From Entry Point to Takeover: The Anatomy of Remote Code Execution (RCE) Full Guide

June 11, 202323 min read

From Entry Point to Takeover: The Anatomy of Remote Code Execution (RCE) Full Guide

Remote Code Execution (RCE) is a security vulnerability that allows an attacker to execute arbitrary code remotely on a targeted system. It can have severe consequences, enabling attackers to take complete control over the compromised system. This tutorial will guide you through understanding RCE, how to find it, and provide some code examples for better comprehension.

Understanding Remote Code Execution (RCE)

Understanding RCE Exploitation

RCE stands for Remote Code Execution, and it refers to a vulnerability in a computer system or software that allows an attacker to execute arbitrary code or commands remotely. In simple terms, it means that an attacker can gain unauthorized access to a system and run their own code on it, potentially taking control of the entire system.

RCE vulnerabilities can have severe consequences because they allow attackers to exploit a system and perform various malicious activities. These activities can include stealing sensitive information, modifying or deleting data, installing malware or backdoors, and launching further attacks on other systems.

RCE vulnerabilities can occur due to programming errors, poor input validation, buffer overflows, or insecure configurations in software or operating systems. When such a vulnerability is discovered, it is crucial for the software or system vendor to release a patch or update to fix the vulnerability as soon as possible.

Types of RCE

Remote Code Execution (RCE) vulnerabilities can manifest in various forms, depending on the underlying software, system, or attack vector. Here are some common types of RCE vulnerabilities:

  • 1. Command Injection: Command injection occurs when an application allows user-supplied input to be directly executed as a command on the underlying operating system. Attackers can exploit this vulnerability by injecting malicious commands into input fields, which are then executed by the system with the privileges of the application or user running the command. Command injection vulnerabilities often arise due to improper input validation or the insecure concatenation of user input with system commands.
  • 2. SQL Injection: SQL injection is a type of RCE vulnerability that occurs in applications that use SQL databases. Attackers exploit this vulnerability by injecting malicious SQL statements into input fields, which are then executed by the database server. If not properly sanitized or validated, user input can be used to manipulate the SQL queries, potentially allowing the execution of arbitrary SQL commands. Depending on the database permissions and configuration, an attacker can escalate the attack to execute system-level commands.
  • 3. Remote File Inclusion (RFI) and Local File Inclusion (LFI): RFI and LFI vulnerabilities involve the inclusion of external or local files by an application. Attackers can manipulate the file inclusion mechanism to include malicious files that contain executable code. With RFI, attackers can include remote files hosted on external servers, potentially allowing them to execute arbitrary code. LFI occurs when an application includes local files from the underlying system. If not properly validated, attackers can traverse directories and include sensitive files, which may lead to RCE.
  • 4. Server-Side Request Forgery (SSRF): SSRF vulnerabilities occur when an application can make requests to arbitrary URLs on behalf of the server. Attackers exploit SSRF by making requests to internal resources or services that are not intended to be publicly accessible. If the targeted resource allows execution of server-side code or has RCE vulnerabilities, an attacker can exploit SSRF to execute arbitrary code on the server.
  • 5. Deserialization Vulnerabilities: Deserialization vulnerabilities arise when applications deserialize data from an external source, such as network input or stored files, into objects in memory. If the deserialization process is not properly secured, attackers can manipulate the serialized data to include malicious code. When the data is deserialized, the code can be executed, leading to RCE. These vulnerabilities are particularly dangerous as they often allow for remote and unauthenticated code execution.
  • 6. Component or Library Vulnerabilities: RCE vulnerabilities can also be present in third-party components or libraries used by an application or system. Attackers can target known vulnerabilities in these components to execute arbitrary code. Examples include vulnerabilities in web frameworks, content management systems (CMS), or server software.

It’s important to note that the complexity and impact of RCE vulnerabilities can vary depending on the context in which they occur. Their severity can range from local privilege escalation to full system compromise and takeover. It is crucial for software developers, system administrators, and users to stay vigilant, apply security patches promptly, and follow secure coding practices to mitigate the risk of RCE vulnerabilities.

How to Find/Identify Rce

Finding Remote Code Execution (RCE) vulnerabilities involves looking for ways to execute unauthorized code on a system. Here are some simplified steps you can take to find RCE vulnerabilities:

1. Identify Input Points: Start by identifying areas of a system where user input is accepted, such as web forms, file uploads, or API endpoints. These are potential entry points where an attacker can attempt to inject malicious code.

2. Test for Injection: Try injecting unexpected or malicious inputs into those input points. For example, you can add special characters, long strings, or commands within input fields. Observe how the system responds. If there are error messages or unusual behavior, it could indicate a potential vulnerability.

3. Examine Error Messages: Error messages can sometimes provide valuable information about the system’s internal workings. Look for error messages that reveal system paths, filenames, or stack traces. Attackers can exploit this information to craft specific payloads to execute arbitrary code.

4. Test for Command Injection: Some systems allow executing commands, such as running shell commands or interacting with the underlying operating system. Try injecting special characters or commands within the input fields that interact with command execution. If the system responds by executing the injected command or shows unexpected behavior, it might indicate a command injection vulnerability.

5. Analyze File Uploads: If the system allows file uploads, check if it performs proper validation and sanitization of uploaded files. Attempt to upload files with unconventional extensions or payloads, such as scripts or executable files. If the system allows execution of those files, it could indicate an RCE vulnerability.

6. Research Known Vulnerabilities: Stay updated on security advisories, CVE databases, or bug bounty reports that disclose RCE vulnerabilities in various software and systems. This information can provide insights into common vulnerabilities and guide your testing efforts.

7. Utilize Security Tools: There are automated security tools available, such as vulnerability scanners or fuzzers, that can help identify RCE vulnerabilities. These tools analyze the target system for known vulnerabilities or generate various inputs to test for unexpected behaviors.

Remember that you should only perform these steps on systems you have proper authorization to test. Unauthorized testing is illegal and unethical. If you discover an RCE vulnerability, it is important to responsibly disclose it to the system owners or vendors, allowing them to address the issue and protect their users.

Common Attack Vectors

Common Attack Vectors

Here are some common attack vectors that can lead to Remote Code Execution (RCE) vulnerabilities and how attackers exploit them:

1. Insecure Input Validation:

   – Example: An application fails to properly validate user input and allows special characters or commands to be injected.

   – Exploitation: Attackers can inject malicious commands or code into input fields, such as form inputs or URL parameters. If the application directly uses this input without proper validation or sanitization, the injected code can be executed by the underlying system, leading to RCE.

2. Deserialization Vulnerabilities:

   – Example: An application deserializes user-provided data without implementing proper security controls.

   – Exploitation: Attackers craft malicious serialized objects or data that, when deserialized by the application, execute arbitrary code. This code execution can lead to RCE. Attackers may exploit flaws in the deserialization process to bypass security measures and gain unauthorized access.

3. Code Injection Attacks:

   – Example: An application dynamically executes code based on user-supplied input.

   – Exploitation: Attackers inject malicious code, such as operating system commands or scripting code, into input fields. The vulnerable application executes this injected code without proper validation or sanitization, allowing the attacker to execute arbitrary commands or code on the target system.

4. Server-Side Request Forgery (SSRF):

   – Example: An application allows users to specify a URL to retrieve content but fails to validate the target.

   – Exploitation: Attackers can supply a malicious URL pointing to internal or restricted resources. If the application fetches the content of that URL on behalf of the server, it may inadvertently access sensitive data or execute code on internal systems. SSRF can be leveraged to make requests to internal services with RCE vulnerabilities, enabling attackers to execute arbitrary code.

5. File Inclusion Vulnerabilities:

   – Example: An application includes files or resources based on user-controlled input.

   – Exploitation: Attackers manipulate the file inclusion mechanism to include malicious files that contain executable code. With Remote File Inclusion (RFI), attackers can include files hosted on external servers, while Local File Inclusion (LFI) targets files on the local system. If the inclusion process is not properly validated, attackers can execute arbitrary code from these files, leading to RCE.

Attackers leverage these vulnerabilities by identifying susceptible applications or systems and exploiting weaknesses in the software’s design, configuration, or implementation. They craft specific payloads or inputs to trigger the vulnerability and execute arbitrary code. The objective is to gain unauthorized access, escalate privileges, or perform malicious actions on the targeted system.

RCE Exploitation with Code Example

To illustrate RCE exploitation, let’s consider a hypothetical scenario involving a web application vulnerable to RCE through a command injection vulnerability. This vulnerability allows an attacker to execute arbitrary commands on the server.

Example PHP Code Vulnerable to Command Injection:

$command = $_GET['command'];
$output = shell_exec('ping -c 4 ' . $command);
echo "<pre>$output</pre>";

In this code, the “command” parameter is directly concatenated with the ping command. An attacker can exploit this vulnerability by injecting a malicious command in the URL.


URL: http://example.com/vulnerable.php?command=;ls

The semicolon (;) is used as a delimiter to separate the original command and inject additional commands. In this example, the attacker appends the command “ls” to list the files in the server’s directory. As a result, the server executes the injected command, and the output is displayed on the webpage.

Some Real-World Examples Of RCE

Certainly! Here are some real-world examples of notable Remote Code Execution (RCE) incidents that have occurred in the past, along with their reference links for further reading:

1. CVE-2017-5638 (Apache Struts):

   – Reference: Apache Security Bulletin S2-045 – http://struts.apache.org/docs/s2-045.html

   – Notable Incident: Equifax Data Breach – https://www.bbc.com/news/business-41220948

2. CVE-2019-11510 (Pulse Secure VPN):

   – Reference: Pulse Secure Security Advisory SA44101 – https://kb.pulsesecure.net/articles/Pulse_Security_Advisories/SA44101/

   – Notable Incident: Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) Advisory – https://us-cert.cisa.gov/ncas/alerts/aa19-133a

3. CVE-2018-8174 (Microsoft Internet Explorer):

   – Reference: Microsoft Security Bulletin MS18-045 – https://portal.msrc.microsoft.com/en-US/security-guidance/advisory/CVE-2018-8174

   – Notable Incident: North Korean Lazarus Group Exploitation – https://www.us-cert.gov/ncas/alerts/TA18-149A

4. CVE-2020-0796 (Microsoft SMBv3):

   – Reference: Microsoft Security Advisory ADV200005 – https://msrc-blog.microsoft.com/2020/03/12/march-2020-security-update-cve-2020-0796/

   – Notable Incident: WannaCry Ransomware Attack – https://www.symantec.com/blogs/threat-intelligence/wannacry-ransomware-attack-explained

Vulnerability Scanning and Testing

Vulnerability scanning and testing tools play a crucial role in identifying potential Remote Code Execution (RCE) vulnerabilities and other security issues in systems and applications. These tools automate the process of identifying known vulnerabilities, misconfigurations, and weaknesses, allowing organizations to proactively address them before they are exploited by attackers. Here, we’ll introduce you to some commonly used vulnerability scanning and testing tools and discuss effective ways to use them regularly.


Nessus is a widely used vulnerability scanner that helps identify RCE vulnerabilities and other security issues. It offers a comprehensive database of known vulnerabilities and provides detailed reports on the vulnerabilities found. To use Nessus effectively, follow these steps:

  • Install and set up Nessus on a dedicated scanning machine.
  • Configure the target systems or networks to be scanned.
  • Run regular vulnerability scans and schedule recurring scans.
  • Review the scan reports, prioritize identified vulnerabilities, and take appropriate remediation actions.

Reference: Nessus – https://www.tenable.com/products/nessus


OpenVAS (Open Vulnerability Assessment System) is an open-source vulnerability scanner that performs comprehensive security tests. It scans for RCE vulnerabilities, misconfigurations, and other security issues in networks and systems. OpenVAS is highly customizable and extensible. To use OpenVAS effectively:

  • Install and configure OpenVAS on a dedicated machine.
  • Set up scan targets, define scanning policies, and configure scan schedules.
  • Run regular scans and analyze the generated reports.
  • Prioritize and address the identified vulnerabilities based on their severity.

Reference: OpenVAS – http://www.openvas.org/

Burp Suite:

Burp Suite is a powerful web application security testing tool that can help identify RCE vulnerabilities in web applications. Its functionality includes intercepting and modifying HTTP requests, scanning for vulnerabilities, and performing penetration testing. To use Burp Suite effectively:

  • Set up Burp Suite and configure the proxy settings in your web browser.
  • Explore the target web application, intercept requests, and analyze their parameters.
  • Utilize Burp Suite’s scanning features to identify potential RCE vulnerabilities.
  • Analyze the scan results, verify the vulnerabilities, and provide recommendations for remediation.

Reference: Burp Suite – https://portswigger.net/burp

Manual Testing:

While automated tools are valuable, manual testing is equally important for identifying RCE vulnerabilities. Manual testing involves analyzing the application’s source code, examining user inputs, and testing boundary conditions to uncover potential vulnerabilities. Additionally, performing penetration testing and security code reviews can help identify RCE vulnerabilities that automated tools may miss.

Effective Usage Tips:

To make vulnerability scanning and testing effective and meaningful:

  • Regularly scan your systems and applications, ideally on a scheduled basis.
  • Ensure that the scanning tools are up to date with the latest vulnerability signatures and patches.
  • Prioritize the vulnerabilities based on their severity, impact, and the system’s criticality.
  • Collaborate with developers and system administrators to remediate the identified vulnerabilities promptly.
  • Document the scanning and testing results, including the vulnerabilities found, actions taken, and their outcomes.

Remember, vulnerability scanning and testing are continuous processes. It is crucial to incorporate them into your organization’s security practices, establish a routine, and stay updated with emerging vulnerabilities and patches to effectively identify and mitigate RCE vulnerabilities.

Disclaimer: When performing vulnerability scanning and testing, always ensure you have proper authorization and follow ethical guidelines and legal requirements.

The Future of RCE

The Future of RCE

The future of Remote Code Execution (RCE) vulnerabilities is influenced by emerging trends and developments in technology. Here are a few areas that impact the prevalence and prevention of RCE vulnerabilities:

Cloud Computing: The widespread adoption of cloud computing introduces new considerations for RCE vulnerabilities. Cloud service providers must ensure the security of their infrastructure, virtualization technologies, and isolation mechanisms to prevent unauthorized code execution. Users of cloud services should also adopt secure practices when deploying and configuring their applications to minimize the risk of RCE vulnerabilities.

Internet of Things (IoT) Devices: The proliferation of IoT devices presents new attack surfaces and potential RCE vulnerabilities. These devices often have limited computational power, memory, and security controls, making them attractive targets for attackers. Securing IoT devices requires implementing strong authentication, encryption, and secure software development practices to prevent RCE vulnerabilities and protect user privacy.

Containerization and Microservices: Containerization technologies like Docker and orchestration frameworks like Kubernetes have gained popularity. While these technologies provide benefits in terms of scalability and deployment agility, they also introduce new attack vectors. Securing containerized environments and microservices architectures requires robust access controls, secure image repositories, and regular vulnerability scanning to prevent RCE vulnerabilities.

Machine Learning (ML) and Artificial Intelligence (AI): ML and AI technologies are increasingly used in various applications, including security systems. While these technologies have the potential to detect and prevent RCE attacks, they also introduce new risks. Adversarial machine learning techniques can be used to exploit vulnerabilities and evade detection systems. Continuous research and development are essential to ensure the robustness and security of ML and AI systems against RCE vulnerabilities.

Secure Coding Practices and Security Testing: As RCE vulnerabilities continue to pose a significant threat, the importance of secure coding practices and rigorous security testing becomes even more critical. Developers need to follow secure coding guidelines, employ secure libraries and frameworks, and conduct thorough security testing, including code reviews and penetration testing, to identify and mitigate RCE vulnerabilities at an early stage.

The future of RCE vulnerabilities involves a dynamic landscape driven by evolving technologies. It requires a proactive approach from technology providers, developers, and users to adopt secure practices, implement robust security measures, and stay updated with emerging threats and mitigation strategies.


Remote Code Execution (RCE) vulnerabilities are serious security threats that can have severe consequences for systems and applications. By understanding how RCE vulnerabilities occur, how to detect them, and being cautious while developing code, you can help mitigate these risks. Always prioritize secure coding practices and stay updated with security patches and advisories to protect your systems from RCE attacks.

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