will receive the request, extract the name of the file from the Http request header, read the file contents from the request and output the file to the local upload directory.

(Bad Code)
Example Language: Java 
public class FileUploadServlet extends HttpServlet {


protected void doPost(HttpServletRequest request, HttpServletResponse response) throws ServletException, IOException {

PrintWriter out = response.getWriter();
String contentType = request.getContentType();

// the starting position of the boundary header
int ind = contentType.indexOf("boundary=");
String boundary = contentType.substring(ind+9);

String pLine = new String();
String uploadLocation = new String(UPLOAD_DIRECTORY_STRING); //Constant value

// verify that content type is multipart form data
if (contentType != null && contentType.indexOf("multipart/form-data") != -1) {

// extract the filename from the Http header
BufferedReader br = new BufferedReader(new InputStreamReader(request.getInputStream()));
pLine = br.readLine();
String filename = pLine.substring(pLine.lastIndexOf("\\"), pLine.lastIndexOf("\""));

// output the file to the local upload directory
try {
BufferedWriter bw = new BufferedWriter(new FileWriter(uploadLocation+filename, true));
for (String line; (line=br.readLine())!=null; ) {
if (line.indexOf(boundary) == -1) {
} //end of for loop

} catch (IOException ex) {...}
// output successful upload response HTML page
// output unsuccessful upload response HTML page

This code does not check the filename that is provided in the header, so an attacker can use "../" sequences to write to files outside of the intended directory. Depending on the executing environment, the attacker may be able to specify arbitrary files to write to, leading to a wide variety of consequences, from code execution, XSS (CWE-79), or system crash.

Also, this code does not perform a check on the type of the file being uploaded. This could allow an attacker to upload any executable file or other file with malicious code (CWE-434).

+ Observed Examples
CVE-2010-0467Newsletter module allows reading arbitrary files using "../" sequences.
CVE-2009-4194 FTP server allows deletion of arbitrary files using ".." in the DELE command.
CVE-2009-4053 FTP server allows creation of arbitrary directories using ".." in the MKD command.
CVE-2009-0244 OBEX FTP service for a Bluetooth device allows listing of directories, and creation or reading of files using ".." sequences..
CVE-2009-4013Software package maintenance program allows overwriting arbitrary files using "../" sequences.
CVE-2009-4449Bulletin board allows attackers to determine the existence of files using the avatar.
CVE-2009-4581PHP program allows arbitrary code execution using ".." in filenames that are fed to the include() function.
CVE-2010-0012Overwrite of files using a .. in a Torrent file.
CVE-2010-0013Chat program allows overwriting files using a custom smiley request.
CVE-2008-5748Chain: external control of values for user's desired language and theme enables path traversal.
+ Potential Mitigations

Phase: Implementation

Strategy: Input Validation

Assume all input is malicious. Use an "accept known good" input validation strategy, i.e., use a whitelist of acceptable inputs that strictly conform to specifications. Reject any input that does not strictly conform to specifications, or transform it into something that does. Do not rely exclusively on looking for malicious or malformed inputs (i.e., do not rely on a blacklist). However, blacklists can be useful for detecting potential attacks or determining which inputs are so malformed that they should be rejected outright.

When performing input validation, consider all potentially relevant properties, including length, type of input, the full range of acceptable values, missing or extra inputs, syntax, consistency across related fields, and conformance to business rules. As an example of business rule logic, "boat" may be syntactically valid because it only contains alphanumeric characters, but it is not valid if you are expecting colors such as "red" or "blue."

For filenames, use stringent whitelists that limit the character set to be used. If feasible, only allow a single "." character in the filename to avoid weaknesses such as CWE-23, and exclude directory separators such as "/" to avoid CWE-36. Use a whitelist of allowable file extensions, which will help to avoid CWE-434.

Warning: if you attempt to cleanse your data, then do so that the end result is not in the form that can be dangerous. A sanitizing mechanism can remove characters such as '.' and ';' which may be required for some exploits. An attacker can try to fool the sanitizing mechanism into "cleaning" data into a dangerous form. Suppose the attacker injects a '.' inside a filename (e.g. "sensi.tiveFile") and the sanitizing mechanism removes the character resulting in the valid filename, "sensitiveFile". If the input data are now assumed to be safe, then the file may be compromised. See CWE-182 (Collapse of Data Into Unsafe Value).

Phase: Implementation

Inputs should be decoded and canonicalized to the application's current internal representation before being validated (CWE-180). Make sure that your application does not decode the same input twice. Such errors could be used to bypass whitelist schemes by introducing dangerous inputs after they have been checked.

Use a built-in path canonicalization function (such as realpath() in C) that produces the canonical version of the pathname, which effectively removes ".." sequences and symbolic links (CWE-23, CWE-59). This includes:

  • realpath() in C

  • getCanonicalPath() in Java

  • GetFullPath() in ASP.NET

  • realpath() or abs_path() in Perl

  • realpath() in PHP

Phase: Implementation

Strategy: Environment Hardening

Run your code using the least privileges possible. If possible, create isolated accounts with limited privileges that are only used for a single task. That way, a successful attack will not immediately give the attacker access to the rest of the software or its environment. For example, database applications rarely need to run as the database administrator, especially in day-to-day operations.

Phase: Architecture and Design

When the set of filenames is limited or known, create a mapping from a set of fixed input values (such as numeric IDs) to the actual filenames, and reject all other inputs. For example, ID 1 could map to "inbox.txt" and ID 2 could map to "profile.txt". Features such as the ESAPI AccessReferenceMap provide this capability.

Phases: Architecture and Design; Operation

Strategy: Environment Hardening

Run your code in a "jail" or similar sandbox environment that enforces strict boundaries between the process and the operating system. This may effectively restrict all access to files within a particular directory.

OS-level examples include the Unix chroot jail, AppArmor, and SELinux. In general, managed code may provide some protection. For example, in the Java SecurityManager allows you to specify restrictions on file operations.

This may not be a feasible solution, and it only limits the impact to the operating system; the rest of your application may still be subject to compromise.

Be careful to avoid CWE-243 and other weaknesses related to jails.

+ Other Notes

Incomplete diagnosis or reporting of vulnerabilities can make it difficult to know which variant is affected. For example, a researcher might say that "..\" is vulnerable, but not test "../" which may also be vulnerable.

Any combination of the items below can provide its own variant, e.g. "//../" is not listed (CVE-2004-0325).

+ Weakness Ordinalities
(where the weakness exists independent of other weaknesses)
(where the weakness is typically related to the presence of some other weaknesses)
+ Relationships
NatureTypeIDNameView(s) this relationship pertains toView(s)
ChildOfCategoryCategory21Pathname Traversal and Equivalence Errors
Development Concepts (primary)699
ChildOfCategoryCategory632Weaknesses that Affect Files or Directories
Resource-specific Weaknesses (primary)631
ChildOfWeakness ClassWeakness Class668Exposure of Resource to Wrong Sphere
Research Concepts1000
ChildOfWeakness ClassWeakness Class706Use of Incorrectly-Resolved Name or Reference
Research Concepts (primary)1000
ChildOfCategoryCategory715OWASP Top Ten 2007 Category A4 - Insecure Direct Object Reference
Weaknesses in OWASP Top Ten (2007) (primary)629
ChildOfCategoryCategory723OWASP Top Ten 2004 Category A2 - Broken Access Control
Weaknesses in OWASP Top Ten (2004) (primary)711
ChildOfCategoryCategory743CERT C Secure Coding Section 09 - Input Output (FIO)
Weaknesses Addressed by the CERT C Secure Coding Standard (primary)734
ChildOfCategoryCategory8022010 Top 25 - Risky Resource Management
Weaknesses in the 2010 CWE/SANS Top 25 Most Dangerous Programming Errors (primary)800
ParentOfWeakness BaseWeakness Base23Relative Path Traversal
Development Concepts (primary)699
Research Concepts (primary)1000
ParentOfWeakness BaseWeakness Base36Absolute Path Traversal
Development Concepts (primary)699
Research Concepts (primary)1000
MemberOfViewView635Weaknesses Used by NVD
Weaknesses Used by NVD (primary)635
CanFollowWeakness ClassWeakness Class20Improper Input Validation
Research Concepts1000
CanFollowWeakness ClassWeakness Class73External Control of File Name or Path
Research Concepts1000
CanFollowWeakness ClassWeakness Class172Encoding Error
Research Concepts1000
+ Relationship Notes

Pathname equivalence can be regarded as a type of canonicalization error.

Some pathname equivalence issues are not directly related to directory traversal, rather are used to bypass security-relevant checks for whether a file/directory can be accessed by the attacker (e.g. a trailing "/" on a filename could bypass access rules that don't expect a trailing /, causing a server to provide the file when it normally would not).

+ Research Gaps

Many variants of path traversal attacks are probably under-studied with respect to root cause. CWE-790 and CWE-182 begin to cover part of this gap.

+ Affected Resources
  • File/Directory
+ Relevant Properties
  • Equivalence
+ Functional Areas
  • File processing
+ Causal Nature


+ Taxonomy Mappings
Mapped Taxonomy NameNode IDFitMapped Node Name
PLOVERPath Traversal
OWASP Top Ten 2007A4CWE More SpecificInsecure Direct Object Reference
OWASP Top Ten 2004A2CWE More SpecificBroken Access Control
CERT C Secure CodingFIO02-CCanonicalize path names originating from untrusted sources
WASC33Path Traversal
+ Related Attack Patterns
CAPEC-IDAttack Pattern Name
(CAPEC Version: 1.4)
23File System Function Injection, Content Based
64Using Slashes and URL Encoding Combined to Bypass Validation Logic
78Using Escaped Slashes in Alternate Encoding
79Using Slashes in Alternate Encoding
76Manipulating Input to File System Calls
139Relative Path Traversal
+ References
[REF-11] M. Howard and D. LeBlanc. "Writing Secure Code". Chapter 11, "Directory Traversal and Using Parent Paths (..)" Page 370. 2nd Edition. Microsoft. 2002.
[REF-17] OWASP. "OWASP Enterprise Security API (ESAPI) Project". <>.
OWASP. "Testing for Path Traversal (OWASP-AZ-001)". <>.
+ Content History
Submission DateSubmitterOrganizationSource
PLOVERExternally Mined
Modification DateModifierOrganizationSource
2008-07-01Eric DalciCigitalExternal
updated Potential Mitigations, Time of Introduction
Suggested OWASP Top Ten 2004 mapping
2008-09-08CWE Content TeamMITREInternal
updated Alternate Terms, Relationships, Other Notes, Relationship Notes, Relevant Properties, Taxonomy Mappings, Weakness Ordinalities
2008-10-14CWE Content TeamMITREInternal
updated Description
2008-11-24CWE Content TeamMITREInternal
updated Relationships, Taxonomy Mappings
2009-07-27CWE Content TeamMITREInternal
updated Potential Mitigations