RIPS Analysis

The forum phpBB2 consists of only ~50,000 lines of code and RIPS took only 19 seconds for its in-depth security analysis to complete. It found various PHP object injection vulnerabilities which are less severe due to missing gadget chains. Further, many SQL injections are reported due to insufficient sanitization with str_replace().

The truncated analysis results are available in our RIPS demo application. Please note that we limited the results to the issues described in this post since there are no fixes available.

Case Study

Variable Tampering

Among others, RIPS reported a variable tampering issue in the style configuration page for administrators. The GET parameter install_to is used as the name of a variable.


$install_to = isset($HTTP_GET_VARS['install_to']) ? urldecode($HTTP_GET_VARS['install_to']) : $HTTP_POST_VARS['install_to'];

$template_name = ${$install_to};

This issue enables an attacker to assign any variable to the $template_name variable. For example, the request admin_styles.php?install_to=rips will lead to the assignment $template_name = $rips;. Depending on the previously declared variables and the use of $template_name this can lead to other security vulnerabilities. RIPS automatically analyzes all possible combinations for exploitation and, as a result, reported a related SQL injection vulnerability.

SQL Injection

Now it gets interesting. The $template_name variable, which is in the attacker’s control, is used within two loops in order to build a SQL query starting in line 76 in order to install a new template from existing data.


$install_to = isset($HTTP_GET_VARS['install_to']) ? urldecode($HTTP_GET_VARS['install_to']) : $HTTP_POST_VARS['install_to'];
$style_name = isset($HTTP_GET_VARS['style']) ? urldecode($HTTP_GET_VARS['style']) : $HTTP_POST_VARS['style'];

$template_name = ${$install_to};
for($i = 0; $i < count($template_name) && !$found; $i++) {
   if( $template_name[$i]['style_name'] == $style_name ) {
        while(list($key, $val) = each($template_name[$i])) {
            $db_fields[] = $key;
            $db_values[] = str_replace("\'", "''" , $val);
$sql = "INSERT INTO " . THEMES_TABLE . " (";
for($i = 0; $i < count($db_fields); $i++) {
    $sql .= $db_fields[$i];
$sql .= ") VALUES (";
for($i = 0; $i < count($db_values); $i++) {
    $sql .= "'" . $db_values[$i] . "'";
$sql .= ")";

Apparently, the variable variable $template_name is expected to point to a nested array with template data in the first array level, and key/value pairs in the second array level. When a user-supplied style GET parameter matches the style_name of the template in line 77, $key and $val pairs are extracted from the template array by using the PHP built-in functions list() and each() in line 78. Then, these are stored in two separate arrays $db_fields and $db_values such that they can be used later as SQL field names and as the fields’ values in the SQL query. While the $db_values are escaped by a global filter and a call to str_replace() in line 80, the $db_fields are embedded unsanitized into the SQL query. However, the template data is always static and loaded from a .cfg file, and there are no other previously declared arrays with user-supplied data available.

But how can this complex code be exploited?

The trick is to point the variable variable $template_name that is used in the loops to another array that is controlled by the user: the superglobal $_GET or $_POST array. Since an attacker can control all of their key/value pairs, he is able to inject SQL commands via array keys that are used unsanitized as database fields in line 86. All that is left to do is to submit a nested array structure with one style_name key matching to the GET parameter style.


Time Line

The development of phpBB2 is abandoned and no patch is available. Please use the latest phpBB3 version.


In today’s calendar post, we described a less severe SQL injection issue in the administrator section of the phpBB2 forum. However, its complexity demonstrated clearly the challenges for a static code analysis tool. Only with the precise handling of variable variables, array structures, and PHP built-in functions such as each() and list(), a static code analysis tool can follow complex data flows beyond a straight-forward source-to-sink tainting and uncover complex security issues.

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APAV Time Table

Date Author Title
24 Dec 2016 Johannes Dahse What we learned from our Advent Calendar
23 Dec 2016 Hendrik Buchwald e107 2.1.2: SQL Injection through Object Injection
22 Dec 2016 Daniel Peeren Security Compliance with Static Code Analysis
21 Dec 2016 Martin Bednorz AbanteCart 1.2.8 - Multiple SQL Injections
20 Dec 2016 Martin Bednorz Kliqqi From Cross-Site Request Forgery to Code Execution
19 Dec 2016 Robin Peraglie osClass 3.6.1: Remote Code Execution via Image File
18 Dec 2016 Daniel Peeren Continuous Integration - Jenkins at your service
17 Dec 2016 Johannes Dahse OpenConf 5.30 - Multi-Step Remote Command Execution
16 Dec 2016 Robin Peraglie Redaxo 5.2.0: Remote Code Execution via CSRF
15 Dec 2016 Dennis Detering Guest Post: Vtiger 6.5.0 - SQL Injection
14 Dec 2016 Hendrik Buchwald The State of Wordpress Security
13 Dec 2016 Johannes Dahse phpBB 2.0.23 - From Variable Tampering to SQL Injection
12 Dec 2016 Martin Bednorz Teampass Unauthenticated SQL Injection
11 Dec 2016 Daniel Peeren Rescanning Applications with RIPS
10 Dec 2016 Hendrik Buchwald Non-Exploitable Security Issues
9 Dec 2016 Hendrik Buchwald Precurio 2.1: Remote Command Execution via Xinha Plugin
8 Dec 2016 Martin Bednorz PHPKit 1.6.6: Code Execution for Privileged Users
7 Dec 2016 Hendrik Buchwald Serendipity 2.0.3: From File Upload to Code Execution
6 Dec 2016 Robin Peraglie Roundcube 1.2.2: Command Execution via Email
5 Dec 2016 Hendrik Buchwald Expression Engine 3.4.2: Code Reuse Attack
4 Dec 2016 Johannes Dahse Introducing the RIPS analysis engine
3 Dec 2016 Martin Bednorz eFront 3.6.15: Steal your professors password
2 Dec 2016 Martin Bednorz Coppermine 1.5.42: Second-Order Command Execution
1 Dec 2016 Hendrik Buchwald FreePBX 13: From Cross-Site Scripting to Remote Command Execution
25 Nov 2016 Martin Bednorz Announcing the Advent of PHP Application Vulnerabilities

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