CVE Farming through Software Center – A group effort to flush out zero-day privilege escalations


In this blog post we discuss a zero-day topic for finding privilege escalation vulnerabilities discovered by Ahmad Mahfouz. It abuses applications like Software Center, which are typically used in large-scale environments for automated software deployment performed on demand by regular (i.e. unprivileged) users.

Since the topic resulted in a possible attack surface across many different applications, we organized a team event titled “CVE farming” shortly before Christmas 2021.

Attack Surface, 0-day, … What are we talking about exactly?

NVISO contributors from different teams (both red and blue!) and Ahmad gathered together on a cold winter evening to find new CVEs.

Targets? More than one hundred installation files that you could normally find in the software center of enterprises.
Goal? Find out whether they could be used for privilege escalation.

The original vulnerability (patient zero) resulting in the attack surface discovery was identified by Ahmad and goes as follows:

Companies correctly don’t give administrative privileges to all users (according to the least privilege principle). However, they also want the users to be able to install applications based on their business needs. How  is this solved? Software Center portals using SCCM (System Center Configuration Manager, now part of Microsoft Endpoint Manager) come to the rescue. Using these portals enables users to install applications without giving them administrative privileges.

However, there is an issue. More often than not these portals run the installation program with SYSTEM privileges, which in their turn use a temporary folder for reading or writing resources used during installation. There is a special characteristic for the TMP environment variable of SYSTEM. And that is – it is writable for a regular user.

Consider the following example:

By running the previous command, we just successfully wrote to a file located in the TEMP directory of SYSTEM.

Even if we can’t read the file anymore on some systems, be assured that the file was successfully  written:

To check that SYSTEM really has TMP pointing to C:\Windows\TEMP, you could run the following commands (as administrator):

PsExec64.exe /s /i cmd.exe

echo %TMP%

The /s option of PsExec tells the program to run the process in the SYSTEM context. Now if you would try to write to a file of an Administrator account’s TMP directory, it would not work since your access is denied. So if the installation runs under Administrator and not SYSTEM, it is not vulnerable to this attack.

How can this be abused?

Consider a situation where the installation program, executed under a SYSTEM context:

  • Loads a dll from TMP
  • Executes an exe file from TMP
  • Executes an msi file from TMP
  • Creates a service from a sys file in TMP

This provides some interesting opportunities! For example, the installation program can search in TMP for a dll file. If the file is present, it will load it. In that case the exploitation is simple; we just need to craft our custom dll, rename it, and place it where it is being looked for. Once the installation runs we get code execution as SYSTEM.

Let’s take another example. This time the installation creates an exe file in TMP and executes it. In this case it can still be exploitable but we have to abuse a race condition. What we need to do is craft our own exe file and continuously overwrite the target exe file in TMP with our own exe. Then we start the installation and hope that our own exe file will be executed instead of the one from the installation. We can introduce a small delay, for example 50 milliseconds, between the writes hoping the installation will drop its exe file, which gets replaced by ours and executed by the installation within that small delay. Note that this kind of exploitation might take more patience and might need to restart the installation process multiple times to succeed. The video below shows an example of such a race condition:

However, even in case of execution under a SYSTEM context, applications can take precautions against abuse. Many of them read/write their sources to/from a randomized subdirectory in TMP, making it nearly impossible to exploit. We did notice that in some cases the directory appears random, but in fact remains constant in between installations, also allowing for abuse. 

So, what was the end result?

Out of 95 tested installers, 13 were vulnerable, 7 need to be further investigated and 75 were not found to be vulnerable. Not a bad result, considering that those are 13 easy to use zero-day privilege escalation vulnerabilities 😉. We reported them to the respective developers but were met with limited enthousiasm. Also, Ahmad and NVISO reported the attack surface vulnerability to Microsoft, and there is no fix for file system permission design. The recommendation is for the installer to follow the defense in depth principle, which puts responsibility with the developers packages their software.

If you’re interested in identifying this issue on systems you have permission on, you can use the helper programs we will soon release in an accompanying Github repository.

Stay tuned!

Defense & Mitigation

Since the Software Center is working as designed, what are some ways to defend against this?

  • Set AppEnforce user context if possible
  • Developers should consider absolute paths while using custom actions or make use of randomized folder paths
  • As a possible IoC for hunting: Identify DLL writes to c:\windows\temp


About the authors

Ahmad, who discovered this attack surface, is a cyber security researcher mainly focus in attack surface reduction and detection engineering. Prior to that he did software development and system administration and holds multiple certificates in advanced penetration testing and system engineering. You can find Ahmad on LinkedIn.

Oliver, the main author of this post, is a cyber security expert at NVISO. He has almost a decade and a half of IT experience which half of it is in cyber security. Throughout his career he has obtained many useful skills and also certificates. He’s constantly exploring and looking for more knowledge. You can find Oliver on LinkedIn.

Jonas Bauters is a manager within NVISO, mainly providing cyber resiliency services with a focus on target-driven testing. As the Belgian ARES (Adversarial Risk Emulation & Simulation) solution lead, his responsibilities include both technical and non-technical tasks. While occasionally still performing pass the hash (T1550.002) and pass the ticket (T1550.003), he also greatly enjoys passing the knowledge. You can find Jonas on LinkedIn.

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