Improper Neutralization of Argument Delimiters in a Command ('Argument Injection')

The software constructs a string for a command to executed by a separate component in another control sphere, but it does not properly delimit the intended arguments, options, or switches within that command string.


When creating commands using interpolation into a string, developers may assume that only the arguments/options that they specify will be processed. This assumption may be even stronger when the programmer has encoded the command in a way that prevents separate commands from being provided maliciously, e.g. in the case of shell metacharacters. When constructing the command, the developer may use whitespace or other delimiters that are required to separate arguments when the command. However, if an attacker can provide an untrusted input that contains argument-separating delimiters, then the resulting command will have more arguments than intended by the developer. The attacker may then be able to change the behavior of the command. Depending on the functionality supported by the extraneous arguments, this may have security-relevant consequences.


The following examples help to illustrate the nature of this weakness and describe methods or techniques which can be used to mitigate the risk.

Note that the examples here are by no means exhaustive and any given weakness may have many subtle varieties, each of which may require different detection methods or runtime controls.

Example One

The following simple program accepts a filename as a command line argument and displays the contents of the file back to the user. The program is installed setuid root because it is intended for use as a learning tool to allow system administrators in-training to inspect privileged system files without giving them the ability to modify them or damage the system.

int main(int argc, char** argv) {
  char cmd[CMD_MAX] = "/usr/bin/cat ";
  strcat(cmd, argv[1]);

Because the program runs with root privileges, the call to system() also executes with root privileges. If a user specifies a standard filename, the call works as expected. However, if an attacker passes a string of the form ";rm -rf /", then the call to system() fails to execute cat due to a lack of arguments and then plows on to recursively delete the contents of the root partition.

Note that if argv[1] is a very long argument, then this issue might also be subject to a buffer overflow (CWE-120).

See Also

SEI CERT C Coding Standard - Guidelines 10. Environment (ENV)

Weaknesses in this category are related to the rules and recommendations in the Environment (ENV) section of the SEI CERT C Coding Standard.

OWASP Top Ten 2017 Category A1 - Injection

Weaknesses in this category are related to the A1 category in the OWASP Top Ten 2017.

Validate Inputs

Weaknesses in this category are related to the design and architecture of a system's input validation components. Frequently these deal with sanitizing, neutralizing a...

Comprehensive CWE Dictionary

This view (slice) covers all the elements in CWE.

Weaknesses without Software Fault Patterns

CWE identifiers in this view are weaknesses that do not have associated Software Fault Patterns (SFPs), as covered by the CWE-888 view. As such, they represent gaps in...

CWE Cross-section

This view contains a selection of weaknesses that represent the variety of weaknesses that are captured in CWE, at a level of abstraction that is likely to be useful t...

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