Detecting Command Injection Attacks

May 14, 2024
SOC Analyst
Detecting Command Injection Attacks

Introduction to Command Injection Attacks

In the rapidly evolving landscape of cybersecurity, command injection stands out as a particularly insidious threat. This type of attack exploits vulnerabilities in web applications to execute arbitrary commands on the host operating system. The consequences of a successful command injection can be devastating, ranging from unauthorized data access to complete system compromise. Understanding and detecting these attacks is not only beneficial, it's imperative to the security of today's digital infrastructure.


  • Command Injection Threat: Exploits web application vulnerabilities to execute unauthorized commands on a system, risking data breaches and system compromises.
  • Root Cause: Results from inadequate validation of user input, allowing attackers to inject malicious commands.
  • Prevention: Requires strong input sanitization and validation, as well as awareness of common vulnerabilities to prevent attacks.
  • Detection and Mitigation: Utilizes a combination of automated tools (SIEM, IDS/IPS, WAFs, SAST, DAST, vulnerability scanners) and manual techniques (log analysis, penetration testing, code review, network traffic analysis) to identify and address vulnerabilities.
  • Case Studies and Strategies: Highlights from Shellshock and Drupalgeddon2 illustrate the importance of proactive security measures, understanding software processing, and leveraging community expertise for an efficient defense against command injection attacks.

Understanding Command Injection Attacks

Command injection is a cybersecurity threat that allows an attacker to execute arbitrary commands on a server's operating system. This vulnerability exists because the application fails to properly validate user input. To understand command injection: Imagine telling a computer exactly what to do in a language it can't refuse because it believes the instructions are coming from a trusted source. It's like sneaking a secret message to the computer within a normal request. The key to preventing attackers from injecting malicious commands is to recognize the importance of sanitizing and validating all user input in Web applications. By ensuring that input is validated and sanitized, applications can defend against these potentially devastating attacks.

The Attack Mechanism

Command injection vulnerabilities typically arise when an application passes unsafe user-supplied data (forms, cookies, HTTP headers, etc.) to a system shell. Without stringent input validation and sanitization, malicious inputs can trigger unintended command execution. This can be as simple as appending a semicolon to a legitimate command, followed by the attacker's payload.

The attack process can be broken down into three stages:

  • Identifying the Vulnerable Application: Attackers look for applications that do not adequately validate user inputs.
  • Crafting Malicious Input: The crafted input is designed to be interpreted by the system as a command.
  • Execution: The application executes the malicious input, resulting in unauthorized commands on the system. Various input mechanisms, such as HTML forms, URL parameters, and API requests, facilitate this step.

For example, if a web application prompts you to enter an IP to check if it's up or not, and you enter a string of commands instead, the system could mistakenly execute those commands if it doesn't properly check the input for malicious content.

The result will look like this if you enter a normal IP:

But if we enter an input that the application does not expect from us, such as this one:;cat /etc/passwd

Notice that we were able to run bash commands through the web page.

Recognizing Vulnerable Points

The key to preventing command injection is to recognize common vulnerabilities, including but not limited to:

  • Arbitrary Command Injection: Direct execution of system commands from user inputs.
  • Arbitrary File Uploads: Uploading files with malicious content that can be executed.
  • Insecure Data Sanitization Practices: Failure to properly sanitize inputs that contain special characters or command separators​

Detecting potential command injection vulnerabilities involves examining areas where user input may be processed incorrectly. This includes:

  • Dynamic execution functions (e.g., exec(), shell_exec() in PHP)
  • Unsafe inclusion of user input in system commands 
  • Inadequate sanitization of special characters used in shell commands (e.g.,;, &&, |)

Let’s take a look at the example from the previous section to identify the vulnerable point in our system.

First, check out the code below.

Notice that the code just takes the input from the user and prints the output of this command ping -c 4 without any filtering for the input and with bash you can just put a semicolon; and execute more than just one command and that is exactly what happened in our case.

Monitoring and Analysis Techniques

SOC analysts and DFIR specialists use various tools and techniques to detect command injection attacks. These techniques include monitoring network traffic and system logs for anomalies, analyzing behavioral patterns that might indicate an attack, and employing automated tools to assist in detection.

Detection involves both automated and manual strategies:

Automated Detection

  • Security Information and Event Management (SIEM): SIEM systems collect and analyze log data from multiple sources within an organization's infrastructure, looking for suspicious activities that could indicate a command injection attempt or other security threats. They use correlation rules to detect patterns indicative of attacks.

  • Intrusion Detection Systems (IDS) and Intrusion Prevention Systems (IPS): These systems monitor network traffic for suspicious activity and policy violations. IDS/IPS can be configured to recognize patterns of command injection attempts, such as unusual or unexpected sequences of characters in URLs or input fields that might indicate an attack.

  • Web Application Firewalls (WAF): Placed in front of Web applications, WAFs can inspect HTTP requests to identify and block malicious traffic. They use predefined or custom rules to detect and prevent common web application attacks, including command injection, by analyzing payloads for malicious input. Like the semicolon in our case.

  • Static Application Security Testing (SAST) and Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST) tools: SAST tools analyze source code to identify software vulnerabilities, including those that could lead to command injection, without executing the program. On the other hand, DAST tools analyze running applications for vulnerabilities by simulating attacks against them. Both types of tools can be instrumental in detecting areas of an application that might be vulnerable to command injection.

  • Vulnerability Scanners: These tools scan applications and systems for known vulnerabilities, including command injection vulnerabilities. They typically maintain databases of known vulnerabilities and test systems to determine if any of these vulnerabilities are present.

Manual Analysis

  • Log Analysis:  Analysis involves periodically checking logs for unusual activity, such as unexpected system commands or errors indicating that commands have failed to execute:some text
    • Log entries with system command keywords that are unusual in their context (e.g., bash, cmd, sh, exec).
    • Error messages from the shell or underlying operating system that indicate command execution attempts.

  • Penetration Testing: It involves manually testing the application for vulnerabilities by simulating attacks. Pen testers can use techniques similar to those used by attackers, for example, entering malicious data into application fields to identify and exploit security vulnerabilities.

  • Code Review: Manual code review involves going through the source code of the application to identify insecure coding practices that could lead to vulnerabilities, including improper input validation and sanitization, which are common culprits in command injection vulnerabilities.

  • Network Traffic Analysis: By manually examining network traffic, analysts can identify suspicious patterns that may not be detected by automated tools. This can include unusual request patterns or payloads that indicate an attacker is attempting to exploit a command injection vulnerability.

  • System processes: If we have a memory dump or a live system, and the host is infected with command injection when running Apache we will find a new spawned child process under the Apache process in the process list, depending on the commands the attacker is executing. But most of the time it will be sh, which is just bash in Linux, and in Windows it will be cmd or PowerShell.

Combining these automated tools and manual techniques provides a comprehensive approach to detecting command injection vulnerabilities and attacks. While automated tools can quickly identify potential issues and known vulnerabilities, manual analysis can provide more detailed interpretation and research needed to confirm and fully comprehend their scope and impact.

Quick Recap of Key Detection Strategies:

  • Monitoring Input Validity: SOC analysts should focus on inputs that could execute system-level commands. Look for inputs that contain shell meta-characters such as semicolons (;), pipes (|), and redirection operators (> and <).
  • Log Analysis:  Regularly review logs for unusual activity such as unexpected system commands or errors indicating command execution failures. Key indicators include:some text
    • Log entries with system command keywords that are uncommon in their context (e.g., bash, cmd, sh, exec, and whoami).
  • Examples:some text
    • Basic command injection attack:;
    • Piped command injection attack:|whoami
    • Injection with URL encoding:

To assist SOC analysts in identifying potential command injection attempts, you can implement the following log analysis regex:


This regex is designed to match log entries where HTTP methods such as GET, POST, or PUT contain a query parameter followed by one of several shell meta-characters commonly used in command injection attacks. The metacharacters included in the regex (;, &, `, >, <, $) are typical shell command injection indicators.

Challenges in Detecting Command Injection Attacks

  • Obfuscation of Malicious Payloads: Attackers often use obfuscation techniques to disguise their payloads. For instance, encoding payloads in Base64 or using URL encoding makes malicious inputs less obvious to security filters and automated detection tools.

In this case, the attacker will first try tons of options to see what exactly the automated tools are filtering for, such as “etc”, “passwd”, the semicolon, or the backslash. After the attacker finds the pattern of the filtering he can do some nasty tricks to get around all that. For example,;cat `echo -e "\x2f\x65\x74\x63\x2f\x70\x61\x73\x73\x77\x64" command can simply print /etc/passwd to the screen and then insert that into the cat command, without going into all the obfuscation methods and ways that attackers can bypass the automated tools.

  • Use of Time Delays: To avoid immediate detection, attackers may include delays in their payloads. This tactic complicates automated analysis because the malicious activity does not trigger immediate anomalies. This technique is most commonly used in SQL injection attacks. However, it can also be used here if the code doesn't output directly to the Web page interface.
  • Low and Slow Attack Techniques: Instead of launching a single, easily detectable attack, attackers might execute command injections slowly over time. This approach can bypass threshold-based detection mechanisms that look for a sudden spike in activity.
  • Evasion Techniques Against Specific Security Measures: Attackers could create payloads specifically designed to evade known security measures, such as WAFs or IDS/IPS systems, by exploiting knowledge of how these systems parse and interpret commands.

Anti-Analysis Techniques

  • Polymorphic and Metamorphic Code: These techniques involve changing the appearance of code without changing its functionality, making it difficult for signature-based detection tools to consistently identify malicious payloads.
  • Exploitation of Legitimate App Functions: Attackers can inject commands that use the application's legitimate functions to perform malicious actions. This can blend in with normal application traffic and make manual analysis difficult.
  • Splitting Attacks Across Multiple Requests: By splitting the attack vector across multiple requests, attackers can make it more challenging for detection systems to piece together the attack sequence and identify the threat.

Strategies to Overcome These Challenges

  • Behavioral Analysis: Moving beyond signature-based detection to behavioral analysis can help identify anomalous patterns that suggest obfuscated or split attack vectors.
  • Heuristic Analysis: Employing heuristic analysis allows systems to detect unusual behavior that deviates from the established baseline, potentially revealing stealthy or slow attacks.
  • Deep Packet Inspection: By analyzing the network traffic at a granular level, advanced inspection techniques can help uncover obfuscated payloads.
  • Continuous Security Training: It is critical to keep security teams up to date on the latest attack techniques and evasion methods. Regular training ensures that manual analysis efforts can adapt to evolving threats.
  • Advanced Logging and Monitoring: The implementation of comprehensive logging and monitoring strategies can capture more detailed data, which can aid in the manual analysis of subtle or complex attacks.

These challenges and anti-analysis techniques highlight the ongoing cat-and-mouse game between attackers and defenders in the field of cybersecurity. Successful detection and mitigation requires a dynamic, multi-faceted approach that evolves in response to new threats and tactics.

Case Studies and Examples

Shellshock (CVE-2014-6271)


Shellshock, a serious vulnerability found in the Bash shell, which is widely used on Linux, macOS, and Unix systems, allowed attackers to execute arbitrary commands on a vulnerable system. The vulnerability was particularly insidious because it affected not only web servers but also a wide range of devices and applications that use Bash.


The Shellshock vulnerability was discovered in September 2014 by Stephane Chazelas. Detection was initially manual, involving the execution of a simple command that would only produce output if the system was vulnerable. The command was:

env x='() { :;}; echo vulnerable' bash -c "echo this is a test"

If the system was vulnerable, it would output "vulnerable" before "this is a test".

Automated detection tools were quick to incorporate checks for Shellshock and scan systems for the presence of vulnerable versions of bash. Web application firewalls (WAFs) have also been updated to detect and block attempts to exploit the vulnerability in web applications.


The primary response to the discovery of Shellshock was to patch the Bash shell on affected systems. Major Linux distributions released patches within days of the vulnerability being announced. In addition, administrators were advised to audit systems for unauthorized access attempts and to consider the impact on devices and applications beyond web servers.

Drupalgeddon2 (CVE-2018-7600)


Drupalgeddon2 was a highly critical remote code execution (RCE) vulnerability discovered in Drupal, affecting versions 7 and 8. It allows attackers to execute arbitrary commands on the server without authentication, potentially taking over websites running on Drupal.


The vulnerability was discovered by Jasper Mattsson of the Drupal security team as part of a routine security audit. Detecting it in the wild was more challenging because attackers could exploit the vulnerability in different ways, making a single pattern difficult to identify.

Security researchers and organizations have been using Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST) tools to scan for vulnerable Drupal instances. These tools simulate attacks on live web applications to identify vulnerabilities. In addition, Intrusion Detection Systems (IDS) have been updated with signatures to detect exploitation attempts by monitoring for suspicious patterns in web traffic consistent with the exploitation of the Drupalgeddon2 vulnerability.


The Drupal security team released patches for Drupal 7 and 8 shortly after the vulnerability was disclosed. Site administrators were urged to apply these patches immediately to prevent exploitation. For sites that could not update quickly, temporary mitigations included using WAFs to block exploit attempts by filtering requests that appeared to be attempting to exploit the vulnerability.

Key Lessons:

  • Proactive Security Audits: Both vulnerabilities were identified through proactive security measures-individual initiatives or structured audits. This emphasizes the importance of regular security assessments and not just relying on external reports or user feedback.
  • Understanding Software Internals: A deep understanding of how software processes input (such as environment variables in Bash or user input in Drupal) is critical to identifying potential security issues. In both cases, the attackers exploited the way the software handled input that wasn't adequately secured.
  • Community and Expertise: The identification and subsequent handling of these vulnerabilities demonstrates the essential role of the security community and experienced individuals in maintaining the security of widely used software.


While the digital landscape is a frontier of innovation and connectivity, it is also a battleground where security threats such as command injection attacks continue to evolve. The stories of Shellshock and Drupalgeddon2, among countless others, serve not only as cautionary tales but also as sobering reminders of the vulnerabilities that can exist in even the most widely used and trusted software.

In conclusion, the fight against command injection and other cybersecurity threats is an ongoing one. It requires the collective efforts of individuals, organizations, and the global community to stay ahead of the threats. By understanding attack mechanisms, identifying vulnerabilities, and applying comprehensive detection and mitigation strategies, we can strengthen our defenses against the invisible enemies of the digital age.

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