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Unintended Require

If an attacker controls the x in require(x) then they can cause code to load that was not intended to run on the server.

Our high-level, informal security argument for web applications looks like:

  1. All code producing content for, and loaded into is written or vetted by developers employed by
  2. Those developers have the tools and support to do a good job, and organizational measures filter out those unwilling or unable to do a good job.
  3. Browsers enforce the same origin policy, so's code can make sure all access by third parties to data held on behalf of end users goes through's servers where authorization checks happen.
  4. Therefore, end users can make informed decisions about the degree of trust they extend to

Even if the first two premises are true, but production servers load code that wasn't intended to run in production, then the conclusion does not follow. Developers do not vet test code the same way they do production code and ought not have to.

This vulnerability may be novel to CommonJS-based module linking (though we are not the first to report it (details)) so we discuss it in more depth than other classes of vulnerability. Our frequency and severity guesstimates have a high level of uncertainty.

Dynamic require() can load non-production code

require only loads from the file-system under normal configurations even though CommonJS leaves "unspecified whether modules are stored with a database, file system, or factory functions, or are interchangeable with link libraries."

Even though, as-shipped, require only loads from the file-system, a common practice of copying node_modules to the server makes unintended require a more severe problem than one might expect. Test code often defines mini APIs that intentionally disable or circumvent production checks, so causing test code to load in production can make it much easier to escalate privileges or turn a limited code execution vulnerability into an arbitrary code execution vulnerabilities.

Availability of non-production code in node_modules

There are many modules $m such that npm install "$m" places test or example files under node_modules/$m.

Experiments show that, of the top 108 most commonly used modules, 50 (46.30%) include test or example code. Some of these modules, like mocha, are most often loaded as dev dependencies, but npm install --only=prod will still produce a node_modules directory that has test and example code for most projects.

Non-production code differs from production code.

We need to keep test code from loading in production.

Good developers do and should be able to do things in test code that would be terrible ideas in production code. It is not uncommon to find test code that:

  • changes global configuration so that they can run tests under multiple different configurations.
  • defines methods that intentionally break abstractions so they can test how gracefully production code deals with marginal inputs.
  • parses test cases specified in strings and pass parts onto powerful reflective operators and eval-like operators.
  • requires modules specified in test case strings so they can run test cases in the context of plugins.
  • breaks private/public API distinctions to better interrogate internals.
  • disables security checks so they can test how gracefully a subcomponent handles dodgy inputs.
  • calls directly into lower-level APIs that assume that higher layers checked inputs and enforced access controls.
  • includes in output sensitive internal state (like PRNG seeds) to aid a developer in reproducing or tracking down the root cause of a test failure.
  • logs or include in output information that would be sensitive if the code connected to real user data instead of a test database.
  • resets PRNG seeds to fixed values to make it easier to reproduce test failures.
  • adds additional "God mode" request handlers that allow a developer to interactively debug a test server.

These are not security problems when test environments neither access real user data nor receive untrusted inputs.

Unintended Require can activate non-production code

The primary vector for this vulnerability is dynamic code loading: calling require(...) with an argument other than a literal string.

To assess the severity of this issue, we examined the 108 most popular npm modules.

34 of the top 108 most popular npm modules (30%) call require(...) without a literal string argument or have a non-test dependency that does. This is after imperfect heuristics to filter out non-production code. If we assume, conservatively, that uses of require that are not immediate calls are dynamic load vectors, then the proportion rises to 50%. See appendix.

Below are the results of a manual human review of dynamic loads in popular npm modules. There seem to be few clear vulnerabilities among the top 108 modules, but the kind of reasoning required to check this is not automatable; note the use of phrases like "developers probably won't" and "the module is typically used to".

Determining which dynamic loads are safe among the long tail of less widely used modules would be difficult.

Some dynamic loads are safe. Jade, a deprecated version of PugJS, does

function getMarkdownImplementation() {
  var implementations = ['marked', 'supermarked',
                         'markdown-js', 'markdown'];
  while (implementations.length) {
    try {

This is not vulnerable. It tries to satisfy a dependency by iteratively loading alternatives until it finds one that is available.

Babel-core v6's file transformation module (code) loads plugins thus:

var parser = (0, _resolve2.default)(parserOpts.parser, dirname);
if (parser) {
  parseCode = require(parser).parse;

This looks in an options object for a module identifier. It's unlikely that this particular code in babel is exploitable since developers probably won't let untrusted inputs specify parser options.

The popular colors module (code) treats the argument to setTheme as a module identifier.

colors.setTheme = function (theme) {
  if (typeof theme === 'string') {
    try {
      colors.themes[theme] = require(theme);

This is unlikely to be a problem since the module is typically used to colorize console output. HTTP response handling code will probably not load colors so an untrusted input will probably not reach colors.setTheme. If an attacker can control the argument to setTheme then they can load an arbitrary JavaScript source file or C++ addon.

The popular browserlist module (code) takes part of a query string and treats it as a module name:

    regexp: /^extends (.+)$/i,
    select: function (context, name) {
      if (!context.dangerousExtend) checkExtend(name)
      // eslint-disable-next-line security/detect-non-literal-require
      var queries = require(name)

Hopefully browser list queries are not specified by untrusted inputs, but if they are, an attacker can load arbitrary available source files since /(.+)$/ will match any module identifier.

The popular express framework loads file-extension-specific code as needed. If express views are lazily initialized based on a portion of the request path without first checking that the path should have a view associated, then the following runs (code):

if (!opts.engines[this.ext]) {
  // load engine
  var mod = this.ext.substr(1)
  debug('require "%s"', mod)

  // default engine export
  var fn = require(mod).__express

This would seem to allow loading top-level modules by requesting a view name like foo.toplevelmodule, though not local source files whose identifiers must contain . and /. Loading top-level modules does not, by itself, allow loading non-production code, so this is probably not vulnerable to this attack. It may be possible to use a path like /base.\foo\bar to cause mod = "\\foo\\bar" which may allow arbitrary source files on Windows, but it would only allow loading the module for initialization side effects unless it coincidentally provides significant abusable authority under exports.__express.

This analysis suggests that the potential for exploiting unintended require is low in projects that only use the 100 most popular modules, but the number and variety of dynamic require() calls in the top 108 modules suggests potential for exploitable cases in the top 1000 modules, and we know of no way to automatically vet modules for UIR vulnerabilities.

Unintended require can leak information

Fernando Arnaboldi showed that unintended requires can leak sensitive information if attackers have access to error messages.

# node -e


The previous example exposes the first line of /etc/shadow, which contains the encrypted root password.

See also exfiltration.

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