XML External Entity (XXE) Injection in Web App Penetration Testing | 2023

In this section, we’ll explain what XML external entity injection is, describe some common examples, explain how to find and exploit various kinds of XXE injection, and summarize how to prevent XXE injection attacks | Karthikeyan Nagaraj

Karthikeyan Nagaraj
4 min readOct 1, 2023

What is XXE Injection?

XML External Entity (XXE) Injection is a type of security vulnerability that occurs when an application parses XML input from an untrusted source. It enables an attacker to exploit an XML parser’s processing of external entities and can lead to disclosure of confidential data, denial of service, server-side request forgery, and even remote code execution.

XML external entity injection (also known as XXE) is a web security vulnerability that allows an attacker to interfere with an application’s processing of XML data. It often allows an attacker to view files on the application server filesystem, and to interact with any back-end or external systems that the application itself can access.

In some situations, an attacker can escalate an XXE attack to compromise the underlying server or other back-end infrastructure, by leveraging the XXE vulnerability to perform server-side request forgery (SSRF) attacks.

How do XXE vulnerabilities arise?

Some applications use the XML format to transmit data between the browser and the server. Applications that do this virtually always use a standard library or platform API to process the XML data on the server. XXE vulnerabilities arise because the XML specification contains various potentially dangerous features, and standard parsers support these features even if they are not normally used by the application.

Understanding the Anatomy of XXE Attacks

1. The XML Parsing Process

XML documents are commonly used to structure data in a hierarchical format. During parsing, an XML parser interprets the content and processes entities — placeholders that represent data.

2. External Entities

An external entity is a reference to an external resource, typically a file or URL, defined within the XML. XXE attacks occur when an attacker injects malicious external entities into the XML data.

3. Malicious Payloads

By crafting a malicious XML document, an attacker can include references to sensitive files, such as /etc/passwd on a Unix system. When the XML parser processes this document, it will attempt to fetch the referenced resource, potentially exposing sensitive data.

Variations of XXE Attacks

1. Classic XXE

In this scenario, the attacker exploits the vulnerability to read files from the server or carry out Denial of Service (DoS) attacks by making the server perform resource-intensive tasks.

2. Blind XXE

Blind XXE attacks don’t reveal the output directly to the attacker. Instead, the attacker can infer information by measuring the application’s response time or observing differences in error messages.

3. Parameter Entity XXE

Parameter entities are used to define reusable entities within the DTD (Document Type Definition). An attacker can use parameter entities to inject malicious content into the XML.

4. Out-of-Band (OOB) XXE

Out-of-Band XXE attacks involve an attacker’s ability to exfiltrate data to a location controlled by them, such as a server they own. This can be done by embedding data within the XML and triggering requests to their server.

Mitigating XXE Vulnerabilities

Protecting your web applications against XXE attacks is paramount. Here are some best practices for mitigation:

1. Input Validation

Always validate and sanitize user input, especially when parsing XML. Restrict the use of external entities and disallow document type declarations (DTDs) unless necessary.

2. Use Safe Parsers

Use XML parsers that are not vulnerable to XXE attacks or configure them to disable external entity resolution.

3. Web Application Firewall (WAF)

Implement a WAF to detect and block malicious XML payloads before they reach your application.

4. Regular Updates

Keep your software, libraries, and dependencies up to date to patch any known XXE vulnerabilities.

5. Disable DTD Processing

If DTD processing is not required, disable it entirely in your XML parser.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q1. Can XXE attacks only target XML data?

No, XXE attacks primarily target XML data, but they can also affect other data formats, such as JSON, that involve parsing and interpretation of external references.

Q2. How can I detect and prevent Blind XXE attacks?

Detecting Blind XXE attacks can be challenging. Implement robust input validation, disable unnecessary external entity resolution, and monitor application response times for anomalies.

Q3. Are there automated tools available for testing XXE vulnerabilities?

Yes, there are several tools like OWASP ZAP and Burp Suite that can help automate the detection of XXE vulnerabilities during penetration testing.

Q4. Are XXE attacks limited to web applications?

No, XXE attacks can potentially affect any application that processes XML input, including desktop applications and backend systems.

Q5. Is there a standard severity rating for XXE vulnerabilities?

Severity can vary depending on the impact. It is essential to assess the specific risks associated with an XXE vulnerability in your application.

In conclusion, understanding XML External Entity (XXE) injection is crucial in today’s cybersecurity landscape. By comprehending the mechanics of XXE attacks and adopting mitigation strategies, you can fortify your web applications against this potent threat, safeguarding your digital assets and user data.



Karthikeyan Nagaraj

Security Researcher | Bug Hunter | Web Pentester | CTF Player | TryHackme Top 1% | AI Researcher | Blockchain Developer