Effective File Upload Handling Tips

Taking input from a user is tricky. It gets even more difficult when the input you're taking isn't just a string of text, but a file. There's a whole host of other security issues consider when you're planning on letting someone push their own file content up and onto your server. I wanted to write up a summary of things, a few reminders and maybe some things you hadn't thought about before, when it comes to handling file uploads in your application.

I've split it up into a few sections - the ones that I consider MUSTS that you absolutely have to do to be anything close to secure, the MAYBES that you can implement if it fits your situation (but don't have to) and the DON'T list. These are the things that you should never do in your file handling code.


  1. Restrict file types: Chances are you know what kind of content you want your users to be able to upload. If your answer to "what file types should I restrict it to?" is "I'm not sure" you need to sit down and have a good think on it. You're implementing the file upload for a specific reason and letting users define whatever kinds of files they want is asking for trouble. Here's an example of checking for the extension in PHP:
$filename = 'test.txt';
if (is_file(realpath($filename))) {
    $info = pathfinfo($filename);
    echo 'Extension: '.$info['extension'];

Obviously this is a pretty simple example and the pathinfo function only helps us so far. So, what's next that can help protect us from the bad guys and their evil file uploading ways?

  1. Check the MIME type: Thankfully PHP has your back on this one too. There's some built in functions that can take a look at a file (post-upload) and detect what their current MIME type is. With the help of the Fileinfo PECL extension, you can find out all sorts of good things about the file the user's just given you:
$path = '/var/myuploads/test1.txt';
$mime = finfo_file(finfo_open(FILEINFO_MIME_TYPE),'test1.txt');

echo 'MIME Type: '.$mime;

In the above example, since the file we're working with is actually a text file, we'd get back text/plain. This way, even if we rename the test1.txt file to something like test1.jpg, the mime type will stay the same. (You'll need PHP 5.3.x or later to make native use of this functionality. If you're on an older version (shame on you) , check out the PECL page for the extension.)

  1. Validate the filename: Yes, I know this sounds similar to #1, but hear me out. When the user submits a file to be uploaded, it's just a POST request with some extra multipart field and content handling. Since it's mostly a text-based request, there's nothing saying that a malicious user couldn't fake one and set the name of the file to something to further their evil plans. Be sure that what they're giving you is a real filename and not something like:


    Chances are, if you see a filename that's not really a filename, someone's messing with your form, trying to either make things break or extract as much info as they can. Be sure to watch for anything that doesn't look like a filename and filter it accordingly. You don't want to accidently call a move_uploaded_file and overwrite some key system file in the process, now do you...

  2. Put uploaded files outside the docroot: As a genral rule, it's a really good idea to move the files out of the /tmp directory they're in and to a place designated for user uploads. This definitely needs to be outside of the document root of the site itself and can use a "gateway" script to pull in the file's contents and output it back to the browser when requested.

    If someone managed to slip a PHP file in on you and they had direct access to it from the browser, you'd be opening up a huge person-sized hole for anyone to walk through and gather as much information as they'd like about your application.

  3. Specifically block dangerous files: This is sort of an addition to #1 and #3 but a bit more specific than that. There are certain files, like an .htaccess file for example, that could cause some pretty bad damage if they ended up in the wrong spot. Be sure that you filter this and other files that might directly effect the software the site runs on and filter them out.


  1. Check the referrer: Since it's not an all together reliable way to determine where the POST request is coming from - your site or another - it can't be considered a primary prevention method, but it can be helpful as a "first check" to be sure it's coming from the right place. Obviously, since the Referrer is something the user can change you can't trust it very far, but it can help cut down on spam submissions if you're getting bombarded from other sites.

  2. Rename the files: Depending on your application, you might want to consider renaming the files once they've been uploaded. Using some sort of internal naming scheme not only prevents a user from directly accessing the file, but it can also help to make your app easier to maintain since you don't have to worry so much about the filename they give you anymore. Now your only worry is in getting the right extension for the file and tracking its relation to the user.


  1. Trust the MIME type: Remember what I said up in "MUST #2" about checking the MIME type to see what the kind of file truely is when it's uploaded? Well, here's a caveat - absolutely do not treat that file differently based on the contents of that MIME type. If you care anything about the security of your application, you'll force the user's browser to download the file's contents for every file you serve:
header('Content-Type: application/pdf');
header('Content-Disposition: attachment; filename="uploaded.pdf"');

In this example, we're working with what we've been told is a PDF file but we can't be 100% sure. So, we take the (filtered, of course) information we know about the file - it's name and the supposed Content-Type - and use the Content-Disposition: attachment; header to force a download. This code would be placed in the proxy script you'd use to pull the file data from a non-docroot directory (remember MUST #4).

  1. Allow the user to upload any file: I know this was mentioned in MUST #1, but it bears repeating. You have to be absolutely sure that you're limiting your users to the types of files they should be uploading. Dropping an upload form element onto a page without restrictions might as well be asking for you to turn your server into a fileshare.


There's a few other things to worry about when uploading files, some related to PHP specifically and how it handles its uploads, but that's a topic for another day. Hopefully this has been a useful list of things to consider when you're setting up your file uploads for your application. If you have any other suggestions, please leave them in the comments below - shared knowledge is better than walled gardens any day.


by Chris Cornutt

With over 12 years of experience in development and a focus on application security Chris is on a quest to bring his knowledge to the masses, making application security accessible to everyone. He also is an avodcate for security in the PHP community and provides application security training and consulting services.

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