A Practical Introduction to Semgrep

July 31, 2021

Lately I’ve been working on automating security rules and enforcing best practices in our codebases using static analysis tools. Besides Brakeman and CodeQL I have also been using Semgrep, which is the topic of this post.

Semgrep is a open-source static analysis tool that allows us to find patterns in our code. In this post we will explore how its rule system works through a practical example and some tips on how to get started writing your own rules.

Before we start, it’s worth mentioning that Semgrep has a great online editor that allows us to visually test how rules match our code. It is a great tool to rapidly iterate on and share your work with others. Another resource that helped me get started is their interactive learn section. It relies heavily on the editor and does a great job ramping us up on how its rule system works.

With that out of the way let’s explore an example in Ruby, which is one of the languages supported by Semgrep.


The code we are going to work on is the following:

provider :acme, api_key, per_user: true

Our goal is to flag code that falls into one of the following criteria:

  1. The provider is :acme and per_user is false
  2. The provider is :acme and per_user is missing

With this criteria in mind let’s create our new rule. Rules in Semgrep are expressed through YAML and it helps to know the standard beforehand. That being said the standard is readable enough that you should be able to follow this tutorial without being familiar with it.

Let’s encode the first part of our criteria:

rules: - id: alert_per_user pattern: 'provider(:acme, ..., per_user: false, ...)' message: per_user is false or is missing for acme provider languages: [ruby] severity: WARNING

There are a few things we can infer right away from this rule and certain things that won’t make sense until we start diving into the details of Semgrep, so let’s start with the basic ones.

Every rule has an unique id and a descriptive message associated with it and also knows the semantics of one or more languages that it is trying to analyze, which in our case is Ruby. The semantics part is really powerful - to understand why let’s see how we could have coded our example above:

# No parenthesis and new hash format provider :acme, api_key, per_user: true # No parenthesis and old hash format provider :acme, api_key, :per_user => true # Parenthesis and new hash format provider(:acme, api_key, per_user: true ) # Parenthesis and old hash format provider(:acme, api_key, :per_user => true )

These examples are all the same from a Ruby standpoint but writing a regular expression to match it would be very cumbersome. On the other hand since Semgrep understands the semantics of the language we can succintly match all of these cases with a single and expressive pattern.

Pattern breakdown

Rules are expressed by patterns, and currently our only pattern is:

pattern: 'provider(:acme, ..., per_user: false, ...)'

Semgrep knows that provider is a method and that’s why it can match any code with our without parenthesis. It also knows that :acme is a hardcoded symbol. If we were searching for any symbol we could have used a metavariable like $NAME.

More importantly, it knows that per_user is part of a Hash so it can also match different Hash syntaxes.

What are these ellipses (...) though?

These are used to tell Semgrep that we don’t care which position our per_user is in, we just care that it exists. These ellipses match anything that comes before and after our per_user declaration.

Adding our second requirement

Now that we have met our first requirement, how can we fulfill the second one?

The provider is :acme and per_user is missing

What we want is:

Match pattern A OR pattern B

The way we express the OR operator is by using what Semgrep calls pattern-either, which is pretty descriptive. Let’s add our second requirement to our YAML file:

- id: alert_per_user pattern-either: - pattern: 'provider(:acme, ..., per_user: false, ...)' - patterns: - pattern: 'provider(:acme, ...)' - pattern-not: 'provider(:acme, ..., per_user: $X, ...)' languages: [ruby] severity: WARNING

What we are saying with this rule is:

Find me a provider method call that includes :acme
has a key per_user with value false
a provider method call that includes :acme
doesn’t have the per_user key inside it.

Note the use of the ellipses (...) in this case, it means that we don’t care about what’s inside the provider method call after the :acme symbol is found, so Semgrep will match anything till the end of the method.

And with this succint rule we were able to match our entire criteria without having to worry about method call conventions, line breaks or spaces or even Hash formats. How cool is that?

Going one step further

Let’s pretend that our method call occurs in two different contexts, but that we are interested in only matching one of them.

# We want to match in this context middleware.use(OmniAuth::Builder) do # Our pattern end # We don't care about this context middleware.use(Dummy::Builder) do # Our pattern end

In order to solve this we can rely on a new operator called pattern-inside that will act as a filter for our patterns. By using it we are saying asking Semgrep to only consider patterns that reside within our pattern-inside expression.

Let’s see how we would encode this in our rule:

- id: alert_per_user patterns: - pattern-inside: | middleware.use(OmniAuth::Builder) do ... end - pattern-either: - pattern: 'provider(:acme, ..., per_user: false, ...)' - patterns: - pattern: 'provider(:acme, ...)' - pattern-not: 'provider(:acme, ..., per_user: $X, ...)'

We are again making use of our ellipses within pattern-inside to say that Semgrep should match anything inside the middleware block. The pipe (|) symbol at the end of our pattern-inside line signifies that any indented text that follows should be interpreted as a multi-line value according to the YAML spec.

And with this new addition our rule is now context aware which is great in scenarios where code is environment dependent. We can now consider our exercise complete!


Semgrep is powerful and simple enough to make it a good choice when automating CI rules. There are situations where I still fallback to Brakeman though and that usually happens when I’m required to write custom code to enforce a check since I can rely on the full power of Ruby. For example, writing a custom check that detects spelling mistakes in arguments within a method call like Rails.cache.fetch, such as detecting an incorrect use of expire_in or expirs_in instead of the expected expires_in is currently much easier using Brakeman.

In this post we have just scratched the surface of Semgrep, refer to the rule syntax guide for the full schema. Operators like pattern-inside and metavariables make the schema extremely flexible.

Let me know if you have any tips or questions by reaching out to me on Twitter or by email and I will be happy to chat about it!

Update 2021-08-05

@clintgibler was kind enough to provide an example on how they would approach the problem mentioned in the conclusion of this post using Semgrep. I will share the example here, but there are more details in the thread that you can follow.

When we know each argument the method expects:

When we do not know every method argument:

We could approach this problem doing a string edit distance comparison or something similar with Python using the #patern-where-python operator.

Bernardo de Araujo

Application Security Manager @Shopify.

© Bernardo de Araujo 2024