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Directory Traversal Cheat Sheet for 2023 [PDF Download]

Directory Traversal Cheat Sheet for 2023

As the online world expands, it provides attackers more opportunities to exploit vulnerabilities and breach defenses. One critical threat is Directory Traversal, a covert maneuver that can trigger data breaches and system compromises—and open a gateway to website spoofing. 

In this post, we’ll delve into directory traversal attacks, covering their nature, risks, and methods to enhance your defenses. We’ll also provide a free downloadable cheat sheet to help you increase your security against these malicious and intrusive attacks.

What is Directory Traversal?

Directory traversal is a cyber attack where malicious actors exploit vulnerabilities in interactions between web servers and file systems, accessing files beyond an application’s intended scope. This capitalizes on mishandled user inputs, often related to file paths or directory references.

Often referred to as path traversal, this security flaw targets files and directories located beyond the web’s primary directory. By altering variables linked to files using patterns like “dot-dot-slash (../)” and similar sequences, or employing absolute file paths, attackers could potentially reach any file or directory on the system. This includes vital system files, application source codes, configurations, databases, and more.

For instance, consider a web application that takes a filename as a parameter to display that file’s contents. If the application does not properly sanitize the input, an attacker can provide input like “../etc/passwd” to access the password file on a UNIX system.

In simple terms:

  • A web server typically serves files from a specific directory (e.g., a “webroot”).
  • If an attacker can trick the server into fetching files from outside this directory, they might access sensitive files.

How does Directory Traversal work?

Directory traversal works via a series of carefully crafted techniques:

  1. Identifying user input interactions – The attacker identifies the places of the application that allow user interactions like inputs like filenames, paths, file uploads, or other data related to files.
  2. Exploring for improper input handling – They look for places where the inputs provided by users aren’t properly validated or sanitized. If there are no proper validations, there’s no way to verify that the input adheres to expected constraints. This makes the system potentially vulnerable to traversal attempts.
  3. Traversal manipulation – The attacker takes advantage of the lack of input validation. By inputting carefully crafted sequences of characters, such as “../” or “%2e%2e%2f”, they trick the application into navigating beyond its intended scope.
  4. Unauthorized access – The manipulated input allows the attacker to move up directory levels, accessing directories and files they shouldn’t have permission to view. This can expose sensitive data, configurations, or even give the attacker the ability to execute or manipulate certain files, depending on the system’s setup.

HowDirectory Traversal works

For example, consider an application with a weak file upload mechanism. If the application allows file uploads without proper validation, attackers can upload a malicious file with a name containing traversal sequences. Then, when the application attempts to access the uploaded file, it might inadvertently give the attacker access to other files.

In some ways, these attacks are similar to SQL injections, but SQL injections are mainly executed targeting databases, while directory traversals focus on file and directory access.

How is directory traversal a gateway to website spoofing?

Website spoofing refers to creating a fraudulent website to mimic a real, trusted site. The primary goal of spoofing is typically to deceive users into believing they are interacting with a legitimate website, usually with the intent of hackers stealing sensitive data, such as login credentials, credit card numbers, or personal information.

A successful directory traversal attack can serve as a conduit for website spoofing. Here’s how:

  • Exposing Branded Assets: A directory traversal attack can expose brand details like logos, banners, and marketing materials to the public, allowing spoofers to create more convincing counterfeit websites.
  • Access to Email Templates: A directory traversal breach exposes official email templates and letterheads, allowing attackers to orchestrate convincing phishing campaigns.
  • Redirects and Web Forwarding: Understanding a website’s directory structure allows attackers to create highly convincing spoofs and implement redirects, diverting unsuspecting users to scam sites. 
  • Compromising Scripts or Pages: Manipulation scripts or pages through directory traversal attacks helps attackers extract sensitive user data, which can be used to refine spoofed sites, making them appear even more authentic to targeted users.

Moreover, by gaining insights into server-side functionalities through directory traversal, attackers can closely mirror website behaviors, such as form submissions and user interaction sequences. This enhanced mimicry increases the chances of users falling prey to the spoofed site, and strengthens the attackers’ ability to bypass certain security tools and automated detection mechanisms.

Website Spoofing Explained


In essence, directory traversal can arm spoofers with the tools and knowledge they need to create alarmingly accurate facsimiles of legitimate sites, escalating the threat and potential damage of website spoofing attacks.

What are the risks of Directory Traversal attacks?

Here are some common risks caused by directory traversal attacks:

  • Data Theft: Exposure and loss of sensitive data, like user credentials, financial data, proprietary source code, or confidential documents.
  • Unauthorized Access: Attackers can gain access to resources like file storage, servers, etc.
  • Data Manipulations: Attackers can change the data, causing inaccuracies, data corruption, or system malfunctions.
  • DDoS Attacks: Attackers can cause a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) by overloading servers through simultaneous access to numerous files or resources.
  • Financial Losses: Organizations can experience financial losses due to legal cases, remediation steps, and loss of business.
  • Policy Violations: Organizations may fail to comply with legal regulations like GDPR or independent audits like SOC 2.

How can you detect and prevent Directory Traversal attacks?

Threat detection and prevention are the keys when it comes to stopping cyber attackers. Here is a brief overview of how you can detect and prevent directory traversal attacks:


Log Analysis

Regularly review application logs for unusual access patterns or unauthorized file access attempts. 

Example: repeated requests like /path/to/sensitive/files/../../../etc/password might indicate an attack.

User Input Monitoring

Use input monitoring to detect suspicious input strings that might indicate traversal attempts.

URL Encoding Analysis

Check for unusual URL-encoded characters that might signify traversal manipulation. 

Example: “%2e%2e%2f” within the input indicates an effort to traverse directories.


Input Validation

Validate and sanitize user inputs. You can use validators to ensure that inputs contain only alphanumeric characters and block any “../” sequences. 

Access Controls

Implement robust access controls with the least privileges.

Secure APIs and Libraries

Use trusted APIs and libraries designed for secure file and directory operations.

Web Application Firewalls (WAF)

Use WAF to analyze incoming requests and block directory traversal attempts using predefined rules.

Directory Traversal Meme

7 Ways to Mitigate Directory Traversal Attacks

Although detection and prevention methods provide a significant level of security, we also need to be aware of mitigation methods to proactively address the threats actively exploiting vulnerabilities. 

Here’s a set of effective mitigation techniques you can use for directory traversal attacks:

1. Least Privilege Principle

Least privilege principle ensures that users and applications have only the necessary permissions to access resources. For example, if a user needs read-only access to a specific directory, the least privilege approach ensures they don’t have unnecessary write or execute permissions.

In the Unix environment, you can use the chmod command to set permissions. This command removes write and execute permissions for others.

chmod o-wx /path/to/sensitive/directory

2. Disable Directory Listing

Disabling directory listing in your web servers helps to prevent attackers from gaining insights into your directory structure. This simple step will prevent displaying the directory’s content when an attacker tries to access a directory without a specific file name.

If you are using an Apache web server, you can disable directory listing by including the below line:

Options -Indexes

3. Implement Proper Error Handling

Use error messages that do not reveal sensitive information. For example, do not display the names or paths of files when displaying an error for a missing file. Instead, provide a generic message like “Resource not available.”

4. Use Chroot Jails

Chroot Jails allow you to restrict applications to designated directories. It helps to isolate potential threats and prevents them from traversing beyond their designated boundaries.

In Linux, you can create a chroot jail using the below command:

chroot /path/to/jail /bin/bash

5. Regular Security Auditing and Monitoring

Real-time monitoring will help detect directory traversal attacks in the early stages before they significantly impact the security of your application. 

You can use tools like logwatch to set up alerts for unusual access patterns in the system.

# Install Logwatch
sudo apt-get install logwatch      # On Debian/Ubuntu
sudo yum install logwatch          # On CentOS/RHEL

# Configure Logwatch: Customize the Logwatch configuration file to include the logs you want to monitor. Edit /etc/logwatch/conf/logwatch.conf and add relevant log paths:

LogDir = /var/log
LogFile = secure
# Run Logwatch
sudo logwatch --mailto your@email.com --detail High

6. Use Security Frameworks and Libraries

Use well-established security frameworks and libraries that have been battle-tested. These resources offer pre-built solutions that can substantially enhance your defenses. For example, Django is an excellent Python framework with built-in protections against directory traversal attacks.

7. File Upload Security

File uploads often serve as potential entry points for attackers. Implement strict security measures to validate and sanitize uploaded files, preventing attackers from exploiting these avenues.

The below example shows how to validate uploaded files using JavaScript in a web application:

const allowedTypes = [‘jpg’, ‘png’, ‘pdf’];

document.getElementById(‘fileInput’).addEventListener(‘change’, event => {

  const uploadedFile = event.target.files[0];

  if (!uploadedFile) {



  const fileExtension = uploadedFile.name.split(‘.’).pop().toLowerCase();

  if (!allowedTypes.includes(fileExtension)) {

    alert(‘Invalid file type. Please upload a JPG, PNG, or PDF file.’);

    event.target.value = ”; // Clear the selected file



You can find a detailed cheat sheet providing these mitigation techniques and corresponding code samples in our free PDF download, Directory Traversal Cheat Sheet for 2023.

Download your free Directory Traversal Cheat Sheet for 2023

Memcyco: Your Best Defense Against Website Spoofing Via Directory Traversal

Directory traversal has emerged as a significant threat to organizations, capable of infiltrating systems, compromising data, and aiding in brandjacking and website spoofing attacks. While traditional protection methods are essential, innovative tools like Memcyco provide more robust security for your digital assets.

Memcyco’s brandjacking defense solution effectively reduces the vulnerability window between a fake website’s appearance and its removal. Utilizing an agentless Proof of Source Authenticity (PoSA) technology, Memcyco offers automatic zero-day protection. Real-time detection promptly identifies attacks as they occur, leveraging AI to analyze behavioral patterns and detect anomalies. The system issues immediate red alerts to customers navigating a fake website, fortifying protection.

Discover more about safeguarding your organization, website, customers, and brand from potential brandjacking and website spoofing threats by scheduling a demo with Memcyco.

Ran Arad

Director of Product Marketing

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