What is Server Side Template Injection (SSTI)


Server-side Template Injection

Server-side template injection is when an attacker is able to use native template syntax to inject a malicious payload into a template, which is then executed server-side.

Template engines are designed to generate web pages by combining fixed templates with volatile data. Server-side template injection attacks can occur when user input is concatenated directly into a template, rather than passed in as data. This allows attackers to inject arbitrary template directives in order to manipulate the template engine, often enabling them to take complete control of the server. As the name suggests, server-side template injection payloads are delivered and evaluated server-side, potentially making them much more dangerous than a typical client-side template injection.

Impact of Server-side Template Injection

Server-side template injection vulnerabilities can expose websites to a variety of attacks depending on the template engine in question and how exactly the application uses it. In certain rare circumstances, these vulnerabilities pose no real security risk. However, most of the time, the impact of server-side template injection can be catastrophic.

At the severe end of the scale, an attacker can potentially achieve remote code execution, taking full control of the back-end server and using it to perform other attacks on internal infrastructure.

Even in cases where full remote code execution is not possible, an attacker can often still use server-side template injection as the basis for numerous other attacks, potentially gaining read access to sensitive data and arbitrary files on the server.

How do server-side template injection vulnerabilities arise?

Server-side template injection vulnerabilities arise when user input is concatenated into templates rather than being passed in as data.

Static templates that simply provide placeholders into which dynamic content is rendered are generally not vulnerable to server-side template injection. The classic example is an email that greets each user by their name, such as the following extract from a Twig template:

$output = $twig->render("Dear {first_name},", array("first_name" => $user.first_name) );

This is not vulnerable to server-side template injection because the user's first name is merely passed into the template as data.

However, as templates are simply strings, web developers sometimes directly concatenate user input into templates prior to rendering. Let's take a similar example to the one above, but this time, users are able to customize parts of the email before it is sent. For example, they might be able to choose the name that is used:

$output = $twig->render("Dear " . $_GET['q']);

In this example, instead of a static value being passed into the template, part of the template itself is being dynamically generated using the GET parameter name. As template syntax is evaluated server-side, this potentially allows an attacker to place a server-side template injection payload inside the name parameter as follows:


Vulnerabilities like this are sometimes caused by accident due to poor template design by people unfamiliar with the security implications. Like in the example above, you may see different components, some of which contain user input, concatenated and embedded into a template. In some ways, this is similar to SQL injection vulnerabilities occurring in poorly written prepared statements.

However, sometimes this behavior is actually implemented intentionally. For example, some websites deliberately allow certain privileged users, such as content editors, to edit or submit custom templates by design. This clearly poses a huge security risk if an attacker is able to compromise an account with such privileges.

Constructing a server-side template injection attack

Identifying server-side template injection vulnerabilities and crafting a successful attack typically involves the following high-level process.

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