February 04, 2016

Java and Command Line Injections in Windows

Everyone knows that incorporating user provided fragments into a command line is dangerous and may lead to command injection. That’s why in Java many suggest using ProcessBuilder instead where the program’s arguments are supposed to be passed discretely in separate strings.

However, in Windows, processes are created with a single command line string. And since there are different and seemingly confusing parsing rules for different runtime environments, proper quoting seems to be likewise complicated.

This makes Java for Windows still vulnerable to injection of additional arguments and even commands into the command line.

Windows’ CreateProcess Command Lines

In Windows, the main function for creating processes is the CreateProcess function. And in contrast to C API functions like execve, arguments are not passed separately as an array of strings but in a single command line. On the other side, the entry point function WinMain expects a single command line argument as well.

This circumstance requires the program to parse the command line itself for extracting the arguments. And although Windows provides a CommandLineToArgvW function and supports C and C++ API entry point functions where arguments are already parsed by the runtime and passed in a argc/argv style, the rules for quoting command line arguments with all their quirks can be quite confusing. And there is no definitive guide on how to quote properly, let alone something like a ArgvToCommandLineW function that does it for you. That’s why many do it wrong, as “Everyone quotes command line arguments the wrong way” by Daniel Colascione observes.

You should definitely read the latter two linked pages first to understand the rest of this blog post.

For testing, we’ll use the following Java class, which utilizes ProcessBuilder as suggested:

The resulting CreateProcess command line can be observed with the Windows Sysinternals’ Process Monitor. And for how the command line gets parsed, you can use the following program, which prints the results of both the parsing of C command-line arguments (via the argv function parameter) and of the parsing of C++ command-line arguments (via CommandLineToArgvW function).

This already produces different and frankly surprising results in some cases:

The last two are remarkable as one additional quotation mark swaps the results of argv and CommandLineToArgvW.

Java’s Command Line Generation in Windows

With the knowledge of how CreateProcess expects the command line arguments to be quoted, let’s see how Java builds the command line and quotes the arguments for Windows.

If a process is started using ProcessBuilder, the arguments are passed to the static method start of ProcessImpl, which is a platform-dependent class. In the Windows implementation of ProcessImpl, the start method calls the private constructor of ProcessImpl, which creates the command line for the CreateProcess call.

In the private constructor of ProcessImpl, there are two operational modes: the legacy mode and the strict mode. These are the result of issues caused by changes to Runtime.exec. The legacy mode is only performed if there is no SecurityManager present and the property jdk.lang.Process.allowAmbiguousCommands is not set to false.

The Legacy Mode

In the legacy mode, the first argument (i. e., the program to execute) is quoted if required and then the command line is created using createCommandLine.

The needsEscaping method checks whether the value is already quoted using isQuoted or wraps it in double quotes if it contains certain characters.

The vertification type VERIFICATION_LEGACY passed to needsEscaping makes noQuotesInside in isQuoted being false, which would allow quotation marks within the path. It also makes needsEscaping test for space and tabulator characters only.

But let’s take a look at the createCommandLine method, which creates the command line:

Again, with the verification type VERIFICATION_LEGACY the needsEscaping method only returns true if it is already wrapped in quotes (regardless of any quotes within the string) or if it is not wrapped in quotes and contains a space or tabulator character (again, regardless of any quotes within the string). If it needs quoting, it is simply wrapped in quotes and a possible trailing backslash is doubled.

Ok, so far, so good. Now let’s recall Daniel Colascione’s conclusion:

Do not:

  1. Simply add quotes around command line argument arguments without any further processing.
  2. […]

Yes, exactly. This can be exploited to inject additional arguments:

  • A value that is considered to be quoted:
    • passed argument value: "arg 1" "arg 2" "arg 3"
    • quoted argument value: no quoting needed as it’s “already quoted”
    • parsed argument values: ['arg 1', 'arg 2', 'arg 3']
  • A value that is considered to be not quoted but requires quotes:
    • passed argument value: "arg" 1" "arg 2" "arg 3
    • quoted argument value: ""arg" 1" "arg 2" "arg 3"
    • parsed argument values: ['arg 1', 'arg 2', 'arg 3']

The Strict Mode

In the strict mode, things are a little different.

If the path contains a quote, getExecutablePath throws an exception and the catch block is executed where getTokensFromCommand tries to extract the path.

However, the rather interesting part is that createCommandLine is called with a different verification type based on whether isShellFile denotes it as a shell file.

But I’ll come back to that later.

With the verification type VERIFICATION_WIN32, noQuotesInside is still false and both injection examples mentioned above work as well.

However, if needsEscaping is called with the verification type VERIFICATION_CMD_BAT, noQuotesInside becomes true. And without being able to inject a quote we can’t escape the quoted argument.

CreateProcess’ Silent cmd.exe Promotion

Remember the isShellFile checked the file name extension for .cmd and .bat? This is due to the fact that CreateProcess executes these files in a cmd.exe shell environment:

[…] the decision tree that CreateProcess goes through to run an image is as follows:

  • […]
  • If the file to run has a .bat or .cmd extension, the image to be run becomes Cmd.exe, the Windows command prompt, and CreateProcess restarts at Stage 1. (The name of the batch file is passed as the first parameter to Cmd.exe.)
  • […]

Windows Internals, 6th edition (Part 1)

That means a 'file.bat …' becomes 'C:\Windows\system32\cmd.exe /c "file.bat …"' and an additional set of quoting rules would need to be applied to avoid command injection in the command line interpreted by cmd.exe.

However, since Java does no additional quoting for this implicit cmd.exe call promotion on the passed arguments, injection is even easier: &calc& does not require any quoting and will be interpreted as a separate command by cmd.exe.

This works in the legacy mode just like in the strict mode if we make isShellFile return false, e. g., by adding whitespace to the end of the path, which tricks the endsWith check but are ignored by CreateProcess.


Command line parsing in Windows is not consistent and therefore the implementation of proper quoting of command line argument even less. This may allow the injection of additional arguments.

Additionally, since CreateProcess implicitly starts .bat and .cmd in a cmd.exe shell environment, even command injection may be possible.

As a sample, Java for Windows fails to properly quote command line arguments. Even with ProcessBuilder where arguments are passed as a list of strings:

  • Argument injection is possible by providing an argument containing further quoted arguments, e. g., '"arg 1" "arg 2" "arg 3"'.

  • On cmd.exe process command lines, a simple '&calc&' alone suffices.

Only within the most strictly mode, the VERIFICATION_CMD_BAT verification type, injection is not possible:

  • Legacy mode:
    • VERIFICATION_LEGACY: There is no SecurityManager present and jdk.lang.Process.allowAmbiguousCommands is not explicitly set to false (no default set)
      • allows argument injection
      • allows command injection in cmd.exe calls (explicit or implicit)
  • Strict mode:
    • VERIFICATION_CMD_BAT: Most strictly mode, file ends with .bat or .cmd
      • does not allow argument injection
      • does not allow command injection in cmd.exe calls
    • VERIFICATION_WIN32: File does not end with .bat or .cmd
      • allows argument injection
      • allows command injection in cmd.exe calls (explicit or implicit)

However, Java’s check for switching to the VERIFICATION_CMD_BAT mode can be circumvented by adding whitespace after the .bat or .cmd.