Approximately 2000 Citrix NetScalers backdoored in mass-exploitation campaign

Fox-IT (part of NCC Group) has uncovered a large-scale exploitation campaign of Citrix NetScalers in a joint effort with the Dutch Institute of Vulnerability Disclosure (DIVD). An adversary appears to have exploited CVE-2023-3519 in an automated fashion, placing webshells on vulnerable NetScalers to gain persistent access. The adversary can execute arbitrary commands with this webshell, even when a NetScaler is patched and/or rebooted. At the time of writing, more than 1900 NetScalers remain backdoored. Using the data supplied by Fox-IT, the Dutch Institute of Vulnerability Disclosure has notified victims.

Figure 1: A global overview of known-compromised Netscalers located in each country, as of August 14th 2023

Main Takeaways

  • A set of vulnerabilities in NetScaler, one of which allows for remote code execution, were disclosed on July 18th. This disclosure was published after several security organisations saw limited exploitation of these vulnerabilities in the wild.
  • Fox-IT (in collaboration with the Dutch Institute of Vulnerability Disclosure) have scanned for these webshells to identify compromised systems. Responsible disclosure notifications have been sent by the DIVD.
  • At the time of this exploitation campaign, 31127 NetScalers were vulnerable to CVE-2023-3519.
  • As of August 14th, 1828 NetScalers remain backdoored.
  • Of the backdoored NetScalers, 1248 are patched for CVE-2023-3519.

Recommendations for NetScaler Administrators

  • A patched NetScaler can still contain a backdoor. It is recommended to perform an Indicator of Compromise check on your NetScalers, regardless of when the patch was applied.
    • Fox-IT has provided a Python script that utilizes Dissect to perform triage on forensic images of NetScalers.
    • Mandiant has provided a bash-script to check for Indicators of Compromise on live systems. Be aware that if this script is run twice, it will yield false positive results as certain searches get written into the NetScaler logs whenever the script is run.
  • If traces of compromise are discovered, secure forensic data; It is strongly recommended to make a forensic copy of both the disk and the memory of the appliance before any remediation or investigative actions are done. If the Citrix appliance is installed on a hypervisor, a snapshot can be made for follow-up investigation.
  • If a webshell is found, investigate whether it has been used to perform activities. Usage of the webshell should be visible in the NetScaler access logs. If there are indications that the webshell has been used to perform unauthorised activities, it is essential to perform a larger investigation, to identify whether the adversary has successfully taken steps to move laterally from the NetScaler, towards another system in your infrastructure.

Investigation and Disclosure Timeline

July 2023: Identifying & disclosing NetScalers vulnerable to CVE-2023-3519

Recently, three vulnerabilities were reported to be present in Citrix ADC and Citrix Gateway. Based on the information shared by Citrix, one of these vulnerabilities (CVE-2023-3519) gives an attacker the opportunity to perform unauthenticated remote code execution. Citrix, and various other organisations, also shared information regarding the fact that this vulnerability is actively being exploited in the wild.

At the time that Citrix disclosed information about CVE-2023-3519, details on how this vulnerability could be exploited were not publicly known. Using prior research on the identification of Citrix versions, we were able to quickly identify which Citrix servers on the web were vulnerable for CVE-2023-3519. This information was shared with the Dutch Institute of Vulnerability Disclosure (DIVD), who were able to notify administrators that they had vulnerable NetScalers exposed to the internet.

About the Dutch Institute of Vulnerability Disclosure (DIVD):

DIVD is a Dutch research institute that works with volunteers who aim to make the digital world safer by searching the internet for vulnerabilities and reporting the findings to those who can fix these vulnerabilities.

In parallel with sharing the data with the DIVD, Fox-IT and NCC Group cross-referenced their scan data with their customer base to inform managed services customers shortly prior to the DIVD disclosure.

August 8th and 9th 2023: Identifying backdoored NetScalers

In July and August, the Fox-IT CERT (part of NCC Group) responded to several incidents related to CVE-2023-3519. Several webshells were found during these investigations. Based on both the findings of these IR engagements as well as Shadowserver’s Technical Summary of Observed Citrix CVE-2023-3519 Incidents, we were confident that the adversary had exploited at a large scale in an automated fashion.

While the discovered webshells return a 404 Not Found, the response still differs from how Citrix servers ordinarily respond to a request for a file that does not exist. Moreover, the webshell will not execute any commands on the target machine unless given proper parameters. These two factors combined allow us to scan the internet for webshells with high confidence, without impacting affected NetScalers.

In cooperation with the DIVD we decided to scan NetScalers accessible on the internet for known webshell paths. These scans may be recognized in Citrix HTTP Access logs by the User-Agent: DIVD-2023-00033. We initially only scanned systems that were not patched on July 21st, as the exploitation was believed to be between July 20th and July 21st. Later, we decided to also scan the systems that were already patched on July 21st. The results exceeded our expectations. Based on the internet wide scan, approximately 2000 unique IP addresses seem to have been backdoored with a webshell as of August 9th.

August 10th: Responsible Disclosure by the DIVD

Starting from August 10th, the DIVD has begun reaching out to organisations affected by the webshell. They used their already existing network and responsible disclosure methods to notify network owners and national CERTs. It however remains possible that this notification doesn’t reach the right people in time. We would therefore like to repeat the advice to manually perform an IOC check on your internet exposed NetScaler devices.


Most apparent from our scanning results is the percentage of patched NetScalers that still contain a backdoor. At the time of writing, approximately 69% of the NetScalers that contain a backdoor are not vulnerable anymore to CVE-2023-3519. This indicates that while most administrators were aware of the vulnerability and have since patched their NetScalers to a non-vulnerable version, they have not been (properly) checked for signs of successful exploitation.

Figure 2: The large majority of known compromised NetScalers are patched.

Thus, administrators may currently have a false sense of security even though an up to date Netscaler can still have been backdoored. The high percentage of patched NetScalers that have been backdoored is likely a result of the time at which mass exploitation took place. From incident response cases, we can confirm Shadowserver’s prior estimate that this specific exploitation campaign took place between late July 20th and early July 21st:

Figure 3: While patches were being applied, exploitation took place at a large scale between July 20th and July 21st.

We could not discern a pattern in the targeting of NetScalers. We have seen some systems that have been compromised with multiple webshells, but we also see large volumes of NetScalers that were vulnerable between July 20th and July 21st have not been compromised with a backdoor. In total we have found 2491 webshells across 1952 distinct NetScalers. Globally, there were 31127 NetScalers vulnerable to CVE-2023-3519 on July 21st, meaning that the exploitation campaign compromised 6.3% of all vulnerable NetScalers globally.

Figure 4: Amount of Compromised NetScalers per country as of August 14th 2023
Figure 5: Amount of vulnerable NetScalers per country as of July 21st 2023

It appears the majority of compromised NetScalers reside in Europe. Of the top 10 affected countries, only 2 are located outside of Europe. There are stark differences between countries in terms of what percentage of their NetScalers were compromised. For example, while Canada, Russia and the United States of America all had thousands of vulnerable NetScalers on July 21st, virtually none of these NetScalers were found to have a webshell on them. As of now, we have no clear explanation for these differences, nor do we have a confident hypothesis to explain which NetScalers were targeted by the adversary and which ones were not. Moreover, we do not see a particular targeting in terms of victim industry.

As of August 14th, 1828 NetScalers remain compromised. While we see a decline in the amount of compromised NetScalers following the disclosure on August 10th, we hope that this publication can raise further awareness that backdoors can persist even when Citrix servers are updated. Therefore, we again recommend any NetScaler administrator to perform basic triage on their NetScalers.


The monitoring and protection of edge devices such as NetScalers remains challenging. Sometimes, the window in which defenders must patch their systems is incredibly small. CVE-2023-3519 was exploited in targeted attacks before a patch was available and was later exploited on a large scale. System administrators need to be aware that adversaries can exploit edge devices to place backdoors that persist even after updates and / or reboots. As of now, it is strongly advised to check NetScalers, even if they have been patched and updated to the latest version. Resources are available at the Fox-IT GitHub.