Critical Open Source vm2 Sandbox Escape Bug Affects Millions

Attackers could exploit the "Sandbreak" security bug, which has earned a 10 out of 10 on the CVSS scale, to execute a sandbox escape, achieve RCE, and run shell commands on a hosting machine.

Toys left in sandbox of empty playground
Source: Westend62 GmbH via Alamy Stock Photo

A remote code execution (RCE) vulnerability in a widely used JavaScript sandbox has earned a top rating of 10 on the CVSS vulnerability risk scale; it allows threat actors to execute a sandbox escape and run shell commands on the hosting machine.

Researchers from cloud security firm Oxeye discovered the dangerous flaw, which they dubbed "Sandbreak" in vm2, a JavaScript sandbox that has more than 16 million monthly downloads, according to its NPM package manager.

"The fact that this vulnerability has the maximum CVSS score of 10 and is extremely popular means its potential impact is widespread and critical," Oxeye architect Yuval Ostrovsky and security researcher Gal Goldshtein wrote in a blog post published Oct. 10.

Oxeye found the flaw on Aug. 16 and informed the project owners two days later. On Aug. 28, GitHub issued CVE-2022-36067 and gave the vulnerability the highest risk rating possible.

The project's maintainers reacted swiftly to issue a patch for Sandbreak in vm2 version 3.9.11, which should be applied by anyone using the sandbox because of the heightened risk of vulnerability, the researchers said.

Sandboxes: Historically Trustworthy

Like all sandboxes, vm2 offers an isolated environment where applications can run trusted code, serving a vital purposes in modern applications because developers or network administrators can use them to run programs or open files without affecting the app, system, or platform in which they run.

Software developers often use sandboxes to test new programming code, and they are well known as an important tool in cybersecurity research, allowing researchers to test potentially malicious software without harming other parts of a network or app environment.

Indeed, the fact that a sandbox is so universally trusted is what makes the Sandbreak flaw so critical and should sound an alarm across all sandbox users to shore up their implementations, the researchers said.

"By their very definition, sandboxes are considered safe places and trusted as mechanisms that isolate potentially dangerous code from our applications," they wrote in the post. "But what would happen if this trust was compromised?"

Technical Analysis

Researchers explored just that in their investigation of Sandbreak, which they discovered while analyzing previous security lapses disclosed to the team maintaining vm2.

The bug exists in the vm2 bug reporter, which would allow cyberattackers to abuse the error mechanism in Node.js. They could customize the call stack of an error that occurred in the app to escape the sandbox, the researchers disclosed.

"Customizing the call stack can achieve this by implementing the 'prepareStacktrace' method under the global 'Error' object,'" the researchers explained in the post. "This means that when an error occurs and the 'stack' property of the thrown error object is accessed, Node.js will call this method while providing it with a string representation of the error alongside an array of 'CallSite' objects as arguments."

One of the methods exposed by the CallSite objects because of the issue is "getThis," which is responsible for returning the “this” object that was available in the related stack frame, the researchers found.

This behavior can lead to sandbox escapes because some of the "CallSite" objects "may return objects created outside the sandbox when invoking the 'getThis' method," they wrote. If an attackers could gain hold of a "CallSite" object created outside of the sandbox, they could access Node's global objects and execute arbitrary system commands from there.

Bypassing the Mitigation

The maintainers of vm2 were aware that overriding "prepareStackTrace" could indeed lead to a sandbox escape. They tried to mitigate the escape path by wrapping the Error object and the "prepareStackTrace" method with their own implementation, which succeeded in preventing anyone from overriding the method and performing the escape, they said.

However, Oxeye researchers found they could bypass this, because vm2 missed wrapping specific methods related to the "WeakMap" JavaScript built-in type, they said. "This allowed the attacker to provide their own implementation of 'prepareStackTrace,' then trigger an error, and escape the sandbox," the researchers wrote.

Knowing that the prepareStackTrace function of the Error object is the function they needed to override to escape the sandbox, Oxeye researchers went even further and decided to try to override the global Error object with their own object.

Doing this implemented the prepareStackTrace function, which allowed them to escape the sandbox. A few simple steps later and they had access to the currently executing process and could execute commands on the system running the sandbox, they said.

Using Sandboxes Safely

Although sandboxes by their very nature are meant to safely run untrusted code within an app or system, enterprises shouldn't automatically assume they are without risk, the researchers warned.

However, if using a sandbox in an environment is unavoidable, Oxeye recommends reducing risk by separating the logical, sensitive part of an application from the microservice that runs the sandbox code.

This will ensure that "if a threat actor successfully breaks out from the sandbox, the attack surface is limited to the isolated microservice," the researchers wrote.

Enterprises also should avoid using a sandbox that relies on a dynamic programming language such as JavaScript when possible, they said.

"The dynamic nature of the language widens the attack surface for a potential attacker, making defending against such attacks much harder," researchers observed in their post.

About the Author(s)

Elizabeth Montalbano, Contributing Writer

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer, journalist, and therapeutic writing mentor with more than 25 years of professional experience. Her areas of expertise include technology, business, and culture. Elizabeth previously lived and worked as a full-time journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco, and New York City; she currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal. In her free time, she enjoys surfing, hiking with her dogs, traveling, playing music, yoga, and cooking.

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