Directory Traversal

Directory Traversal

Imagine you're a security guard at a building with restricted areas. People can normally only enter through the main entrance. But what if someone found a hidden back door or a clever way to bypass the security system altogether?

In the world of websites, there are similar vulnerabilities. These are called directory traversal vulnerabilities, and they allow attackers to access areas they shouldn't be able to. 

What is Directory Traversal?

Directory traversal, also known as path traversal, is a type of cyber attack where an attacker gains access to directories and files on a server that are meant to be restricted. In simpler terms, it’s like someone finding a backdoor to see files they shouldn’t be able to see. This attack takes advantage of inadequate security checks and improper handling of file paths in web applications.

When you use a web application, it often involves accessing files stored on a server. Normally, you can only access the files that the server allows. However, in a directory traversal attack, an attacker manipulates the file paths to access sensitive files outside the allowed directory. 

Such vulnerabilities also pose significant CDN security risks, as attackers can exploit the content delivery network infrastructure to access sensitive files distributed across multiple servers.


For example, instead of accessing a file like, they might change the path to something like This modified path allows them to traverse the directory structure and access restricted files.

These attacks exploit vulnerabilities in web applications, often due to poor coding practices. For instance, if the application doesn’t properly sanitize user inputs or validate file paths, it becomes an easy target for attackers. 

This is similar to other well-known vulnerabilities, such as the path traversal vulnerability, and heartbleed vulnerability, which exposed a critical flaw in the OpenSSL library, allowing attackers to access sensitive information.

Examples of Directory Traversal Attacks

Here are some very real directory traversal attacks that have happened to large corporations:

1. Atlassian Jira Service Desk Vulnerability

In September 2019, security researchers uncovered a critical directory traversal vulnerability in Atlassian’s Jira Service Desk Server and Jira Service Desk Data Center. This vulnerability allowed attackers to access sensitive files and information that were intended to be restricted. 

By manipulating the file path input, attackers could navigate through the server’s directory structure to view confidential customer data​​. 

2. Adobe ColdFusion Vulnerability

Adobe faced a critical situation in late September 2019 when it had to release fixes for three vulnerabilities in its ColdFusion platform. Among these was a directory traversal vulnerability that allowed attackers to bypass the application’s access controls. 

By exploiting this flaw, malicious users could read or write files on the server, which could lead to unauthorized access and potential manipulation of sensitive data​. 

This incident highlighted the risks associated with web application platforms that handle a wide range of enterprise data and functionalities, stressing the importance of regular security updates and patches.

3. Kubernetes Kubectl Vulnerability

In June 2019, a directory traversal vulnerability was discovered in the Kubectl command-line tool for managing Kubernetes clusters. This vulnerability was particularly concerning because it affected the cp command, which is used to copy files from a Kubernetes pod to a local machine. 

Attackers could exploit this flaw by manipulating file paths, potentially copying files to unauthorized locations, and executing arbitrary code. This type of vulnerability could lead to privilege escalation and control over the Kubernetes cluster, posing a significant risk to the security of containerized applications​.

4. Apache HTTP Server Vulnerability (CVE-2021-41773)

The Apache HTTP Server, one of the most widely used web server software, was found to have a directory traversal exploit in version 2.4.49. 

This flaw, identified as CVE-2021-41773, allowed attackers to craft specific file paths to access restricted files on the server. If exploited, this vulnerability could enable remote code execution, allowing attackers to take control of the server. 

5. Consumer Routers and NAS Devices

In 2015, security researcher Kyle Lovett discovered that 12 out of 13 routers and NAS devices from various manufacturers had directory traversal vulnerabilities. These flaws were found in the administrative web interfaces of these devices, allowing remote attackers to gain unauthorized access. 

The compromised devices included popular consumer-grade routers and NAS systems, which were found to be using firmware from Shenzhen Gongjin Electronics. 

The directory traversal vulnerability in these devices allowed attackers to access configuration files containing administrator passwords, ISP credentials, and other sensitive information. 

How to Prevent Directory Traversal Attacks

As we saw, directory traversal attacks can be devastating, leading to unauthorized access to sensitive files and potentially compromising entire systems. 

Preventing these attacks involves a combination of secure coding practices, proper configuration, and continuous monitoring:

1. Validate and Sanitize User Input

One of the primary causes of directory traversal vulnerabilities is improper handling of user input. It’s crucial to ensure that all user inputs are thoroughly validated and sanitized. This means stripping out any potentially dangerous characters or sequences, such as ../ or ..\ that could be used to traverse directories.

  • Whitelist Approach: Only allow input that matches a predefined set of acceptable values. For example, if users are selecting files, ensure they can only choose from a list of permitted filenames.
  • Sanitization Libraries: Utilize libraries and frameworks that provide built-in sanitization functions to clean user input, ensuring that special characters are either escaped or removed entirely​.

2. Use Secure File Access Methods

Instead of directly using user input to access files, use secure methods to handle file operations. For example, if your application needs to access a file based on user input, map the user input to a secure file path within a restricted directory.

  • Canonicalization: Resolve the file path to its absolute form to ensure it stays within a predefined directory. This helps prevent attackers from manipulating the path to escape the intended directory​.
  • File Access APIs: Use secure APIs that enforce strict access controls and prevent unauthorized file access.

3. Implement Least Privilege Principle

Ensure that your web application and the underlying web server operate with the least privilege necessary. This means restricting access rights and permissions to only what is essential for the application to function.

  • Web Server Configuration: Configure the web server to limit the directories that the application can access. Use tools like chroot jails to create isolated environments for web applications​.
  • User Permissions: Run web applications under restricted user accounts with minimal permissions to reduce the impact of a potential directory traversal attack.

4. Regularly Update and Patch Systems

Keeping your software and systems up to date is a critical aspect of maintaining security. This includes applying patches and updates to web servers, applications, and libraries.

  • Patch Management: Establish a routine for checking and applying updates to all components of your web infrastructure. This helps mitigate known vulnerabilities, including directory traversal flaws​​.
  • Security Monitoring: Implement continuous monitoring tools to detect and alert on potential security breaches or unusual activities that may indicate an attack.

5. Employ Web Application Firewalls (WAFs)

A Web Application Firewall (WAF) can help protect against directory traversal attacks by filtering and monitoring HTTP requests. WAFs can detect and block malicious requests that attempt to exploit directory traversal vulnerabilities.

  • Rule-Based Protection: Configure your WAF to include rules that specifically detect and prevent directory traversal attack patterns​​.
  • Continuous Updates: Ensure that your WAF is regularly updated with the latest threat signatures and protection rules.

6. Conduct Security Audits and Penetration Testing

Regular security audits and penetration testing can help identify and remediate directory traversal vulnerabilities before attackers can exploit them.

  • Automated Scanners: Use automated vulnerability scanners to regularly check your web applications for directory traversal and other security issues​​.
  • Manual Testing: Engage in manual penetration testing to uncover complex vulnerabilities that automated tools might miss.

Directory Traversal Mitigation Techniques

Protecting against directory traversal attacks requires a combination of secure coding practices, robust configuration, and continuous monitoring. 

Here are some essential techniques to mitigate these vulnerabilities:

1. Use Parameterized Paths

Rather than allowing user input to dictate file paths directly, use predefined and parameterized paths within your application. This ensures that users can only access files intended by the application.

  • Template Paths: Define file paths in templates or configuration files, and use identifiers to access these paths securely.
  • Indirect Access: Map user inputs to secure file identifiers rather than direct paths.

2. Implement Strong Input Validation

Properly validating and sanitizing user input is crucial. Ensure that all inputs are checked for harmful characters and patterns.

  • Regular Expressions: Use regular expressions to allow only safe characters in file paths.
  • Input Length Restrictions: Limit the length of user inputs to avoid excessively long path manipulations.

3. Deploy a Web Application Firewall (WAF)

A WAF can help filter out malicious requests that might exploit directory traversal vulnerabilities. It acts as an additional layer of defense.

  • Custom Rules: Create specific rules to detect and block directory traversal attack patterns.
  • Frequent Updates: Regularly update the WAF with the latest threat signatures and protection mechanisms.

4. Secure File System Permissions

Ensure that file system permissions are correctly set to restrict access to sensitive directories and files.

  • Least Privilege: Configure the web server and applications to run with the minimum privileges necessary.
  • Access Controls: Use Access Control Lists (ACLs) to define precise access rights for different users and processes.

5. Conduct Regular Security Assessments

Regular security audits and penetration testing can help identify and fix directory traversal vulnerabilities before they can be exploited.

  • Automated Scanners: Use tools to automate the detection of vulnerabilities and ensure comprehensive coverage.
  • Manual Testing: Complement automated scans with manual testing to uncover complex or subtle vulnerabilities.

6. Update and Patch Software

Keeping all software components up-to-date is essential to protect against known vulnerabilities.

  • Patch Management: Implement a robust patch management process to ensure all software, including third-party libraries, is regularly updated.
  • Security Advisories: Stay informed about security advisories and apply patches promptly.

7. Implement Web Application and API Protection (WAAP)

Modern security solutions like Web Application and API Protection (WAAP) offer comprehensive defenses against various web-based threats, including directory traversal attacks. 

WAAP integrates several security technologies, providing a holistic approach to protecting web applications and APIs.

  • Integrated Security: Combines WAF, API security, and bot management to protect against a wide range of threats.
  • Automated Threat Detection: Uses AI and machine learning to detect and mitigate threats in real time.


Directory traversal attacks are a significant security risk that can lead to unauthorized access to sensitive information and potential system compromises. However, while destructive, it’s not unstoppable. 

Through following best practices, and preparing yourself, you can effectively shut these attacks down before they happen!

Published on:
June 21, 2024
This is some text inside of a div block.