Depickling, Gadgets, and Chains: The Class of Exploit That Unraveled Equifax

September 10, 2017

Anyone with an internet connection is probably aware that Equifax recently leaked information on 143 million people in America; resulting in one of the most impactful security breaches in history.

The problem was reported to be in Apache Struts, a Rails-esque MVC framework for the Java ecosystem. A likely candidate 1 is CVE-2017-9805, which allowed an attacker to send a malicious XML payload that would be hydrated by XStream (an XML serialization library) to an arbitrary object.

Update: Contrary to what I’ve said above, it’s beenn made public that the vulnerability was CVE-2017-5638 which allowed arbitrary command execution through a maliciously constructed Content-Type header. Unlike CVE-2017-9805, its details are disclosed. See here the Metasploit pull request that adds a proof of concept.

Unsafe depickling

The exact details of the exploit are still unknown, but the broad class of exploit is well-articulated in the 2015 talk Marshalling Pickles by Gabriel Lawrence and Chris Frohoff.

Many languages provide a mechanism to allow objects to be encoded or decoded for transport. In Java, C#, and PHP it’s called “serialization”; in Ruby “marshalling”; in Go “gobbing”; and in Python “pickling”. Each of an object’s fields are written to a binary or string-based format along with an identifier for its class. A decoder running the same code on the other size instantiates the class and sets each field to stored values to reconstruct the serialized object. This sounds really scary and you might ask why these packages event exist, but they turn out to be very useful when implementing features like RPC.

It’s the combination of these generic deserialization mechanisms combined with unchecked input that’s big enough to lead to the leak of PII for 143 million people.

Gadgets and chains

Lawrence & Frohoff use the term gadget to describe a class or function that’s available within in executing scope of an application. The exploitation strategy is to start with a “kick-off” gadget that’s executed after deserialization and build a chain of instances and method invocations to get to a “sink” gadget that’s able to execute arbitrary code or commands. After attackers manage to get input to a sink gadget, they’ve effectively found a way to own the box.

Child processes transitioning from mostly shared memory to mostly copied as they mature.

Here’s a basic example of a Java gadget chain in action (lifted more-or-less unchanged from the talk):

public class CacheManager implements Serializable {
    private final Runnable initHook;

    public void readObject(ObjectInputStream ois) {
        ois.defaultReadObject(); // Populate initHook;

public class CommandTask implements Runnable, Serializable {
    private final String command;

    // For example, "cmd.exe" is passed into command.
    public CommandTask(String command) {
        this.command = command;

    public void run() {

An attacker crafts a serialized CommandTask (containing a string like cmd.exe) and injects it into an input stream that will be read by CacheManager. CacheManager hydrates it into an object, invokes run, and the attacker’s managed to execute an arbitrary command. Exploits in real life aren’t likely to be this easy, but they’ll use the same mechanic.

Defending yourself

These types of bugs are hopefully going to become less common over time as language-agnostic serialization formats like JSON that aren’t as prone to this type of problem 2 continue to gain in popularity, but that still leaves a lot of existing software out there today.

The speakers above recommend the important vulnerabilities to look for instances where an app is doing unsafe deserialization. Trying to squash the problem by curbing the available gadgets for exploitation is likely to be fruitless because there’s always more than will be found or introduced, and apps tend to have sprawling class graphs available in their runtime through libraries and transitive dependencies.

A blunt defense might be to disable XML input entirely. The technology’s inherent complexity leads to more than it’s fair share of exploitations. This is quite reminiscent of CVE-2013-0156 in Rails for example, which allowed arbitrary code execution through YAML embedded in XML input.

1 The full details of the breach are not yet known, and I’m speculating based on this communiqué from the Apache Struts Project Management Committee.

2 I should add the caveat that you could build a flawed JSON decoder that’s prone to the same problem, but normally these objects don’t store anything like a class name, and certainly won’t by default.

Depickling, Gadgets, and Chains: The Class of Exploit That Unraveled Equifax was published on September 10, 2017.

Find me on Twitter at @brandur.

Did I make a mistake? Please consider sending a pull request.