Blog post

Playing Dominos with Moodle's Security (1/2)

Yaniv Nizry photo

Yaniv Nizry

Vulnerability Researcher


  • Security

Moodle is an open-source learning management system (LMS) used to create and deliver online courses. It was first developed in 2002 by Martin Dougiamas and is now widely used by educators and institutions around the world, earning the trust of educational institutions worldwide, with its user base exceeding 350 million across 242 countries. 

Moodle provides a platform for teachers and trainers to create online courses and learning materials, manage course content, and interact with students through a range of communication tools such as discussion forums, messaging systems, and more.

Compromising a Moodle instance could considerably impact schools and universities. From simple grade cheating to infiltrating internal networks, shutting down a whole university, and more. An attacker can potentially cause significant harm to an educational institution.

This is the first blog in a two-part series where we will present our findings on a Moodle security audit we conducted. We were drawn to researching the security aspect of the framework due to its popularity, with the goal of contributing to a safer internet.

In this first article, we demonstrate how an unauthenticated attacker can leverage a vulnerability with a supposedly low impact to gain full control over the Moodle instance.


Moodle versions 4.1.x before 4.1.3 and 4.2.x before 4.2.0 are susceptible to an unauthenticated arbitrary folder creation, tracked as CVE-2023-30943. An attacker can leverage the creation of arbitrary folders to carry out a Stored Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) attack on the administration panel, resulting in arbitrary code execution on the server as soon as an administrator visits the panel.

Technical Details

In this section, we discuss the origin of the vulnerability and how an attacker can turn an arbitrary folder creation into a Stored Cross-Site Scripting vulnerability and then execute arbitrary commands.


Like many other applications, Moodle has its own permission/authorization levels, using roles such as students, teachers, managers, etc. An administrator account can install arbitrary plugins (PHP code). This feature allows an administrator to execute code on the server by design.

By default, the register feature is disabled on Moodle: this is mainly because schools usually don't want random people to register and login into their Moodle, but only their students. For example, only after a student is accepted by a university, they will manually create a Moodle user and provide the student with their login credentials. 

From arbitrary folder creation to RCE (CVE-2023-30943)

Although the attack surface for an unauthenticated attacker is minimal, we found two interesting endpoints that do not require authentication.

Both of the following endpoints take a RAW typed input from the rev parameter and generate a custom path that includes the provided rev parameter in the middle. Later, a folder will be created on this path if it doesn't exist. Since the parameter type is RAW (no modification or sanitization by Moodle) and its value is inserted in the middle of the path string, an attacker can create arbitrary folders on the server by using path traversal sequences. Without control over any files (names, paths, nor data) the impact of this weird bug is questionable at first glance. 

  • lib/editor/tiny/lang.php
$rev  = min_optional_param('rev', 0, 'RAW');
$lang = min_optional_param('lang', 'standard', 'SAFEDIR');
$this->candidatefile = "{$CFG->localcachedir}/editor_tiny/{$this->rev}/lang/{$this->lang}/lang.json";
@mkdir(dirname($this->candidatefile), $CFG->directorypermissions, true);
  • lib/editor/tiny/loader.php
$this->rev  = min_optional_param('rev', 0, 'RAW');
$this->filepath = min_optional_param('filepath', 'standard', 'SAFEPATH');
$this->candidatefile = "{$CFG->localcachedir}/editor_tiny/{$this->rev}/{$filepathhash}";
@mkdir(dirname($this->candidatefile), $CFG->directorypermissions, true);

In order to determine ways, how this could be exploited, we can assume that any folder name on the server is equivalent to an attacker’s input. From here we can go over all PHP code, that interacts with folders/files and consider them as sources. 

Some of the PHP functions, which should be considered for example:

  • glob
  • *dir (scandir/opendir/readdir/closedir)
  • realpath

Using this approach, we encountered an interesting code flow. When an admin visits the site administration page the following code is executed:

       foreach (glob($CFG->dirroot.'/'.$CFG->admin.'/settings/*.php') as $file) {
           if ($file == $CFG->dirroot.'/'.$CFG->admin.'/settings/top.php') {
           if ($file == $CFG->dirroot.'/'.$CFG->admin.'/settings/plugins.php') {
           // plugins are loaded last - they may insert pages anywhere

The loop iterates over every file that ends with .php in the admin/settings and tries to require it. An attacker can simply add a folder that ends with.php at /var/www/html/admin/settings/*.php and crash all administration pages. 

This attack on the admin panel is limited to a Denial of Service (DoS), but we were curious, if attackers may even gain RCE.

XSS from arbitrary folder creation

Moodle offers methods for teachers and students to share learning materials and submissions, which could be in the form of files like word-processed documents or slideshow presentations. By default, Moodle supports a number of file types. An administrator can add other file types to their Moodle instance. Doing so requires choosing a corresponding icon that will represent the file type. 

The code at admin/tool/filetypes/classes/utils.php lists the available icons by iterating over the files (including folders) that end with .svg/.gif/.png in a dedicated path: 

public static function get_icons_from_path($path) {
        $icons = array();
        if ($handle = @opendir($path)) {
            while (($file = readdir($handle)) !== false) {
                $matches = array();
                if (preg_match('~(.+?)(?:-24|-32|-48|-64|-72|-80|-96|-128|-256)?\.(?:svg|gif|png)$~',
                        $file, $matches)) {
                    $key = $matches[1];
                    $icons[$key] = $key;
        return $icons;

The name of the files/folders are displayed on the page without sanitization (admin/tool/filetypes/edit_form.php):

$fileicons = \tool_filetypes\utils::get_file_icons();
$mform->addElement('select', 'icon', get_string('icon', 'tool_filetypes'), $fileicons);

In order to inject malicious JavaScript code, an attacker can create the following folder:

var/www/html/pix/f/<input><img src=x onerror=alert(1)>.png 

When an admin tries to add a new filetype from the server settings page (http://moodle-domain/admin/tool/filetypes/edit.php?name=add), the folder name is reflected on the HTML page, and the JavaScript payload is executed in the context of the admin account.  Because the folder name is reflected inside a select tag the attacker needs an input tag first to break out, causing the img to render and JavaScript to run. This vulnerability can be exploited in a Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) attack against an admin user to achieve remote code execution on the server, as demonstrated before via plugin installation. 

Plugins in Moodle are additional PHP code made to provide custom features and functionalities. Using Moodle’s web interface, admins can conveniently install user shared plugins, or install their own from a local zip. Since plugins are simply PHP code, an attacker-controlled plugin is equivalent to arbitrary code execution.

There are probably other ways to exploit this vulnerability, but this XSS on the “new filetype” page demonstrates how an unauthenticated attacker can execute arbitrary code on the Moodle server by installing a malicious plugin.


The vulnerability was fixed in versions 4.1.3 and 4.2.0 by casting the $rev parameter to integers in both files:

            [$rev, $lang] = explode('/', $slashargument, 2);
-           $rev  = min_clean_param($rev, 'RAW');
+           $rev  = min_clean_param($rev, 'INT');
            $lang = min_clean_param($lang, 'SAFEDIR');
        } else {
-           $rev  = min_optional_param('rev', 0, 'RAW');
+           $rev  = min_optional_param('rev', 0, 'INT');
            $lang = min_optional_param('lang', 'standard', 'SAFEDIR');
            [$rev, $filepath] = explode('/', $slashargument, 2);
-           $this->rev  = min_clean_param($rev, 'RAW');
+           $this->rev  = min_clean_param($rev, 'INT');
            $this->filepath = min_clean_param($filepath, 'SAFEPATH');
        } else {
-           $this->rev  = min_optional_param('rev', 0, 'RAW');
+           $this->rev  = min_optional_param('rev', 0, 'INT');
            $this->filepath = min_optional_param('filepath', 'standard', 'SAFEPATH');

Now, an attacker cannot control the name of a folder nor traverse back directories in order to create arbitrary folders on the server.


2023-03-22We report all issues to Vendor
2023-04-19Vendor patched the vulnerability
2023-05-01Vendor released security advisory and CVE-2023-30943 was assigned


In this article, we showed how an unauthenticated actor could create an arbitrary folder on a Moodle server, an apparently innocuous action, to then trigger a Cross-Site Scripting vulnerability on the administration panel. With existing features of Moodle, this primitive can be turned into Remote Code Execution, ultimately granting an unauthenticated attacker arbitrary code execution on the server. 

In the second article coming on August 29th, we will dive into how attackers could take over accounts by chaining minor vulnerabilities.

We would also like to thank Moodle for their responsiveness and great communication.

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