WordPress core and MySQL string comparison

If we execute the following MySQL query against WP database

select * from wp_postmeta where meta_key = concat(char(1),"_wp_attached_file");

we will get results in case we had already uploaded media in the past

| meta_id | post_id | meta_key          | meta_value                     |
|      46 |      92 | _wp_attached_file | 2020/07/wpdeeply.png#/boom.png |
|      71 |      99 | _wp_attached_file | wpdeeply                       |
2 rows in set (0.00 sec)

This is sort of “feature” of MySQL RDBMS, but what this means from WP aspect. It means a lot, because in the past there were account take over / backdoor vulnerabilities fixed silently and today we are going to focus on update_metadata function. WordPress prevents medling with protected meta via is_protected_meta function which basically checks if meta_key starts with _, but that isn’t enough because it is on PHP side.

Eli5 PoC

Upload media file on your test WP instance and grab the post_id. Then run the following code snippet with your own data / post_id:

function bypass_protected_meta(){
    //your demo media(post) id
    $post_id = 99;
    $meta_key = "\x11_wp_attached_file";
    $meta_value = "wpdeeply";
    //into edit post meta capability there is check for protected meta, but this is for auditorium to be much more clearer 
    if ( current_user_can( 'edit_post_meta', $post_id, $meta_key ) && ! is_protected_meta($meta_key) ){
        update_post_meta($post_id, $meta_key, $meta_value);

add_action(init, "bypass_protected_meta");

Refresh the media (will not be displayed) and if you check in DB _wp_attached_file will have the wpdeeply value. Is this bug with impact? Well Jetpack folks will need to answer that https://github.com/Automattic/jetpack/blob/master/json-endpoints/class.wpcom-json-api-update-post-v1-2-endpoint.php#L824, but you can find a lot of use cases on wpdirectory 🙂

Few facts

  • This MySQL behaviour is for huge set of utf-8 characters not only ascii control ones
  • Why this happens 
  • There are more places around WP code where unexpected behaviour is in game, because at the end of the day WP is just PHP & MySQL web app
  • Meddling with protected meta on WP is RCE. Few examples: here, here and here. There are few not disclosed too 🙂


  • be careful with data used in MySQL WHERE
  • is_protected_meta should be DB/MySQL check against current setup instead PHP one