Module shlex::quoting_warning

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A more detailed version of the warning at the top level about the quote/join family of APIs.

In general, passing the output of these APIs to a shell should recover the original string(s). This page lists cases where it fails to do so.

In noninteractive contexts, there are only minor issues. ‘Noninteractive’ includes shell scripts and sh -c arguments, or even scripts sourced from interactive shells. The issues are:

If you are writing directly to the stdin of an interactive (-i) shell (i.e., if you are pretending to be a terminal), or if you are writing to a cooked-mode pty (even if the other end is noninteractive), then there is a severe security issue:

Finally, there are some solved issues.

§List of issues

§Nul bytes

For non-interactive shells, the most problematic input is nul bytes (bytes with value 0). The non-deprecated functions all default to returning QuoteError::Nul when encountering them, but the deprecated quote and join functions leave them as-is.

In Unix, nul bytes can’t appear in command arguments, environment variables, or filenames. It’s not a question of proper quoting; they just can’t be used at all. This is a consequence of Unix’s system calls all being designed around nul-terminated C strings.

Shells inherit that limitation. Most of them do not accept nul bytes in strings even internally. Even when they do, it’s pretty much useless or even dangerous, since you can’t pass them to external commands.

In some cases, you might fail to pass the nul byte to the shell in the first place. For example, the following code uses join to tunnel a command over an SSH connection:


If any argument in my_cmd_args contains a nul byte, then join(my_cmd_args) will contain a nul byte. But join(my_cmd_args) is itself being passed as an argument to a command (the ssh command), and command arguments can’t contain nul bytes! So this will simply result in the Command failing to launch.

Still, there are other ways to smuggle nul bytes into a shell. How the shell reacts depends on the shell and the method of smuggling. For example, here is Bash 5.2.21 exhibiting three different behaviors:

  • With ANSI-C quoting, the string is truncated at the first nul byte:

    $ echo $'foo\0bar' | hexdump -C
    00000000  66 6f 6f 0a                                       |foo.|
  • With command substitution, nul bytes are removed with a warning:

    $ echo $(printf 'foo\0bar') | hexdump -C
    bash: warning: command substitution: ignored null byte in input
    00000000  66 6f 6f 62 61 72 0a                              |foobar.|
  • When a nul byte appears directly in a shell script, it’s removed with no warning:

    $ printf 'echo "foo\0bar"' | bash | hexdump -C
    00000000  66 6f 6f 62 61 72 0a                              |foobar.|

Zsh, in contrast, actually allows nul bytes internally, in shell variables and even arguments to builtin commands. But if a variable is exported to the environment, or if an argument is used for an external command, then the child process will see it silently truncated at the first nul. This might actually be more dangerous, depending on the use case.

§Overlong commands

If you pass a long string into a shell, several things might happen:

  • It might succeed, yet the shell might have trouble actually doing anything with it. For example:

    x=$(printf '%010000000d' 0); /bin/echo $x
    bash: /bin/echo: Argument list too long
  • If you’re using certain shells (e.g. Busybox Ash) and using a pty for communication, then the shell will impose a line length limit, ignoring all input past the limit.

  • If you’re using a pty in cooked mode, then by default, if you write so many bytes as input that it fills the kernel’s internal buffer, the kernel will simply drop those bytes, instead of blocking waiting for the shell to empty out the buffer. In other words, random bits of input can be lost, which is obviously insecure.

Future versions of this crate may add an option to Quoter to check the length for you.

§Control characters (interactive contexts only)

Control characters are the bytes from \x00 to \x1f, plus \x7f. \x00 (the nul byte) is discussed above, but what about the rest? Well, many of them correspond to terminal keyboard shortcuts. For example, when you press Ctrl-A at a shell prompt, your terminal sends the byte \x01. The shell sees that byte and (if not configured differently) takes the standard action for Ctrl-A, which is to move the cursor to the beginning of the line.

This means that it’s quite dangerous to pipe bytes to an interactive shell. For example, here is a program that tries to tell Bash to echo an arbitrary string, ‘safely’:

use std::process::{Command, Stdio};
use std::io::Write;

let evil_string = "\x01do_something_evil; ";
let quoted = shlex::try_quote(evil_string).unwrap();
println!("quoted string is {:?}", quoted);

let mut bash = Command::new("bash")
    .arg("-i") // force interactive mode
let stdin = bash.stdin.as_mut().unwrap();
write!(stdin, "echo {}\n", quoted).unwrap();

Here’s the output of the program (with irrelevant bits removed):

quoted string is "'\u{1}do_something_evil; '"
/tmp comex$ do_something_evil; 'echo '
bash: do_something_evil: command not found
bash: echo : command not found

Even though we quoted it, Bash still ran an arbitrary command!

This is not because the quoting was insufficient, per se. In single quotes, all input is supposed to be treated as raw data until the closing single quote. And in fact, this would work fine without the "-i" argument.

But line input is a separate stage from shell syntax parsing. After all, if you type a single quote on the keyboard, you wouldn’t expect it to disable all your keyboard shortcuts. So a control character always has its designated effect, no matter if it’s quoted or backslash-escaped.

Also, some control characters are interpreted by the kernel tty layer instead, like CTRL-C to send SIGINT. These can be an issue even with noninteractive shells, but only if using a pty for communication, as opposed to a pipe.

To be safe, you just have to avoid sending them.

§Why not just use hex escapes?

In any normal programming languages, this would be no big deal.

Any normal language has a way to escape arbitrary characters in strings by writing out their numeric values. For example, Rust lets you write them in hexadecimal, like "\x4f" (or "\u{1d546}" for Unicode). In this way, arbitrary strings can be represented using only ‘nice’ simple characters. Any remotely suspicious character can be replaced with a numeric escape sequence, where the escape sequence itself consists only of alphanumeric characters and some punctuation. The result may not be the most readable1, but it’s quite safe from being misinterpreted or corrupted in transit.

Shell is not normal. It has no numeric escape sequences.

There are a few different ways to quote characters (unquoted, unquoted-with-backslash, single quotes, double quotes), but all of them involve writing the character itself. If the input contains a control character, the output must contain that same character.

§Mitigation: terminal filters

In practice, automating interactive shells like in the above example is pretty uncommon these days. In most cases, the only way for a programmatically generated string to make its way to the input of an interactive shell is if a human copies and pastes it into their terminal.

And many terminals detect when you paste a string containing control characters. iTerm2 strips them out; gnome-terminal replaces them with alternate characters2; Kitty outright prompts for confirmation. This mitigates the risk.

But it’s not perfect. Some other terminals don’t implement this check or implement it incorrectly. Also, these checks tend to not filter the tab character, which could trigger tab completion. In most cases that’s a non-issue, because most shells support paste bracketing, which disables tab and some other control characters3 within pasted text. But in some cases paste bracketing gets disabled.

§Future possibility: ANSI-C quoting

I said that shell syntax has no numeric escapes, but that only applies to portable shell syntax. Bash and Zsh support an obscure alternate quoting style with the syntax $'foo'. It’s called “ANSI-C quoting”, and inside it you can use all the escape sequences supported by C, including hex escapes:

$ echo $'\x41\n\x42'

But other shells don’t support it — including Dash, a popular choice for /bin/sh, and Busybox’s Ash, frequently seen on stripped-down embedded systems. This crate’s quoting functionality tries to be compatible with those shells, plus all other POSIX-compatible shells. That makes ANSI-C quoting a no-go.

Still, future versions of this crate may provide an option to enable ANSI-C quoting, at the cost of reduced portability.

§Future possibility: printf

Another option would be to invoke the printf command, which is required by POSIX to support octal escapes. For example, you could ‘escape’ the Rust string "\x01" into the shell syntax "$(printf '\001')". The shell will execute the command printf with the first argument being literally a backslash followed by three digits; printf will output the actual byte with value 1; and the shell will substitute that back into the original command.

The problem is that ‘escaping’ a string into a command substitution just feels too surprising. If nothing else, it only works with an actual shell; other languages’ shell parsing routines wouldn’t understand it. Neither would this crate’s own parser, though that could be fixed.

Future versions of this crate may provide an option to use printf for quoting.

§Special note: newlines

Did you know that \r and \n are control characters? They aren’t as dangerous as other control characters (if quoted properly). But there’s still an issue with them in interactive contexts.

Namely, in some cases, interactive shells and/or the tty layer will ‘helpfully’ translate between different line ending conventions. The possibilities include replacing \r with \n, replacing \n with \r\n, and others. This can’t result in command injection, but it’s still a lossy transformation which can result in a failure to round-trip (i.e. the shell sees a different string from what was originally passed to quote).

Numeric escapes would solve this as well.

§Solved issues

§Solved: Past vulnerability (GHSA-r7qv-8r2h-pg27 / RUSTSEC-2024-XXX)

Versions of this crate before 1.3.0 did not quote {, }, and \xa0.


§Solved: ! and ^

There are two non-control characters which have a special meaning in interactive contexts only: ! and ^. Luckily, these can be escaped adequately.

The ! character triggers history expansion; the ^ character can trigger a variant of history expansion known as Quick Substitution. Both of these characters get expanded even inside of double-quoted strings!

If we’re in a double-quoted string, then we can’t just escape these characters with a backslash. Only a specific set of characters can be backslash-escaped inside double quotes; the set of supported characters depends on the shell, but it often doesn’t include ! and ^.4 Trying to backslash-escape an unsupported character produces a literal backslash:

$ echo "\!"

However, these characters don’t get expanded in single-quoted strings, so this crate just single-quotes them.

But there’s a Bash bug where ^ actually does get partially expanded in single-quoted strings:

$ echo '
> ^a^b
> '


To work around that, this crate forces ^ to appear right after an opening single quote. For example, the string "^ is quoted into '"''^' instead of '"^'. This restriction is overkill, since ^ is only meaningful right after a newline, but it’s a sufficient restriction (after all, a ^ character can’t be preceded by a newline if it’s forced to be preceded by a single quote), and for now it simplifies things.

§Solved: \xa0

The byte \xa0 may be treated as a shell word separator, specifically on Bash on macOS when using the default UTF-8 locale, only when the input is invalid UTF-8. This crate handles the issue by always using quotes for arguments containing this byte.

In fact, this crate always uses quotes for arguments containing any non-ASCII bytes. This may be changed in the future, since it’s a bit unfriendly to non-English users. But for now it minimizes risk, especially considering the large number of different legacy single-byte locales someone might hypothetically be running their shell in.


$ echo -e 'ls a\xa0b' | bash
ls: a: No such file or directory
ls: b: No such file or directory

The normal behavior would be to output a single line, e.g.:

$ echo -e 'ls a\xa0b' | bash
ls: cannot access 'a'$'\240''b': No such file or directory

(The specific quoting in the error doesn’t matter.)


Just for fun, here’s why this behavior occurs:

Bash decides which bytes serve as word separators based on the libc function isblank. On macOS on UTF-8 locales, this passes for \xa0, corresponding to U+00A0 NO-BREAK SPACE.

This is doubly unique compared to the other systems I tested (Linux/glibc, Linux/musl, and Windows/MSVC). First, the other systems don’t allow bytes in the range [0x80, 0xFF] to pass isfoo functions in UTF-8 locales, even if the corresponding Unicode codepoint does pass, as determined by the wide-character equivalent function, iswfoo. Second, the other systems don’t treat U+00A0 as blank (even using iswblank).

Meanwhile, Bash checks for multi-byte sequences and forbids them from being treated as special characters, so the proper UTF-8 encoding of U+00A0, b"\xc2\xa0", is not treated as a word separator. Treatment as a word separator only happens for b"\xa0" alone, which is illegal UTF-8.

  1. This can lead to tough choices over which characters to escape and which to leave as-is, especially when Unicode gets involved and you have to balance the risk of confusion with the benefit of properly supporting non-English languages.

    We don’t have the luxury of those choices. 

  2. For example, backspace (in Unicode lingo, U+0008 BACKSPACE) turns into U+2408 SYMBOL FOR BACKSPACE. 

  3. It typically disables almost all handling of control characters by the shell proper, but one necessary exception is the end-of-paste sequence itself (which starts with the control character \x1b). In addition, paste bracketing does not suppress handling of control characters by the kernel tty layer, such as \x03 sending SIGINT (which typically clears the currently typed command, making it dangerous in a similar way to \x01). 

  4. For example, Dash doesn’t remove the backslash from "\!" because it simply doesn’t know anything about ! as a special character: it doesn’t support history expansion. On the other end of the spectrum, Zsh supports history expansion and does remove the backslash — though only in interactive mode. Bash’s behavior is weirder. It supports history expansion, and if you write "\!", the backslash does prevent history expansion from occurring — but it doesn’t get removed!