News from the Desktop, Edition 2010/07/21

Back on track as for one of our favorite rant subjects: desktop security. This stuff, commonly called the “LNK vulnerability”, has gained quite some momentum in the last days, including the release of a Metasploit module and a temporary raise of SANS Internet Storm Center‘s Infocon level to yellow (it’s back on green in the interim).

CVE-2010-2568 has been assigned and some technical details can be found here and here.

To give you a rough idea how this piece works, here’s a quote from the US-CERT advisory:

“Microsoft Windows fails to safely obtain icons for LNK files. When Windows displays Control Panel items, it will initialize each object for the purpose of providing dynamic icon functionality. This means that a Control Panel applet will execute code when the icon is displayed in Windows. Through use of an LNK file, an attacker can specify a malicious DLL that is to be processed within the context of the Windows Control Panel, which will result in arbitrary code execution. The specified code may reside on a USB drive, local or remote filesystem, a CD-ROM, or other locations. Viewing the location of a LNK file with Windows Explorer is sufficient to trigger the vulnerability.”

In short, as the Microsoft Malware Protection Center puts it: “[S]imply browsing to the removable media drive using an application that displays shortcut icons (like Windows Explorer) runs the malware without any additional user interaction.”

So actually, there is no exploitation in the sense of a buffer overflow of the LNK handling routines. The flaw just triggers downloading (and executing) some binary code. It’s basically about downloading some piece of code (to be executed on the local “compromised” box) from some location.
Figuring that brings us to an immediate discussion of potential mitigation strategies, which is – next to “some usual rant” ๐Ÿ˜‰ – the main intent of this post.

As so often the US-CERT’s advisory provides good guidance on mitigating controls. It lists the following (most with a comment from my side):

a) Disable the displaying of icons for shortcuts.

Do not do this! It will most probably break your (users’) desktop experience in a horrible way.
Chester Wisniewski has a nice image of a treated desktop in yesterday’s post on the subject.

b) Disable AutoRun

This is pretty much always a good idea (security-wise), but it – partially – limits only one attack vector (removable media).
Interestingly enough the MS KB article on disabling Autorun functionality in Windows was last reviewed on 2010/07/01 and the CVE number for the LNK vulnerability was assigned 2010/06/30. There’s strange coincidences out there… ๐Ÿ˜‰

And, of course, not allowing untrusted USB devices to be connected to the organization’s machines usually is a good thing as well.
[for the record: yes, I know, there are organizations out where business tells you this is not possible for some reason or another. which might be true; I will not go into this debate right here and now. I just want to remind you, dear reader, of some good ole basics ;-)].

In the meantime people expect (and see) the vulnerability being exploited over network shares so focusing on removable media/USB devices alone might be too narrow-focused anyway.

c) Use least privilege

Aka: do not work as admin. I don’t really have to comment on this here, do I? It’s a no-brainer. Well, let’s say: it should be a no-brainer… when gathering with some infosec people from a >100K user environment recently I learned they still have about 30% of users with local admin privs…
[and don’t get me wrong here: there might be good reasons for this. and those guys are not the only ones with such a landscape.]
To be discussed in more detail at another occasion.

d) Disable the WebClient service.

While I like this very much – given it’s a preventative control [“minimal machine approach”] and, btw, addresses other (past and potential future) vulnerabilities as well, e.g. those of MS10-045 published one week ago – it should be noted that this potentially breaks MS SharePoint (and other stuff as well).
So, unfortunately, again this will not be a feasible in quite some environments. Still, it might remind people that WebDAV is a technology that can be (ab-) used to access “network drives” in completely untrusted/untrustworthy locations.

e) Block outgoing SMB traffic

Well, yes…

The (today) updated MS advisory provides another one:

f) Blocking the download of LNK and PIF files

Again, this is soo obvious that I refrain from any comment.

Those of you following this blog or our public statements on desktop security (like this one) regularly might have noticed that – as so often – the two main ones quite some organizations rely on are not mentioned here:

Patching: for the simple reason there’s no patch as of today (and the imp is out of the bottle, to public knowledge, five days now).

Antimalware “protections”: not sure how this could prevent downloading and executing arbitrary binary code. The announcements of major AV vendors “we now have a signature for this” mostly address the Stuxnet stuff found in the initial exploit, nothing else. So this is mostly window-dressing.

So far so good (or bad), the main point of this post is – and yes, I’m aware I needed a long warm-up today ๐Ÿ˜‰ – the following: the security problem discussed here can be broken down to: “there’s a vulnerability that triggers an exploit that goes somewhere, downloads some code and executes it”.

Which, in turn, raises the fundamental question: why should some average corporate desktop computer be allowed to go to some arbitrary location, download code, and – above all – run this code.
Restricting where to get executable code from or, even better, just allowing a specified set of applications to run could (more or less) easily solve the kind of problems vulnerabilities like this one impose. And the technologies needed like – in MS space – Software Restriction Policies , Applocker or just (as part of SRPs) “path rules” restricting where to download executables from have been available for a long time.

As Marcus Ranum is much more eloquent than me – especially when it comes to ranting where he’s nearly unbeatable ๐Ÿ˜‰ – I allow myself to quote him literally, from the “Schneier-Ranum Face-Off” on “Is antivirus dead?”:

“Of course, most organizations don’t know (or haven’t got the courage to discover) what programs they allow–and, ultimately, isn’t that the root of their security problems? When I read the security news and hear that thus-and-such government agency is trying to decide if Facebook is a necessary application, it makes my head spin. In Marcus-land, where I come from, you decide what is a necessary application first, not after you have 40,000 employees who have gotten so used to it that they now think Twitter is a constitutionally protected right. Isn’t a virus or malware just unauthorized execution that someone managed to sneak onto your machine? If we adopt a model whereby there are programs that are authorized (i.e., on a whitelist) and the operating system should terminate everything else, then malware and viruses are history, unless their authors can somehow fool the administrator into authorizing them to run.
Whenever I talk about execution control/whitelisting with corporate types, someone says, ‘But we don’t really have a way of determining all the applications that we use!’ Really? Wow. That sounds like a policy that’s basically, ‘We have no idea what our computers are for.’ In other words: ‘We’ve given up, and as far as we’re concerned, our computers are an unmanaged mess.’ Or to put it another way, malware heaven. Can anyone even calculate the cost of malware and viruses (as well as the occasional office time spent playing online games) to businesses? That cost, ultimately, is paid solely in order to avoid the difficulty of determining what programs are authorized — what’s the purpose of the computer an employee is provided to use?

Here’s why I keep talking about execution control: it’s actually ridiculously easy compared to dealing with antivirus and antimalware. So why isn’t everyone doing it? Because it’d dramatically cut down on our ability to goof off. If executives knew how easy it was to cut back on productivity-wasting goof-off-ware, don’t you think it would be happening all over the place by now? If, instead, we tell them it’s hard to know what executables we use in the office…well, what nobody knows won’t hurt anyone.”

Well said, Marcus. Nothing to add here.

So, please please please, just take a small amount (e.g. 1%) of the yearly budget you spend on antimalware software/support/operational cost, get a student intern in and have her start testing application whitelisting on some typical corporate desktops. This might contribute to a bit more sustainable security in your environment, one day in the future.

thanks for your time,



  1. Great thoughts about the all new and shiny LNK disaster, proudly presented by MS Windows.

    But there are 2 things that worry me more than the current vulnerability itself (which will be fixed soon i guess):

    #1: the code snippet was signed with JMMicro and Realtek Keys! (obviously stolen in far east i guess – nice one, outsourcing is so much fun…)

    #2 the first example of that exploit which has been analyzed was especially written for SCADA systems (gathering information of Siemens Databases)

    A funny one at last:
    “Siemens has reportedly advised customers to NOT change their default passwords, arguing it โ€œmay impact plant operations.โ€” -> ok… well done!

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