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Taint tracking

Semgrep supports intra-procedural taint analysis. This data-flow analysis feature tracks the flow of untrusted (tainted) data throughout the body of a function or method. Tainted data originate from tainted sources. If tainted data are not transformed or checked accordingly (sanitized), taint analysis reports a finding whenever tainted data reach a vulnerable function (called sink). Tainted data flow from sources to sinks through propagators (such as assignments, or function calls).

The following video provides a quick overview of taint mode:

Getting started​

Taint tracking rules must specify mode: taint, which enables the following operators:

  • pattern-sources (required)
  • pattern-propagators (optional)
  • pattern-sanitizers (optional)
  • pattern-sinks (required)

These operators (which act as pattern-either operators) take a list of patterns that specify what is considered a source, a propagator, a sanitizer, or a sink. Note that you can use any pattern operator and you have the same expressive power as in a mode: search rule.

For example:

Here Semgrep tracks the data returned by get_user_input(), which is the source of taint. Think of Semgrep running the pattern get_user_input(...) on your code, finding all places where get_user_input gets called, and labeling them as tainted. That is exactly what is happening under the hood!

The rule specifies the sanitizer sanitize_input(...), so any expression that matches that pattern is considered sanitized. In particular, the expression sanitize_input(data) is labeled as sanitized. Even if data is tainted, as it occurs inside a piece of sanitized code, it does not produce any findings.

Finally, the rule specifies that anything matching either html_output(...) or eval(...) should be regarded as a sink. There are two calls html_output(data) that are both labeled as sinks. The first one in route1 is not reported because data is sanitized before reaching the sink, whereas the second one in route2 is reported because data that reaches the sink is still tainted.

You can find more examples of taint rules in the Semgrep Registry, for instance: express-sandbox-code-injection.


Metavariables used in pattern-sources are considered different from those used in pattern-sinks, even if they have the same name! See Metavariables, rule message, and unification for further details.

Field sensitivity​

The taint engine provides basic field sensitivity support, it can:

  • Track that x.a.b is tainted, but x or x.a is not tainted. If x.a.b is tainted, any extension of x.a.b (such as x.a.b.c) is considered tainted by default.
  • Track that x.a is tainted, but remember that x.a.b has been sanitized. Thus the engine records that x.a.b is not tainted, but x.a or x.a.c are still tainted.

Taint tracking is not index sensitive, if x.a[i] is tainted, Semgrep considers the entire x.a as tainted. If x.a[i] is sanitized, then x.a is also sanitized.


The taint engine does track taint per variable and not per object in memory. The taint engine does not perform alias analysis at present.


A taint source is specified by a pattern. Any subexpression that this pattern matches is regarded as a source of taint.


Given the source specification below, and a piece of code such as source(sink(x)), the call sink(x) is reported as a tainted sink. The reason is that the pattern source(...) matches all of source(sink(x)), and that makes Semgrep label every subexpression in that piece of code as being a source. In particular, x is a source, and it is being passed into sink!

- pattern: source(...)

Function arguments as sources​

To specify that an argument of a function must be considered a taint source, simply write a pattern that matches that argument:

- patterns:
- pattern-inside: function ($REQ, ...) {...}
- focus-metavariable: $REQ

Sources by side-effect​

Consider the following hypothetical Python code where we call a make_tainted function that makes its argument tainted by side-effect:

def make_tainted(a_set):


Using the source specification below, the pattern formula only matches the occurrence of x that is the actual parameter of make_tainted, but it does not affect the occurrence of x that is passed to sink. Both are the same variable but in different occurrences. Only the first one is matched by the source specification. At the same time, Semgrep does not know that make_tainted is updating the variable x by side-effect. Thus, a taint rule using such specifications does not produce any finding.

- patterns:
- pattern: make_tainted($X)
- focus-metavariable: $X

Deprecated workaround: The previously recommended workaround was to write a source specification such as the one specified below. This instructs Semgrep that every occurrence of $X after make_tainted($X) must be considered a source.

- patterns:
- pattern: |
- pattern: $X

This approach had two main limitations. First, it overrides any sanitization that can be performed on the code matched by $X. In the example code below, the call sink(x) is reported as tainted despite x was re-assigned to a fresh set!

x = set([])
sink(x) # false positive

Note also that ... ellipses operator has limitations. For example, in the code below Semgrep does not match any finding if such source specification is in use:

if cond:
sink(x) # false negative

It is now recommended to set by-side-effect: true, where by-side-effect is an option available for each individual source in a taint rule. When this option is enabled, and the source specification matches a variable (or in general, an l-value) exactly, then Semgrep assumes that the variable (or l-value) becomes tainted by side-effect at the precise places where the source specification produces a match.

The following code specifies how to make_tainted updates its argument making future occurrences tainted:

There are also sanitizers by side effect. For a good example of the use of both sources and sanitizers by side-effect, take a look at rule


By default, tainted data automatically propagates through assignments, operators, and function calls (from inputs to output). However, there are other ways in which taint can propagate, which can require language or library-specific knowledge that Semgrep does not have built-in.

Consider the following Python code where an unsafe user_input is stored into a set data structure. A random element from set is then passed into a sink function. This random element can be user_input itself, leading to an injection vulnerability!

def test(s):
x = user_input
s = set([])
#ruleid: test

The following rule cannot find the above-described issue. The reason is that Semgrep is not aware that executing s.add(x) makes x one of the elements in the set data structure s.

mode: taint
- pattern: user_input
- pattern: sink(...)

The use of taint propagators enables Semgrep to propagate taint in this and other scenarios. Taint propagators are specified under the pattern-propagators key:

- pattern: $S.add($E)
from: $E
to: $S

In the example above, Semgrep finds the pattern $S.add($E), and it checks whether the code matched by $E is tainted. If it is tainted, Semgrep propagates that same taint to the code matched by $S. Thus, adding tainted data to a set marks the set itself as tainted.

Another situation where taint propagators can be useful is to specify in Java that, when iterating a collection that is tainted, the individual elements must also be considered tainted:

- pattern: $C.forEach(($X) -> ...)
from: $C
to: $X

In general, a taint propagator must specify:

  1. A pattern containing two metavariables. These two metavariables specify where taint is propagated from and to.
  2. The to and from metavariables. These metavariables should match a variable or an expression.
    • The from metavariable specifies the entry point of the taint.
    • The to metavariable specifies where the tainted data is propagated to, typically an object or data structure.

When the to metavariable matches a variable (or in general, an l-value), the taint is propagated by side-effect. See Sources by side effect for an explanation of what this means.

For example, pattern $S.add($E) includes two metavariables $S and $E. Given from: $E and to: $S, and with $E matching x and $S matching s, when x is tainted then s becomes tainted (by side-effect) with the same taint as x.


A sanitizer is specified by a pattern, and any subexpression that is matched by this pattern is regarded as sanitized.


Given the sanitizer specification below, and a piece of code such as sanitize(sink(source)), the call sink(source) is not reported. The reason is that the pattern sanitize(...) matches all of sanitize(sink(source)), and that makes Semgrep label every subexpression in that piece of code as being sanitized. In particular, source is considered to be sanitized!

- pattern: sanitize(...)

Sanitizers by side-effect​

Consider the following hypothetical Python code where we sanitize some tainted data by checking whether the data is safe to use, and raising an exception otherwise. It is then guaranteed that after check_if_safe(x), the value of x must be a safe one.

def check_if_safe(x):
if not it_is_safe(x):
raise Exception("unsafe")

x = tainted

Deprecated workaround: The previously recommended workaround was to write a sanitizer specification such as the one below. This instructs Semgrep that every occurrence of $X after check_if_safe($X) must be considered safe.

- patterns:
- pattern: |
- pattern: $X

This has the same limitations as documented in sources by side effect. It is now recommended to set by-side-effect: true for the sanitizer in question. Enabling by-side-effect for a given sanitizer instructs Semgrep that whenever that sanitizer matches a variable (in general, an l-lvalue) exactly, then sanitization happens by side-effect.


A sink is specified by a pattern but, unlike for sources and sanitizers, Semgrep finds the best match for the sink.

Function argument as a sink​

If you specify a sink such as sink(...) then any tainted data passed to sink, through any of its arguments, results in a match. You can narrow it down to a specific parameter this way:

- patterns:
- pattern-inside: $S = new Sandbox(); ...
- pattern: $$SINK, ...)
- focus-metavariable: $SINK

This rule causes Semgrep to only annotate the first parameter passed to $ as the sink, rather than the method $ itself. If taint goes into any other parameter of $, then that is not considered a problem.

Remember, anything can be a sink, even the index of an array access:

- patterns:
- pattern-inside: $ARRAY[$SINK]
- focus-metavariable: $SINK

This way we tell Semgrep that we do not want arrays to be accessed with tainted indexes.

Minimizing false positives​

Since taint mode is intra-procedural, it does not recognize what other functions do. By default, Semgrep assumes that taint can always propagate through other functions.

For example, in the code below, some_safe_function receives tainted data as input, and to be on the safe side, Semgrep assumes that it also returns tainted data as output. As a result, a finding is produced.

var x = some_safe_function(tainted);

In some codebases, this conservative assumption can generate too many false positives. If that is the case, consider enumerating such functions as sanitizers:

- pattern: some_safe_function(...)

If this is too cumbersome, then set Semgrep to assume that functions are safe by default. This is done by setting taint_assume_safe_functions: true under the rule options key. If you use this approach, you have to enumerate your taint propagators:

Similarly, by default, Semgrep assumes that indexing an array with a tainted index (that is, array[tainted]) is a tainted expression, even if the array itself is not tainted. Set taint_assume_safe_indexes: true to instead assume that these expressions are safe.

If you want to have very fine-grained control over how taint is propagated, set taint_only_propagate_through_assignments: true, and then Semgrep only propagates taint through trivial assignments of the form x = tainted. In this case, you need to specify taint propagators for any other expression that can act as a taint propagator. For example, with this setting x = taint_propagator(tainted) or x = tainted + "foo" do not propagate any taint from tainted to x unless it is explicitly specified, whereas by default taint would propagate implicitly.


Previously, the use of so-called not conflicting sanitizers was recommended. This feature is now deprecated and no longer recommended.

Metavariables, rule message, and unification​

The patterns specified by pattern-sources and pattern-sinks (and pattern-sanitizers) are all independent of each other. If a metavariable used in pattern-sources has the same name as a metavariable used in pattern-sinks, these are still different metavariables.

In the message of a taint-mode rule, you can refer to any metavariable bound by pattern-sinks, as well as to any metavariable bound by pattern-sources that does not conflict with a metavariable bound by pattern-sinks.

Semgrep can also treat metavariables with the same name as the same metavariable, simply set taint_unify_mvars: true using rule options. Unification enforces that whatever a metavariable binds to in each of these operators is, syntactically speaking, the same piece of code. For example, if a metavariable binds to a code variable x in the source match, it must bind to the same code variable x in the sink match. In general, unless you know what you are doing, avoid metavariable unification between sources and sinks.

The following example demonstrates the use of source and sink metavariable unification: