OneNote Embedded URL Abuse

This entry is part 2 in the series OneNote as a Malware delivery platform

In my previous blogpost I described how OneNote is being abused in order to deliver a malicious URL. In response to this attack, helpnetsecurity recently reported that Microsoft is planning to release a fix for the issue in April this year. Currently, it’s still unknown what this fix will look like, but from helpnetsecurity’s post, it seems like Microsoft’s fix will focus on the OneNote embedded file feature.
During my testing, I discovered that there is another way to abuse OneNote to deliver malware: Using URLs. The idea is similar to how Threat Actors are already abusing URLs in HTML pages or PDFs. Where the user is presented with a fake warning or image to click on which would open the URL in their browser and loads a phishing page.

The focus of this blogpost will be on URLs withing a OneNote file that is delivered via an attachment. Not a URL that leads to OneNote online.

There are 3 ways to deliver URLs via a OneNote file.

  1. Just plainly paste your URL in the OneNote file (Clickable URL)
  2. Make some text (like “Open”) clickable with a malicious URL (Clickable text)
  3. Embed URLs in pictures (Clickable picture)

Now it is important to note that these 3 ways rely on social engineering and tricking the user to click your URL or picture, either via instructions or deceiving the user. We have seen this technique being used through OneDrive and SharePoint online already

So, let’s create some examples and see what this attack could look like.

URLs in OneNote

Clickable URLs

The most straightforward way is to just put a URL in a OneNote file. In an actual phishing email, the OneNote file will probably not just contain the URL alone. To make things more believable, Threat Actors could potentially write a small story or an “encrypted” message in the OneNote file (an example of this can be observed below). The idea would then be to convince the user into clicking the URL in order to “decrypt” the message. Once clicked on the URL, the user would then either have to download something or provide credentials to “log in”.

If you would like to read the message in the OneNote file, you would have to click the URL. Which could then lead to the download of a malicious file or a credential harvest page.
An example of such an “encrypted” message could be:

An example of a fake encrypted message where a user has to click a URL to decrypt it

Clickable text

Similar to clickable URLs, you can hide a URL behind normal text. Once you hover over the URL, you will see where it points towards. If the address points to wards a malicious domain that uses typo squatting (e.g. g00gle[.]com instead of google[.]com) then Threat Actors could fool the human eye.

The text “open” hiding a malicious URL

The issue here lies in the fact that once you click the “open” text, you will immediately be redirected to the website. There is no pop up asking if you really want to visit the website.
Taking this technique into account, it is also possible to use our “encrypted message” example from before and make the user think they will visit a legitimate page but embed a different URL:

The visible URL “” is hiding a malicious URL

Clickable Pictures

To create an embedded URL in a picture, right-click your picture, and Click “Link…”

Here you can put a URL to your malicious file or phishing page. Yes, you could spin this story so that you would have to authenticate and login, to your browser with a fake login website.
Do note that to open a URL that is embedded within a picture, you will need to hold the CTRL key and click the image. The phishing document will have to instruct the user to hold CTRL and click the picture; however, I do not see this as an obstacle for threat actors.

A picture with the button “open” that has an embedded malicious URL

Detection Capabilities

On OneNote Interaction

Opening the URL, will launch the default browser. This can be translated to OneNote spawning a child process, which is the browser. A full process flow could look something like this:

Process execution of explorer.exe > Outlook.exe > OneNote.exe > firefox.exe

Do note that, as typically done so by Outlook, once you click the file, it saves a copy in a temporary cache folder (depending on your version of outlook, this can be a slightly different place than is shown above here, but generally, you will have the name INetCache and Content.Outlook in the folder path.)

A quick hunting rule for this behaviour can be to look for the process tree that was observed before. This process tree can be adjusted to the needs of your environment, depending on what browser is being used (e.g. if you are running brave.exe, you should include this in the “FileName” section of the query)

| where InitiatingProcessFileName contains "onenote.exe"
| where FileName has_any ("firefox.exe","msedge.exe","chrome.exe")

Now if you’d like a more “catch all” approach, the last line can be replaced with a query that looks at the command line and looks for http or other protocols like ftp, as both chromium & Firefox-based browsers accept URLs as a command line argument to open a specific website.

| where ProcessCommandLine has_any ("http","ftp")

On Email Delivery

During our tests, Microsoft Defender was unable to detect and extract the URLs that were embedded in the OneNote file, as can be observed in the screenshot below. Defender was unable to extract the URLs from the OneNote files, nor was it able to show that a URL was embedded in the file.

No URLs extracted from the OneNote Attachment

This also means that Microsoft does not create a safe link for the URL and thus a threat actor can bypass the “potential malicious URL clicked” alert which helps against phishing pages, as this looks at URL clicks, which is impossible if no URLs are detected


Whilst embedded files within OneNote are currently still a big threat, you shouldn’t forget that there are other ways of abusing OneNote features that can be used for malicious intent. As we observed, Microsoft does not extract the URLs from a OneNote file and there are multiple ways of avoiding detection & tricking the user into clicking a URL. From there, the same tactics are used to deliver second stage malware, be it via ISO file or ZIP file that contains malicious scripts.

Nicholas Dhaeyer

Nicholas Dhaeyer is a Threat Hunter for NVISO. Nicholas specializes in Threat Hunting, Malware analysis & Industrial Control System (ICS) / Operational Technology (OT) Security. Nicholas has worked in the NVISO SOC solving security incidents for our MDR clients. You can reach out to Nicholas via Twitter or LinkedIn

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