Introducing Qwiet AI AutoFix! Reduce the time to secure code by 95% Read More

Remote code execution (RCE) has been a part of many cybersecurity news headlines throughout the past few years. When attackers exploit an RCE vulnerability, they can gain complete control over the target machines or systems, almost like an invisible hand puppeteering the technologies. 

As a developer, you should know how to identify and remediate a remote code execution vulnerability so your application never becomes a single point of failure. 

What is remote code execution?

A remote code execution (RCE) is a critical security vulnerability attackers can use to execute arbitrary code or commands on target machines or systems. When a vulnerable application fails to validate and sanitize user inputs properly, attackers can exploit the weakness to gain complete control over the machine or network. 

How an RCE attack works

When engaging in an RCE attack, threat actors typically follow these steps:

  • Identify and exploit vulnerabilities in poorly coded or unpatched applications or operating systems (OS)
  • Gain access to the vulnerable application
  • Install the malicious code on the target machine or application, such as through a malicious image file 
  • Control the system’s activity

Types of RCE attacks

The most common RCE attack types are:

  • Type confusion: The attacker manipulates data types to cause a mismatch between the accessed resource’s type and properties.
  • Deserialization: The attacker creates a malicious object that becomes executable dynamic code when data is extracted from files, networks, or streams and rebuilt as objects.
  • Buffer overflow: The attacker exploits a flawed memory allocation to rewrite or overwrite data temporarily stored in the buffer.

What is the difference between remote code execution and injection?

Although RCE and code injection may superficially seem similar, they have several distinct differences:

  • Scope: Since RCE executes arbitrary code on a remote system rather than injecting malicious code into a targeted application, it has a broader impact. 
  • Control: Since attackers gain complete control over the target machine or system in an RCE attack, they perform actions as though they were physically present rather than only within the compromised application. 
  • Attack vector: RCE attacks can exploit vulnerabilities at the network level by targeting the services or protocols an application uses, while code injection attacks only focus on exploiting application code vulnerabilities. 
  • Objectives: Attackers carry out RCE attacks to gain unauthorized access, steal data, or compromise a system, while they use code inject attacks to manipulate the application’s behavior. 

How to identify code execution vulnerabilities 

As a developer, identifying RCE vulnerabilities and prioritizing their remediation is critical to secure coding practices. 

Source code

Proactively identifying these vulnerabilities enables you to prevent attackers from exploiting them and executing arbitrary code on your systems. When reviewing your source code, you should:

  • Engage in thorough code review