Use of Externally-Controlled Input to Select Classes or Code ('Unsafe Reflection')
Weakness ID: 470 (Weakness Base)Status: Draft
+ Description

Description Summary

The application uses external input with reflection to select which classes or code to use, but it does not sufficiently prevent the input from selecting improper classes or code.

Extended Description

If the application uses external inputs to determine which class to instantiate or which method to invoke, then an attacker could supply values to select unexpected classes or methods. If this occurs, then the attacker could create control flow paths that were not intended by the developer. These paths could bypass authentication or access control checks, or otherwise cause the application to behave in an unexpected manner. This situation becomes a doomsday scenario if the attacker can upload files into a location that appears on the application's classpath (CWE-427) or add new entries to the application's classpath (CWE-426). Under either of these conditions, the attacker can use reflection to introduce new, malicious behavior into the application.

+ Alternate Terms
Reflection Injection
+ Time of Introduction
  • Architecture and Design
  • Implementation
+ Applicable Platforms




Interpreted languages: (Sometimes)

+ Common Consequences

The attacker might be able to execute code that is not directly accessible to the attacker. Alternately, the attacker could call unexpected code in the wrong place or the wrong time, possibly modifying critical system state.


The attacker might be able to use reflection to call the wrong code, possibly with unexpected arguments that violate the API (CWE-227). This could cause the application to exit or hang.


By causing the wrong code to be invoked, the attacker might be able to trigger a runtime error that leaks sensitive information in the error message, such as CWE-536.

+ Demonstrative Examples

Example 1

A common reason that programmers use the reflection API is to implement their own command dispatcher. The following example shows a command dispatcher that does not use reflection:

(Good Code)
Example Language: Java 
String ctl = request.getParameter("ctl");
Worker ao = null;
if (ctl.equals("Add")) {
ao = new AddCommand();
else if (ctl.equals("Modify")) {
ao = new ModifyCommand();
else {
throw new UnknownActionError();

A programmer might refactor this code to use reflection as follows:

(Bad Code)
Example Language: Java 
String ctl = request.getParameter("ctl");
Class cmdClass = Class.forName(ctl + "Command");
Worker ao = (Worker) cmdClass.newInstance();

The refactoring initially appears to offer a number of advantages. There are fewer lines of code, the if/else blocks have been entirely eliminated, and it is now possible to add new command types without modifying the command dispatcher. However, the refactoring allows an attacker to instantiate any object that implements the Worker interface. If the command dispatcher is still responsible for access control, then whenever programmers create a new class that implements the Worker interface, they must remember to modify the dispatcher's access control code. If they fail to modify the access control code, then some Worker classes will not have any access control.

One way to address this access control problem is to make the Worker object responsible for performing the access control check. An example of the re-refactored code follows:

Example Language: Java 
String ctl = request.getParameter("ctl");
Class cmdClass = Class.forName(ctl + "Command");
Worker ao = (Worker) cmdClass.newInstance();

Although this is an improvement, it encourages a decentralized approach to access control, which makes it easier for programmers to make access control mistakes. This code also highlights another security problem with using reflection to build a command dispatcher. An attacker can invoke the default constructor for any kind of object. In fact, the attacker is not even constrained to objects that implement the Worker interface; the default constructor for any object in the system can be invoked. If the object does not implement the Worker interface, a ClassCastException will be thrown before the assignment to ao, but if the constructor performs operations that work in the attacker's favor, the damage will already have been done. Although this scenario is relatively benign in simple applications, in larger applications where complexity grows exponentially it is not unreasonable that an attacker could find a constructor to leverage as part of an attack.

+ Observed Examples
CVE-2004-2331Database system allows attackers to bypass sandbox restrictions by using the Reflection APi.
+ Potential Mitigations

Phase: Architecture and Design

Refactor your code to avoid using reflection.

Phase: Architecture and Design

Do not use user-controlled inputs to select and load classes or code.

Phase: Implementation

Apply strict input validation by using whitelists or indirect selection to ensure that the user is only selecting allowable classes or code.

+ Relationships
NatureTypeIDNameView(s) this relationship pertains toView(s)
ChildOfWeakness ClassWeakness Class20Improper Input Validation
Development Concepts (primary)699
Seven Pernicious Kingdoms (primary)700
ChildOfWeakness ClassWeakness Class610Externally Controlled Reference to a Resource in Another Sphere
Research Concepts (primary)1000
+ Taxonomy Mappings
Mapped Taxonomy NameNode IDFitMapped Node Name
7 Pernicious KingdomsUnsafe Reflection
+ White Box Definitions

A weakness where code path has:

1. start statement that accepts input

2. end statement that performs reflective operation and where the input is part of the target name of the reflective operation

+ Content History
Submission DateSubmitterOrganizationSource
7 Pernicious KingdomsExternally Mined
Modification DateModifierOrganizationSource
2008-07-01Eric DalciCigitalExternal
updated Potential Mitigations, Time of Introduction
2008-08-01KDM AnalyticsExternal
added/updated white box definitions
2008-09-08CWE Content TeamMITREInternal
updated Description, Relationships, Other Notes, Taxonomy Mappings
2008-10-14CWE Content TeamMITREInternal
updated Applicable Platforms, Demonstrative Examples, Description, Other Notes
2009-01-12CWE Content TeamMITREInternal
updated Applicable Platforms, Common Consequences, Demonstrative Examples, Observed Examples, Potential Mitigations
2009-05-27CWE Content TeamMITREInternal
updated Demonstrative Examples, Name
2009-10-29CWE Content TeamMITREInternal
updated Alternate Terms, Relationships
Previous Entry Names
Change DatePrevious Entry Name
2008-04-11Unsafe Reflection
2009-05-27Use of Externally-Controlled Input to Select Classes or Code (aka 'Unsafe Reflection')