Regulator: Dynamic Analysis to Detect ReDoS


Robert McLaughlin, Fabio Pagani, Noah Spahn, Christopher Kruegel, and Giovanni Vigna, University of California, Santa Barbara


Regular expressions (regexps) are a convenient way for programmers to express complex string searching logic. Several popular programming languages expose an interface to a regexp matching subsystem, either by language-level primitives or through standard libraries. The implementations behind these matching systems vary greatly in their capabilities and running-time characteristics. In particular, backtracking matchers may exhibit worst-case running-time that is either linear, polynomial, or exponential in the length of the string being searched. Such super-linear worst-case regexps expose applications to Regular Expression Denial-of-Service (ReDoS) when inputs can be controlled by an adversarial attacker.

In this work, we investigate the impact of ReDoS in backtracking engines, a popular type of engine used by most programming languages. We evaluate several existing tools against a dataset of broadly collected regexps, and find that despite extensive theoretical work in this field, none are able to achieve both high precision and high recall. To address this gap in existing work, we develop Regulator, a novel dynamic, fuzzer-based analysis system for identifying regexps vulnerable to ReDoS. We implement this system by directly instrumenting a popular backtracking regexp engine, which increases the scope of supported regexp syntax and features over prior work. Finally, we evaluate this system against three common regexp datasets, and demonstrate a seven-fold increase in true positives discovered when comparing against existing tools.

Open Access Media

USENIX is committed to Open Access to the research presented at our events. Papers and proceedings are freely available to everyone once the event begins. Any video, audio, and/or slides that are posted after the event are also free and open to everyone. Support USENIX and our commitment to Open Access.

@inproceedings {277200,
author = {Robert McLaughlin and Fabio Pagani and Noah Spahn and Christopher Kruegel and Giovanni Vigna},
title = {Regulator: Dynamic Analysis to Detect {ReDoS}},
booktitle = {31st USENIX Security Symposium (USENIX Security 22)},
year = {2022},
isbn = {978-1-939133-31-1},
address = {Boston, MA},
pages = {4219--4235},
url = {},
publisher = {USENIX Association},
month = aug,