Polygonal Background
31 January, 2023
  • Posted By Charles Fol
  • vbulletin rce exploit unserialize autoload 0-day
Full Article

vBulletin <= 5.6.9: Pre-authentication Remote Code Execution

In late August of 2022, we reported a pre-authentication remote code execution vulnerability to vBulletin. The bug was due to an improper handling of non-scalar data in the ORM, which led to an arbitrary deserialisation. However, the exploitation was not as straight-forward as expected.

The bug was patched in 5.6.9 PL1, 5.6.8 PL1, and 5.6.7 PL1. No CVE was issued.

This blogpost describes the same bug as the one presented at Beerump in September 2022.

Is this serialized ?

vBulletin's Object-Relational Mapper (ORM) is pretty simple. Every persistent object extends vB_DataManager and defines a validfields attribute that lists its fields and their properties. As an example, here's how the first fields of the User class look like:

class vB_DataManager_User extends vB_DataManager
    * Array of recognised and required fields for users, and their types
    * @var  array
    protected $validfields = array(
        'userid'             => array(
        'username'           => array(
        'email'              => array(

For each field, we have an array describing its type, whether it's a required field, and a function to verify that the value is correct and modify it if necessary.

As an example, email is a field of type string (vB_Cleaner::TYPE_STR), is required (vB_DataManager_Constants::REQ_YES), and needs to be validated with the verify_useremail() method.

Whenever a user registers, vBulletin tries to create a vB_DataManager_User instance with all the given fields. If any validation error happens (incorrect type, validation function returning false), the process yields an error.

Now, in addition to scalar fields, vBulletin sometimes needs to store complex types, such as arrays. To do so, vBulletin chooses to serialize the data: when a field is supposed to be an array, it is serialized (by calling serialize()) before being stored in the database, and deserialized (by calling unserialize()) when taken out of the database. This approach does not present security risks, if implemented correctly.

One such array field is searchprefs, of the vB_DataManager_User class:

    'searchprefs'        => array(

The field has no type restrictions, is not required, and is due to be validated using verify_serialized(), a function name that foreshadows a dubious implementation.

Indeed, how do you verify that a value is serialized ?

function verify_serialized(&$data)
    if ($data === '')
        $data = serialize(array());
        return true;
        if (!is_array($data))
            $data = unserialize($data); // <---------
            if ($data === false)
                return false;

        $data = serialize($data);

    return true;

There's probably lots of ways to do it, but vBulletin does it wrong: it deserializes the data and checks for errors.

Now, since the searchprefs field can be submitted by users when they register, this gives an attacker a pre-authentication unserialize(). Here's a POC:

POST /ajax/api/user/save HTTP/1.1


A deserialisation, in PHP, on a huge framework such as vBulletin: we expected to convert this bug to RCE very fast. This, however, proved harder than expected.

Useless or unreachable

When exploiting unserialize(), there are generally two ways to go: either we use PHPGGC to generate a payload for well-known libraries, or we find a new gadget chain in the code. In vBulletin's case, the two options are not optimal.

The second option is a no-go: virtually every vBulletin classes uses the vB_Trait_NoSerialize trait, which raises an exception when __wakeup(), __unserialize() and the likes get called. So, code produced by vBulletin devs cannot be used for exploitation.

trait vB_Trait_NoSerialize
    public function __wakeup()
        throw new Exception('Serialization not supported');

    public function __unserialize()
        throw new Exception('Serialization not supported');


On the other hand, a quick look at the project reveals the use of the Monolog library, which PHPGGC supports. However, if we try to exploit with a monolog/rce* payload, we're unsuccessful.

The reason is simple. Although physically present under packages/googlelogin/vendor/monolog, the Monolog library is unreachable: the googlelogin package is by default disabled in vBulletin, and as a result none of its files are loaded by vB. This means that its vendor/autoload.php, which contains the autoloader for Monolog classes, is not include()d either. As a result, PHP has no knowledge of these classes. That's a bummer: as useful as the autoloading mechanism is, if you don't load the autoloader, you cannot load classes.

We therefore have two opposite cases, both equally useless: in one case (vBulletin), we can load any class, but they are all useless, and in the other (Monolog), we'd happily use the classes, but we cannot load them.

Luckily, instanciating objects is not the only thing we can do with an arbitrary unserialize(). We also get to call autoloaders. Which begs the question: what does vBulletin's autoloader do ?

vBulletin's autoloading

As every modern PHP project, vBulletin defines an autoloader. Although a bit convoluted, it boils down to this (simplified) code:

spl_autoload_register(array('vB', 'autoload'));

class vB
    public static function autoload($classname, $load_map = false, $check_file = true)
        $fclassname = strtolower($classname);
        $segments = explode('_', $fclassname);

        switch($segments[0]) // [1]
            case 'vb':
                $vbPath = true;
                $filename = VB_PATH; // ./vb/
            case 'vb5':
                $vbPath = true;
                $filename = VB5_PATH; // ./vb5/
                $vbPath = false;
                $filename = VB_PKG_PATH; // ./packages/

        if (sizeof($segments) > ($vbPath ? 2 : 1))
            $filename .= implode('/', array_slice($segments, ($vbPath ? 1 : 0), -1)) . '/'; // [2]

        $filename .= array_pop($segments) . '.php'; // [3]

            require($filename); // [4]

In essence, the autoloader takes a classname, converts it to lowercase, and then splits it in _-delimited segments. The first segment is used to determine the base directory 1, while the others are simply used as directory names 2. The last segment defines the name of the file 3. The computed filepath is then included 4.

As an example, the first time vBulletin instanciates vB_DataManager_User, the class is unknown to PHP. Consequently, it calls every classloader, including vB::autoload(), which generates the name of the file that contains the class, vb/datamanager/user.php, and loads said file. The class is now defined, and PHP can instanciate it.

The vBulletin autoloader has an interesting property: given a classname, it can include any PHP file in the project tree. For instance, running new A_B_C(); would force the autoloader to include a/b/c.php. Sadly, although the file inclusion would work, the code would eventually crash, as the A_B_C class does not exist.

Now, when it comes to loading classes, unserialize() has a quirk: if you deserialize an object whose class name is not found (even after running the autoloaders), the function will not raise an exception or fail, as we'd expect it to. It will return an instance of __PHP_Incomplete_Class instead. The object is pretty useless for an attacker, as you cannot access its attributes or call its methods. However, the important part is that the deserialisation process does not crash, it keeps going.

Autoloading the autoloader

You probably know where this is going. We want to include packages/googlelogin/vendor/autoload.php, which contains the autoloader for Monolog classes. We'll use a fake class name for this. If we deserialize this payload:


The following steps happen:

  • unserialize() tries to load class googlelogin_vendor_autoload
  • It does not exist, so autoloaders are called
  • vB::autoload() constructs the filename packages/googlelogin/vendor/autoload.php and includes it
  • Although the file exists, the class named googlelogin_vendor_autoload does not
  • As a result, unserialize() returns __PHP_Incomplete_Class
  • and the execution continues...

We just made vBulletin's autoloader include another autoloader. And as a result, Monolog classes would now be in scope. An exploit is right around the corner: we send an array with, as its first item, our fake class, and as second item, the Monolog payload generated by PHPGGC.



To exploit, we generate the payload with PHPGGC:

and run one request:

We got pre-auth code execution.


We successfully converted a 0-day pre-authentication unserialize() on vBulletin to a remote code execution vulnerability, despite the heavy mitigations put in place by the application.

A generalisation of the technique could allow, for instance, to convert file write gadget chains into direct remote code execution; this might get implemented in PHPGGC at a later date.

We're hiring!

Ambionics is an entity of Lexfo, and we're hiring! To learn more about job opportunities, do not hesitate to contact us at rh@lexfo.fr. We're a french-speaking company, so we expect candidates to be fluent in our beautiful language.