Common Attack Pattern Enumeration and Classification
A Community of Knowledge Resource for Building Secure Software
An attacker intentionally introduces leading characters that enable getting the input past the filters. The API that is being targetted, ignores the leading "ghost" characters, and therefore processes the attacker's input. This occurs when the targetted API will accept input data in several syntactic forms and interpret it in the equivalent semantic way, while the filter does not take into account the full spectrum of the syntactic forms acceptable to the targetted API.
Some APIs will strip certain leading characters from a string of parameters. Perhaps these characters are considered redundant, and for this reason they are removed. Another possibility is the parser logic at the beginning of analysis is specialized in some way that causes some characters to be removed. The attacker can specify multiple types of alternative encodings at the beginning of a string as a set of probes.
One commonly used possibility involves adding ghost characters—extra characters that don't affect the validity of the request at the API layer. If the attacker has access to the API libraries being targeted, certain attack ideas can be tested directly in advance. Once alternative ghost encodings emerge through testing, the attacker can move from lab-based API testing to testing real-world service implementations.
Attack Execution Flow
The targetted API must ignore the leading ghost characters that are used to get past the filters for the semantics to be the same.
Alternate Encoding with Ghost Characters in FTP and Web Servers
Some web and FTP servers fail to detect prohibited upward directory traversals if the user-supplied pathname contains extra characters such as an extra leading dot. For example, a program that will disallow access to the pathname "../test.txt" may erroneously allow access to that file if the pathname is specified as ".../test.txt". This attack succeeds because 1) the input validation logic fails to detect the triple-dot as a directory traversal attempt (since it isn't dot-dot), 2) some part of the input processing decided to strip off the "extra" dot, leaving the dot-dot behind.
Using the file system API as the target, the following strings are all equivalent to many programs:
As you can see, there are many ways to make a semantically equivalent request. All these strings ultimately result in a request for the file ../test.txt.
Perform white list rather than black list input validation.
Canonicalize all data prior to validation.
Take an iterative approach to input validation (defense in depth).
The payload is the parameter that an attacker is supplying to the targetted API that will allow the attacker to elevate privilege and subvert the authorization service.
The targetted API is the activation zone. These attacks often target the file system or the shell to execute commands.
Failure in authorization service may lead to compromises in data confidentiality and integrity.
G. Hoglund and G. McGraw. Exploiting Software: How to Break Code. Addison-Wesley, February 2004.