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UseShellExecute Process and StartInfo Debugging on .NET

Check the relevant issue ticket here.

We’ve recently run an investigation made internally that involves the Process class and its UseShellExecute feature. This is an investigation about a pitfall when debugging the StartInfo property of a process that is to be executed from the Process class with the UseShellExecute feature enabled.

Before going into the details of this investigation, we’ll explain a bit about what is UseShellExecute. This property in the Process class describes whether the operating system shell (ShellExecute in Windows) is to be used when executing processes or the operating system should create a process directly from the executable file. This is available for all platforms, despite the usage of the ShellExecute name in the property.

The Investigation

We’re going straight to the investigation details and a case study about why debugging the StartInfo property in UseShellExecute-enabled process instances causes a confusing exception.


This investigation is a case study about the above subject. Suppose that you have this block of code that defines a process class that re-executes your .NET 6.0 application with the runas verb to execute it as an elevated user account.

var selfProcess = new Process
    StartInfo = new(Path.ChangeExtension(Assembly.GetExecutingAssembly().Location, ".exe"))
        UseShellExecute = true,
        Verb = "runas",
        Arguments = string.Join(" ", EnvironmentTools.arguments)

// Now, go ahead and start.
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Normally, you’d check that all the parameters work as expected, such as taking a look at the StartInfo property value by putting it to a watch when debugging your program.

However, when you actually try to start the process after taking a look at that property and making sure that all the values are populated as expected, instead of your program executing the process, you’ll actually notice that your program throws an exception as seen in the below screenshot.

Exception thrown

If you can’t see the screenshot, here’s a text version of the exception:

System.InvalidOperationException: The Process object must have the UseShellExecute property set to false in order to use environment variables.


Our verification using the example POC app, which its source code is short, verifies that this exception only gets thrown on Windows systems. Linux systems are unaffected. Here’s the source code:

using System.Diagnostics;

namespace poc;

class Program
    static void Main(string[] args)
        Console.WriteLine("POC of UseShellExecute pitfall");
        var proc = new Process()
            StartInfo = new("C:/WINDOWS/System32/cmd.exe")
                UseShellExecute = true,
                Verb = "runas"
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Invocation of the Environment or the EnvironmentVariables property from the StartInfo property causes the above exception, and Google searches won’t help pinpoint the problem.

Further investigation of the .NET source code suggests that these properties are populated upon the first invocation of any of the two properties, as you can see here (taken from the .NET 8.0 source code):

public IDictionary<string, string?> Environment
        if (_environmentVariables == null)
            IDictionary envVars = System.Environment.GetEnvironmentVariables();

            _environmentVariables = new DictionaryWrapper(new Dictionary<string, string?>(
                OperatingSystem.IsWindows() ? StringComparer.OrdinalIgnoreCase : StringComparer.Ordinal));

            // Manual use of IDictionaryEnumerator instead of foreach to avoid DictionaryEntry box allocations.
            IDictionaryEnumerator e = envVars.GetEnumerator();
            Debug.Assert(!(e is IDisposable), "Environment.GetEnvironmentVariables should not be IDisposable.");
            while (e.MoveNext())
                DictionaryEntry entry = e.Entry;
                _environmentVariables.Add((string)entry.Key, (string?)entry.Value);
        return _environmentVariables;
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The property getter doesn’t check the UseShellExecute property before populating the environment variable, which causes the environment variable lists to be populated, which is inappropriate for process instances with UseShellExecute enabled.

In our opinion, only checking for null in the Environment property getter is insufficient. Furthermore, when Start() is called on the process after this property is populated, the abstraction of the Process class, depending on your platform, is called to call the platform-specific methods of process starting function.

Investigating the Unix abstraction of the Process class, this piece of code snippet below only checks for redirection when ShellExecute is enabled.

However, when it comes to the Windows abstraction of the Process class, the StartCore checks to see if ShellExecute is used. In our case, StartWithShellExecuteEx() is called, and does the following checks:

  • In line 32, if the username or the password is provided, the exception is thrown.
  • In line 35, if any redirection is enabled, the exception is thrown.
  • In line 38, line 41, and line 44, if you’re attempting to set the encoding to the process, the exception is thrown.
  • In line 47, if the environment variable list is populated, intentionally (as in the POC) or not (as in StartInfo debugging), the exception is thrown.


There is no way to nullify the internal environment variable list as pinpointed in line 47 except using the dirty private reflection hack. However, this hack lasts until you try to access the environment variables property again. This is the reflection hack used to nullify this field (taken from the source code of Nitrocid KS 0.1.0):

internal static ProcessStartInfo StripEnvironmentVariables(ProcessStartInfo processStartInfo)
    // --- UseShellExecute and the Environment property population Hack ---
    // We need UseShellExecute to be able to use the runas verb, but it looks like that we can't start the process with the VS debugger,
    // because the StartInfo always populates the _environmentVariables field once the Environment property is populated.
    // _environmentVariables is not a public field.
    // .NET expects _environmentVariables to be null when trying to start the process with the UseShellExecute being set to true,
    // but when calling Start(), .NET calls StartWithShellExecuteEx() and checks to see if that variable is null, so executing the
    // process in this way is basically impossible after evaluating the Environment property without having to somehow nullify this
    // _environmentVariables field using private reflection after evaluating the Environment property.
    // if (startInfo._environmentVariables != null)
    //     throw new InvalidOperationException(SR.CantUseEnvVars);
    // Please DO NOT even try to evaluate selfProcess.StartInfo.Environment in your debugger even if hovering over selfProcess.StartInfo,
    // because that would undo all the changes that we've made to the _environmentVariables and causes us to lose all the changes made
    // to this instance of StartInfo.
    // if (_environmentVariables == null)
    // {
    //     IDictionary envVars = System.Environment.GetEnvironmentVariables();
    //     _environmentVariables = new DictionaryWrapper(new Dictionary<string, string?>(
    //     (...)
    // }
    // This hack is only applicable to developers debugging the StartInfo instance of this specific process using VS. Nitrocid should
    // be able to restart itself as elevated normally if no debugger is attached.
    // References:
    //   -
    //   -
    var privateReflection = BindingFlags.NonPublic | BindingFlags.Instance | BindingFlags.SetField;
    var startInfoType = processStartInfo.GetType();
    var envVarsField = startInfoType.GetField("_environmentVariables", privateReflection);
    envVarsField.SetValue(processStartInfo, null);
    // --- UseShellExecute and the Environment property population Hack End ---
    return processStartInfo;
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After nullifying this list, Start() works again. In our opinion, an exception should be thrown when UseShellExecute is enabled and an attempt to get environment variables is tried to reduce confusing errors.

Enjoy hacking!

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