PHP RFC: Is Literal Check


Add an is_literal() function, so developers/frameworks can check if a given variable is safe.

As in, at runtime, being able to check if a variable has been created by literals, defined within a PHP script, by a trusted developer.

This simple check can be used to warn or completely block SQL Injection, Command Line Injection, and many cases of HTML Injection (aka XSS).

The Problem

Escaping strings for SQL, HTML, Commands, etc is very error prone.

The vast majority of programmers should never do this (mistakes will be made).

Unsafe values (often user supplied) must be kept separate (e.g. parameterised SQL), or be processed by something that understands the context (e.g. a HTML Templating Engine).

This is primarily for security reasons, but it can also cause data to be damaged (e.g. ASCII/UTF-8 issues).

Take these mistakes, where the value has come from the user:

echo "<img src=" . $url . " alt='' />";

Flawed, and unfortunately very common, a classic XSS vulnerability.

echo "<img src=" . htmlentities($url) . " alt='' />";

Flawed because the attribute value is not quoted, e.g. $url = '/ onerror=alert(1)'

echo "<img src='" . htmlentities($url) . "' alt='' />";

Flawed because htmlentities() does not encode single quotes by default, e.g. $url = “/' onerror='alert(1)”

echo '<a href="' . htmlentities($url) . '">Link</a>';

Flawed because a link can include JavaScript, e.g. $url = 'javascript:alert(1)'

  var url = "<?= addslashes($url) ?>";

Flawed because addslashes() is not HTML context aware, e.g. $url = '</script><script>alert(1)</script>'

echo '<a href="/path/?name=' . htmlentities($name) . '">Link</a>';

Flawed because urlencode() has not been used, e.g. $name = 'A&B'

<p><?= htmlentities($url) ?></p>

Flawed because the encoding is not guaranteed to be UTF-8 (or ISO-8859-1 before PHP 5.4), so the value could be corrupted.

Also flawed because some browsers (e.g. IE 11), if the charset isn't defined (header or meta tag), could guess the output as UTF-7, e.g. $url = '+ADw-script+AD4-alert(1)+ADw-+AC8-script+AD4-'

    <img src={{ url }} alt='' />
$loader = new \Twig\Loader\FilesystemLoader('./templates/');
$twig = new \Twig\Environment($loader, ['autoescape' => 'name']);
echo $twig->render('example.html', ['url' => $url]);

Flawed because Twig is not context aware (in this case, an unquoted HTML attribute), e.g. $url = '/ onerror=alert(1)'

$sql = 'SELECT 1 FROM user WHERE id=' . $mysqli->escape_string($id);

Flawed because the value has not been quoted, e.g. $id = 'id', or '1 OR 1=1'

$sql = 'SELECT 1 FROM user WHERE id="' . $mysqli->escape_string($id) . '"';

Flawed if 'sql_mode' includes NO_BACKSLASH_ESCAPES, e.g. $id = '2“ or “1”=“1'

$sql = 'INSERT INTO user (name) VALUES ("' . $mysqli->escape_string($name) . '")';

Flawed if 'SET NAMES latin1' has been used, and escape_string() uses 'utf8'.

$parameters = "-f$email";
// $parameters = '-f' . escapeshellarg($email);
mail('a@example.com', 'Subject', 'Message', NULL, $parameters);

Flawed because it's not possible to safely escape values in $additional_parameters for mail(), e.g. $email = 'b@example.com -X/www/example.php'

Previous Solutions

Taint extension by Xinchen Hui, but this approach explicitly allows escaping, which doesn't address the issues listed above.

Automatic SQL Injection Protection by Matt Tait, where it was noted:

  • “unfiltered input can affect way more than only SQL” (Pierre Joye);
  • this amount of work isn't ideal for “just for one use case” (Julien Pauli);
  • It would have effected every SQL function, such as mysqli_query(), $pdo->query(), odbc_exec(), etc (concerns raised by Lester Caine and Anthony Ferrara);
  • Each of those functions would need a bypass for cases where unsafe SQL was intentionally being used (e.g. phpMyAdmin taking SQL from POST data) because some applications intentionally “pass raw, user submitted, SQL” (Ronald Chmara 1/2).

I also agree that “SQL injection is almost a solved problem [by using] prepared statements” (Scott Arciszewski), but we still need something to identify mistakes.

As discussed by Christoph Kern (Google) in 2015, this approach works.

The Go language can do this by checking for “compile time constants”, which isn't as good as a run time solution (e.g. the WHERE IN issue), but it does work.

Google currently avoids most issues by using go-safe-html and safesql.

This RFC is taking some ideas from TC39, where a similar idea is being discussed for JavaScript, to support the introduction of Trusted Types.


They are looking at “Distinguishing strings from a trusted developer, from strings that may be attacker controlled”.


Literals are safe values, defined within the PHP scripts, for example:

$a = 'Example';
is_literal($a); // true
$a = 'Example ' . $a . ', ' . 5;
is_literal($a); // true
$a = 'Example ' . $_GET['id'];
is_literal($a); // false
$a = 'Example ' . time();
is_literal($a); // false
$a = sprintf('LIMIT %d', 3);
is_literal($a); // false
$c = count($ids);
$a = 'WHERE id IN (' . implode(',', array_fill(0, $c, '?')) . ')';
is_literal($a); // true, the odd one that involves functions.
$limit = 10;
$a = 'LIMIT ' . ($limit + 1);
is_literal($a); // false, but might need some discussion.

This uses a similar definition of SafeConst from Matt Tait's RFC, but it does not need to accept Integer or FloatingPoint variables as safe (unless it makes the implementation easier), nor should this proposal effect any existing functions.

Thanks to Xinchen Hui, we know the PHP5 Taint extension was complex, but “with PHP7's new zend_string, and string flags, the implementation will become easier”.

And thanks to Mark R, it might be possible to use the fact that “interned strings in PHP have a flag”, which is there because these “can't be freed”.

Commands can be checked to ensure they are a “programmer supplied constant/static/validated string”, and all other unsafe variables are provided separately (as noted by Yasuo Ohgaki).

This approach allows all systems/frameworks to decide if they want to block, educate (via a notice), or ignore these issues (to avoid the “don't nanny” concern raised by Lester Caine).

Unlike the Taint extension, there must not be an equivalent untaint() function, or support any kind of escaping.

Solution: SQL Injection

Database abstractions (e.g. ORMs) will be able to ensure they are provided with strings that are safe.

Doctrine could use this to ensure ->where($predicates) is a literal:

$users = $queryBuilder
  ->from('User', 'u')
  ->where('u.id = ' . $_GET['id'])
// example.php?id=u.id

This mistake can be easily identified by:

public function where($predicates)
    if (function_exists('is_literal') && !is_literal($predicates)) {
        throw new Exception('->where() can only accept a literal');

RedBean could check $sql is a literal:

$users = R::find('user', 'id = ' . $_GET['id']);

PropelORM could check $clause is a literal:

$users = UserQuery::create()->where('id = ' . $_GET['id'])->find();

The is_literal() function could also be used internally by ORM developers, so they can be sure they have created their SQL strings out of literals. This would avoid mistakes such as the ORDER BY issues in the Zend framework 1/2.

Solution: SQL Injection, Basic

A simple example:

$sql = 'SELECT * FROM table WHERE id = ?';
$result = $db->exec($sql, [$id]);

Checked in the framework by:

class db {
  public function exec($sql, $parameters = []) {
    if (!is_literal($sql)) {
      throw new Exception('SQL must be a literal.');
    $statement = $this->pdo->prepare($sql);
    return $statement->fetchAll();

This also works with string concatenation:

define('TABLE', 'example');
$sql = 'SELECT * FROM ' . TABLE . ' WHERE id = ?';
  is_literal($sql); // Returns true
$sql .= ' AND id = ' . $mysqli->escape_string($_GET['id']);
  is_literal($sql); // Returns false

Solution: SQL Injection, ORDER BY

To ensure ORDER BY can be set via the user, but only use acceptable values:

$order_fields = [
$order_id = array_search(($_GET['sort'] ?? NULL), $order_fields);
$sql = ' ORDER BY ' . $order_fields[$order_id];

Solution: SQL Injection, WHERE IN

Most SQL strings can be a simple concatenations of literal values, but WHERE x IN (?,?,?) needs to use a variable number of literal placeholders.

There needs to be a special case for array_fill()+implode(), so the is_literal state can be preserved, allowing us to create the safe literal string '?,?,?':

$in_sql = implode(',', array_fill(0, count($ids), '?'));
$sql = 'SELECT * FROM table WHERE id IN (' . $in_sql . ')';

Solution: CLI Injection

Rather than using functions such as:

  • exec()
  • shell_exec()
  • system()
  • passthru()

Frameworks (or PHP) could introduce something similar to pcntl_exec(), where arguments are provided separately.

Or, take a safe literal for the command, and use parameters for the arguments (like SQL does):

$output = parameterised_exec('grep ? /path/to/file | wc -l', [

Rough implementation:

function parameterised_exec($cmd, $args = []) {
  if (!is_literal($cmd)) {
    throw new Exception('The first argument must be a literal');
  $offset = 0;
  $k = 0;
  while (($pos = strpos($cmd, '?', $offset)) !== false) {
    if (!isset($args[$k])) {
      throw new Exception('Missing parameter "' . ($k + 1) . '"');
    $arg = escapeshellarg($args[$k]);
    $cmd = substr($cmd, 0, $pos) . $arg . substr($cmd, ($pos + 1));
    $offset = ($pos + strlen($arg));
  if (isset($args[$k])) {
    throw new Exception('Unused parameter "' . ($k + 1) . '"');
  return exec($cmd);

Solution: HTML Injection

Template engines should receive variables separately from the raw HTML.

Often the engine will get the HTML from static files (safe):

$html = file_get_contents('/path/to/template.html');

But small snippets of HTML are often easier to define as a literal within the PHP script:

$template_html = '
  <p>Hello <span id="username"></span></p>

Where the variables are supplied separately, in this example I'm using XPath:

$values = [
    '//span[@id="username"]' => [
        NULL      => 'Name', // The textContent
        'class'   => 'admin',
        'data-id' => '123',
    '//a' => [
        'href' => 'https://example.com',
echo template_parse($template_html, $values);

The templating engine can then accept and apply the supplied variables for the relevant context.

As a simple example, this can be done with:

function template_parse($html, $values) {
  if (!is_literal($html)) {
    throw new Exception('Invalid Template HTML.');
  $dom = new DomDocument();
  $dom->loadHTML('<' . '?xml encoding="UTF-8">' . $html);
  $xpath = new DOMXPath($dom);
  foreach ($values as $query => $attributes) {
    if (!is_literal($query)) {
      throw new Exception('Invalid Template XPath.');
    foreach ($xpath->query($query) as $element) {
      foreach ($attributes as $attribute => $value) {
        if (!is_literal($attribute)) {
          throw new Exception('Invalid Template Attribute.');
        if ($attribute) {
          $safe = false;
          if ($attribute == 'href') {
            if (preg_match('/^https?:\/\//', $value)) {
              $safe = true; // Not "javascript:..."
          } else if ($attribute == 'class') {
            if (in_array($value, ['admin', 'important'])) {
              $safe = true; // Only allow specific classes?
          } else if (preg_match('/^data-[a-z]+$/', $attribute)) {
            if (preg_match('/^[a-z0-9 ]+$/i', $value)) {
              $safe = true;
          if ($safe) {
            $element->setAttribute($attribute, $value);
        } else {
          $element->textContent = $value;
  $html = '';
  $body = $dom->documentElement->firstChild;
  if ($body->hasChildNodes()) {
    foreach ($body->childNodes as $node) {
      $html .= $dom->saveXML($node);
  return $html;

Backward Incompatible Changes


Proposed PHP Version(s)

PHP 8.1?

RFC Impact


Not sure

To Existing Extensions

Not sure

To Opcache

Not sure

Open Issues

On GitHub:

  1. Would this cause performance issues? Presumably not as bad a type checking.
  2. Can array_fill()+implode() pass though the “is_literal” flag for the “WHERE IN” case?
  3. Should the function be named is_from_literal()? (suggestion from Jakob Givoni)
  4. Systems/Frameworks that define certain variables (e.g. table name prefixes) without the use of a literal (e.g. ini/json/yaml files), so they might need to make some changes to use this check, as originally noted by Dennis Birkholz.


  1. The current Taint Extension (notes above)
  2. Using static analysis (not at runtime), for example psalm (thanks Tyson Andre). But I can't find any which do these checks by default (if they even try), and we can't expect all programmers to use static analysis (especially those who have just stated).

Unaffected PHP Functionality

Not sure

Future Scope

Certain functions (mysqli_query, preg_match, etc) could use this information to generate a error/warning/notice.

PHP could also have a mode where output (e.g. echo '<html>') is blocked, and this can be bypassed (maybe via ini_set) when the HTML Templating Engine has created the correctly encoded output.

Proposed Voting Choices


Patches and Tests

A volunteer is needed to help with implementation.



Rejected Features


rfc/is_literal.txt · Last modified: 2021/01/14 18:28 by craigfrancis