Strutshock: Apache Struts 2 (RCE CVE-2017-5638) in Plain English

If you’ve paid attention to the news recently, you’ve certainly heard about the massive breach at Equifax, now estimated to have put 145 million of people’s sensitive personal data out into the world. You’ve probably also heard it was due to unpatched software. So what was the issue, why does it matter, and what can you do? Let’s start with the basics.

In vulnerable versions of Struts 2, there is a bug in how errors are handled when the server receives a request containing a Content-Type, Content-Length, or Content-Disposition header. With an unexpected or malformed request, you would expect the server to send back a 400 error, or otherwise ignore the request. However, with a vulnerable version of struts2, the Jakarta Multipart Parser will parse that header string and, if it contains executable OGNL code, execute it. What, then, is OGNL and why would it matter if it parses and executes some code? OGNL, or Object Graph Navigation Language, is a Java library which, on the development side, provides convenient tools for getting and setting values on Java objects. For instance, connecting the forms on your web page to the struts representation of that data on the server. Being able to inject commands through OGNL means an attacker can then substitute values on the server such that it will run whatever malicious code the attacker wishes to send.

Short version: malicious Content-Type/Length/etc. header -> Jakarta Multipart parser error -> OGNL receives the header as executable code -> server now runs malicious code as if it were part of the original program. So if we have a site we think is vulnerable, we could set up a script that will send one of these headers that spawns a bash shell and takes a command from the user. Have a look at the video for a quick demo.

As you can see, this gives us quite a bit of power over the system. We can traverse through directories, create files, view environment variables (which in turn gives us access to the database), and even cause the site to crash by deleting necessary files.

The Danger

If a server is running a vulnerable version of Struts 2, an attacker who knows how to exploit this might as well have your server running locally on their computer. They can access the source code of your site. If your site has access to a database, so do they. If they want to tell your server to sleep, putting you out of business for a while, they can. Even if your server has limited privileges, or the site runs on a virtual machine, the attacker might be able to learn something about where your sensitive data actually lives that could be leveraged to launch an attack where it will cause the most harm.

The Solution

You probably hear it all the time, but keep your software up to date. Test your production code and make sure you’re able to roll out the most up to date versions of the libraries and technologies you rely upon as quickly as you can once they are available. The fix to this vulnerability is available in Struts 2 versions or 2.3.32 and later, both of which have been available since March. For note, the Equifax breach happened at the end of July, well after the tools were available to fix the vulnerability in question. Applying the patch is simpler than trying to roll your own header validation and far quicker.

If you don’t know if you’re vulnerable, or if you think you’ve set up an effective solution, you can check using our free service here. If you’re already using our web scanner product, you’re already being checked for the Strutshock vulnerability in your scans, along with many other common vulnerabilities. Thanks for reading, and stay secure.

Alex Bullen

Alex is Tinfoil Security's Top-Shelf Programmer (and fetcher of things from high shelves). A former psychology wonk and recent App Academy grad, Alex endeavors to treat every challenge as an opportunity to improve his code-fu. When not busily building blocks of precisely put code, you can find him reading fantasy novels or practicing kung fu.

Tags: security vulnerabilities