Using the ‘telnet’ URI Protocol to Delete Files

[Update 24 May 2004: If you just want to know the steps I recommend to close the various URI-related vulnerabilities, see “An Ounce of Prevention”.]

In addition to the ‘disk’, ‘disks’, and ‘help’ URI protocols mentioned yesterday, you should also turn off the ‘telnet’ protocol. By default, it’s assigned to Terminal; I recommend using RCDefaultApp to set it to “<disabled>”.

The problem with Mac OS X’s default handling for ‘telnet://’ URIs is that it treats whatever follows the slashes as an argument to the telnet shell command. This includes the use of command-line option switches. telnet’s “-n” switch can be used to specify a text file in which a log of the telnet session will be written.

Thus, a URI such as:


will create — or overwrite — a file named “foo” in your home folder. This file is empty, and it isn’t executed, but the fact that it will overwrite an existing file with the same name is some serious shit.

It will not overwrite folders (e.g. it won’t replace your Documents folder with an empty file named “Documents”), and it will not overwrite files to which you don’t have write privileges (thus it can’t be used to overwrite essential system components).

But it can be used to overwrite any file on your computer to which you do have write privileges, which includes pretty much any file within your home folder.

To access files outside the root level of your home folder, simply URL-encode the directory-separator slashes. This URI will write a file named “foo” in your startup disk’s /tmp folder:


Now we get nasty; this one will overwrite your Finder preferences file:


For some reason, such URIs only work if the entire path is specified using lowercase letters — despite the fact that the actual names for the folders in the above example are “Library” and “Preferences”.

I first saw this ‘telnet’ exploit mentioned in this comment from “fukami” on Elizabeth Lawley’s Mamamusings weblog. Jay Allen clued me in to the URL-encoded slashes trick that allows this exploit to overwrite files outside your home folder.

What About ssh?

Within minutes of posting this article, I started getting email asking if the ‘ssh’ protocol has a similar hole. As far as I can tell, it does not: I’m not aware of any way that an ‘ssh’ URI can be used nefariously. For one thing, even though the ssh protocol can be loosely described as a secure alternative to telnet, the ssh shell command provides an entirely different set of command-line switches than the telnet tool; ssh has no analogous switch to telnet’s “-n”.

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