Protect against XXE Attacks

Securely configure your XML processor to prevent XXE attacks.

Learn how to protect your application from malicious Extensible Markup Language (XML) inputs.

OWASP ranked XML External Entities (XXE) vulnerability fourth in the OWASP Top 10 Application Security Risks 2017 based on its impact and likelihood. Later, they merged this category with Security Misconfiguration ranked fifth in the OWASP Top 10 2021.


An XML External Entities (XXE) attack is a server-side vulnerability that allows an attacker to exploit a misconfigured XML parser to reference an external entity. This may lead to sensitive data exposure, Server-Side Request Forgery (SSRF), Remote Code Execution (RCE), or Denial of Service (DoS) attacks.

XML documents may contain a definition for XML entities, often known as Document Type Definition (DTD). Depending on their use in the application, DTDs can be either internal or external.

In an XXE attack scenario, a threat actor attempts to submit an XML file that calls an external entity, for example, with a file:// URI. An attacker may use this URI to make the application process an external DTD and read the contents of an internal system file. Here are some examples:

  • file:///c:/winnt/win.ini may read the contents of C:\Winnt\win.ini.
  • file:///etc/passwd may access the contents of /etc/passwd.

Similarly, an attacker can use other URI schemes such as HTTP://, HTTPS://, FTP://, or GOPHER:// to exploit a vulnerable application using an XXE attack.

XXE has a wide range of impacts. For example, it may allow a threat actor to load external entities and attempt to perform remote code execution or extract sensitive information such as local files.

A malicious actor may achieve the following through a successful XXE exploitation:

  • Read internal local files
  • Get access to sensitive data
  • Perform attacks:
    • Server-Side Request Forgery (SSRF)
    • Denial of Service (DoS)
    • Remote Code Execution (RCE)

Attack Scenarios

Let’s see some vulnerable code examples to understand how XXE attacks work.

PHP Framework

The following code example uses a PHP endpoint to parse the XML input and the php-xml module to perform XML parsing. However, due to the support of external DTD parsing, an attacker can launch an XXE attack.



libxml_disable_entity_loader (false);

$xml = strlen($_GET['xml']) > 0 ? $_GET['xml'] : '<root><content>No XML found</content></root>';

$document = new DOMDocument();
$document->loadXML($xml, LIBXML_NOENT | LIBXML_DTDLOAD);
$parsedDocument = simplexml_import_dom($document);

echo $parsedDocument->content;

A malicious actor can use the expect:// function of PHP to perform a Remote Code Execution attack using XXE. Here is an example payload:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="ISO-8859-1"?>
<!DOCTYPE foo [ <!ELEMENT foo ANY >
<!ENTITY xxe SYSTEM "expect://id" >]>

The command expect://id returns the output of the id command of UNIX, which typically produces an output such as uid=0(root) gid=0(root) groups=0(root).

To prevent such scenarios:

  • Disable unnecessary protocols and functions such as expect:// in the example.
  • Disable external DTD parsing.


JavaScript frameworks such as Node.js don’t provide native XML parsing capabilities. To allow XML parsing, you can use the libxml library, as shown in the following code example:

const app = require("express")(),
const libxml = require("libxmljs");"/profile/add", (req, res) => {
  favorite = libxml.parseXml(req.body, { noent: true }); //noent is set to true

In this code example, the noent property is set to true. This enables parsing external entities and may lead to an XXE attack. A threat actor may craft a malicious payload to make the server parse an external DTD, which may result in a successful XXE attack.

As a developer, avoid setting the noent property to true, which is by default disabled in libxmljs. This example code is a secure alternative that does not allow external DTD parsing:

const app = require("express")(),
const libxml = require("libxmljs");"/profile/add", (req, res) => {
  favorite = libxml.parseXml(req.body); //noent is not set to true

Zend Framework through PHP FPM

This code example is based on the Zend Framework vulnerability CVE-2015-5161. It illustrates how a PHP application uses the Zend Framework to implement an XML-RPC call:


    function helloworld() {
        $text = "Hello world! This request was executed via ".php_sapi_name().".";
        return $text;

    $server = new Zend_XmlRpc_Server();

    echo $server->handle();

To exploit XXE, an attacker can forge a payload like the following. This results in an error due to the ENTITY detection, allowing an attacker to read the contents of the /etc/passwd file.

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<!DOCTYPE methodCall [
  <!ENTITY pocdata SYSTEM "file:///etc/passwd">
  <methodName>retrieved: &pocdata;</methodName>

Java Framework

Java supports different XML parsers such as DOM Parser, SAX Parser, StAX Parser, JAXB, and more. When the application uses a SAX Parser for XML parsing, an XXE attack may occur—if disallow-doctype-decl is not set to true. See the following code example:

package com.mkyong.xml.sax;

import com.mkyong.xml.sax.handler.PrintAllHandlerSax;
import org.xml.sax.SAXException;

import javax.xml.parsers.ParserConfigurationException;
import javax.xml.parsers.SAXParser;
import javax.xml.parsers.SAXParserFactory;

public class ReadXmlSaxParserXXE {

  private static final String FILENAME = "src/main/resources/staff.xml";

  public static void main(String[] args) {

      SAXParserFactory factory = SAXParserFactory.newInstance();

      try {

          // XXE attack
          SAXParser saxParser = factory.newSAXParser();

          PrintAllHandlerSax handler = new PrintAllHandlerSax();

          saxParser.parse(FILENAME, handler);

      } catch (ParserConfigurationException | SAXException | IOException e) {



An attacker can craft the following payload to execute XXE in the vulnerable code shown above. This allows getting the contents of the /etc/passwd file.

 <?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
  <!DOCTYPE foo [ <!ENTITY xxe SYSTEM "file:///etc/passwd"> ]>

To prevent this, use setFeature to disable the DOCTYPE declaration, as shown in the following example:

  SAXParserFactory factory = SAXParserFactory.newInstance();

  try {

      // prevent XXE, completely disable DOCTYPE declaration:
      factory.setFeature("", true);

      SAXParser saxParser = factory.newSAXParser();

      PrintAllHandlerSax handler = new PrintAllHandlerSax();

      saxParser.parse(FILENAME, handler);

  } catch (ParserConfigurationException | SAXException | IOException e) {

To learn more about remediating XXE attacks for popular XML parsers, refer to resources such as Sonar Source Rules.

Denial of Service: XML Billion Laughs Attack

XML parsers are prone to Denial of Service attacks when a malicious XML document containing a large entity is repeated, causing an infinite processing loop. If there are no restrictions such as a limited number of entities, an XML processor can consume a large amount of memory and time during parsing. This may result in a DoS attack.

In the following example, when the XMLConstants.FEATURE_SECURE_PROCESSING feature is set to false, an attacker may perform an XML billion laughs attack:

SAXReader xmlReader = new SAXReader();
xmlReader.setFeature(XMLConstants.FEATURE_SECURE_PROCESSING, false);

An attacker can craft a billion laughs attack payload like the following to cause a denial of service in the application system:

<?xml version=”1.0" encoding=”UTF-8"?>
    <!DOCTYPE example [
    <!ELEMENT example ANY >
    <!ENTITY lol “lol”>
    <!ENTITY lol1 “&lol;&lol;&lol;&lol;&lol;&lol;&lol;&lol;&lol;&lol;”>
    <!ENTITY lol2 “&lol1;&lol1;&lol1;&lol1;&lol1;&lol1;&lol1;&lol1;&lol1;&lol1;”>
    <!ENTITY lol3 “&lol2;&lol2;&lol2;&lol2;&lol2;&lol2;&lol2;&lol2;&lol2;&lol2;”>
    <!ENTITY lol4 “&lol3;&lol3;&lol3;&lol3;&lol3;&lol3;&lol3;&lol3;&lol3;&lol3;”>
    <!ENTITY lol5 “&lol4;&lol4;&lol4;&lol4;&lol4;&lol4;&lol4;&lol4;&lol4;&lol4;”>
    <!ENTITY lol6 “&lol5;&lol5;&lol5;&lol5;&lol5;&lol5;&lol5;&lol5;&lol5;&lol5;”>
    <!ENTITY lol7 “&lol6;&lol6;&lol6;&lol6;&lol6;&lol6;&lol6;&lol6;&lol6;&lol6;”>
    <!ENTITY lol8 “&lol7;&lol7;&lol7;&lol7;&lol7;&lol7;&lol7;&lol7;&lol7;&lol7;”>
    <!ENTITY lol9 “&lol8;&lol8;&lol8;&lol8;&lol8;&lol8;&lol8;&lol8;&lol8;&lol8;”>

To prevent this situation, add further validation by setting XMLConstants.FEATURE_SECURE_PROCESSING to true, as shown in the following example:

SAXReader xmlReader = new SAXReader();
xmlReader.setFeature(XMLConstants.FEATURE_SECURE_PROCESSING, true);

To explore more XXE attack scenarios, refer to the OWASP XML External Entity Prevention Cheat Sheet.

Best Practices

  • Disable external entity referencing.
    • Restrict DTD and external entity parsing from the XML parser.
  • Use less complex data formats.
    • Use data formats such as JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) to prevent the serialization process that could prevent XXE attacks.
  • Use secure libraries.
    • Implement the latest patches in your XML libraries, and always use secure alternatives. Make sure to update the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) to version 1.2 or later.
  • Implement whitelisting.
    • Sanitize and filter sensitive data within XML bodies to ensure that your application doesn’t accept malicious payloads.
  • Use an XML Schema Definition (XSD) validator.
    • To validate the upload of XML and XSL files, use an XSD validator.
  • Disallow unnecessary protocols.
    • Restrict the use of unnecessary protocols such as file://, gopher://, or schema://. An attacker may use them to bypass the restrictions you’ve set.
  • As an additional preventative measure, implement Source Code Analysis Tools (SAST) to scan the source code for XXE vulnerability patterns and harden the code.


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Last modified January.01.2023