Exploiting server-side template injection vulnerabilities

In this section, we'll look more closely at some typical server-side template injection vulnerabilities and demonstrate how they can be exploited using our high-level methodology. By putting this process into practice, you can potentially discover and exploit a variety of different server-side template injection vulnerabilities.

Once you discover a server-side template injection vulnerability, and identify the template engine being used, successful exploitation typically involves the following process.


Unless you already know the template engine inside out, reading its documentation is usually the first place to start. While this may not be the most exciting way to spend your time, it is important not to underestimate what a useful source of information the documentation can be.

Learn the basic template syntax

Learning the basic syntax is obviously important, along with key functions and handling of variables. Even something as simple as learning how to embed native code blocks in the template can sometimes quickly lead to an exploit. For example, once you know that the Python-based Mako template engine is being used, achieving remote code execution could be as simple as:

<% import os x=os.popen('id').read() %> ${x}

In an unsandboxed environment, achieving remote code execution and using it to read, edit, or delete arbitrary files is similarly as simple in many common template engines.

Read about the security implications

In addition to providing the fundamentals of how to create and use templates, the documentation may also provide some sort of "Security" section. The name of this section will vary, but it will usually outline all the potentially dangerous things that people should avoid doing with the template. This can be an invaluable resource, even acting as a kind of cheat sheet for which behaviors you should look for during auditing, as well as how to exploit them.

Even if there is no dedicated "Security" section, if a particular built-in object or function can pose a security risk, there is almost always a warning of some kind in the documentation. The warning may not provide much detail, but at the very least it should flag this particular built-in as something to investigate.

For example, in ERB, the documentation reveals that you can list all directories and then read arbitrary files as follows:

<%= Dir.entries('/') %> <%= File.open('/example/arbitrary-file').read %>

Look for known exploits

Another key aspect of exploiting server-side template injection vulnerabilities is being good at finding additional resources online. Once you are able to identify the template engine being used, you should browse the web for any vulnerabilities that others may have already discovered. Due to the widespread use of some of the major template engines, it is sometimes possible to find well-documented exploits that you might be able to tweak to exploit your own target website.


At this point, you might have already stumbled across a workable exploit using the documentation. If not, the next step is to explore the environment and try to discover all the objects to which you have access.

Many template engines expose a "self" or "environment" object of some kind, which acts like a namespace containing all objects, methods, and attributes that are supported by the template engine. If such an object exists, you can potentially use it to generate a list of objects that are in scope. For example, in Java-based templating languages, you can sometimes list all variables in the environment using the following injection:


This can form the basis for creating a shortlist of potentially interesting objects and methods to investigate further. Additionally, for Burp Suite Professional users, the Intruder provides a built-in wordlist for brute-forcing variable names.

Developer-supplied objects

It is important to note that websites will contain both built-in objects provided by the template and custom, site-specific objects that have been supplied by the web developer. You should pay particular attention to these non-standard objects because they are especially likely to contain sensitive information or exploitable methods. As these objects can vary between different templates within the same website, be aware that you might need to study an object's behavior in the context of each distinct template before you find a way to exploit it.

While server-side template injection can potentially lead to remote code execution and full takeover of the server, in practice this is not always possible to achieve. However, just because you have ruled out remote code execution, that doesn't necessarily mean there is no potential for a different kind of exploit. You can still leverage server-side template injection vulnerabilities for other high-severity exploits, such as directory traversal, to gain access to sensitive data.

Create a custom attack

So far, we've looked primarily at constructing an attack either by reusing a documented exploit or by using well-known vulnerabilities in a template engine. However, sometimes you will need to construct a custom exploit. For example, you might find that the template engine executes templates inside a sandbox, which can make exploitation difficult, or even impossible.

After identifying the attack surface, if there is no obvious way to exploit the vulnerability, you should proceed with traditional auditing techniques by reviewing each function for exploitable behavior. By working methodically through this process, you may sometimes be able to construct a complex attack that is even able to exploit more secure targets.

Constructing a custom exploit using an object chain

As described above, the first step is to identify objects and methods to which you have access. Some of the objects may immediately jump out as interesting. By combining your own knowledge and the information provided in the documentation, you should be able to put together a shortlist of objects that you want to investigate more thoroughly.

When studying the documentation for objects, pay particular attention to which methods these objects grant access to, as well as which objects they return. By drilling down into the documentation, you can discover combinations of objects and methods that you can chain together. Chaining together the right objects and methods sometimes allows you to gain access to dangerous functionality and sensitive data that initially appears out of reach.

For example, in the Java-based template engine Velocity, you have access to a ClassTool object called $class. Studying the documentation reveals that you can chain the $class.inspect() method and $class.type property to obtain references to arbitrary objects. In the past, this has been exploited to execute shell commands on the target system as follows:


Constructing a custom exploit using developer-supplied objects

Some template engines run in a secure, locked-down environment by default in order to mitigate the associated risks as much as possible. Although this makes it difficult to exploit such templates for remote code execution, developer-created objects that are exposed to the template can offer a further, less battle-hardened attack surface.

However, while substantial documentation is usually provided for template built-ins, site-specific objects are almost certainly not documented at all. Therefore, working out how to exploit them will require you to investigate the website's behavior manually to identify the attack surface and construct your own custom exploit accordingly.