New Microsoft Zero-Day Attack Underway

"Follina" vulnerability in Microsoft Support Diagnostic Tool (MSDT) affects all currently supported Windows versions and can be triggered via specially crafted Office documents.

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Attackers are actively exploiting an unpatched and easy-to-exploit flaw in the Microsoft Support Diagnostic Tool (MSDT) in Windows that allows for remote code execution from Office documents even when macros are disabled.

The vulnerability exists in all currently supported Windows versions and can be exploited via Microsoft Office versions 2013 through Office 2019, Office 2021, Office 365, and Office ProPlus, according to security researchers that have analyzed the issue.

Attackers can exploit the zero-day flaw — dubbed "Follina" — to remotely execute arbitrary code on Windows systems. Microsoft has warned of the issue giving attackers a way to "install programs, view, change, or delete data, or create new accounts in the context allowed by the user’s rights." Researchers have reported observing attacks exploiting the flaw in India and Russia going back at least one month.

Delayed Acknowledgement?

Microsoft on Monday assigned the flaw a CVE identifier — CVE-2022-30190 — after apparently initially describing it as a non-security issue in April when crazyman, a security researcher with APT threat hunting group Shadow Chaser Group, first reported observing a public exploit of the vulnerability. Though the company's advisory described the flaw as being publicly known and actively exploited, it did not describe the issue as a zero-day threat.

In a May 30 blog post, Microsoft recommended that organizations disable the MSDT URL protocol to mitigate the issue and said it would provide more updates later without specifying when. Microsoft said the Protected View feature in Microsoft Office and the Application Guard for Office both would prevent attacks that try to exploit the flaw.

Microsoft did not respond to a Dark Reading query on whether it had initially described the issue as a non-security issue or when it might have first learned of the flaw. Instead, a spokeswoman pointed to Microsoft's Monday advisory as the only comment the company has on the issue at this time.

MSDT is a Windows support tool that collects and sends data from a user's system to Microsoft support staff so they can analyze and diagnose issues that a user might be encountering on their system. According to Microsoft, the vulnerability is triggered when an Office app like Word calls MSDT using the URL protocol. "An attacker who successfully exploits this vulnerability can run arbitrary code with the privileges of the calling application," the company noted.

Multiple Exploits in the Wild

Though the security researcher with the Shadow Chaser Group first notified Microsoft Security Response Center about the bug more than a month ago, the vuln only received broad attention over the weekend when a researcher spotted a malicious Word document attempting to exploit the issue. Security researcher Kevin Beaumont analyzed the document and found that it was using the remote template feature in Word to retrieve a HTML file from a remote Web server. The retrieved file in turn used the MS-MSDT URL protocol to load code for executing a PowerShell script. Beaumont discovered the document was executing code even with macros disabled. The security researcher found at least two other malicious Word documents in the wild attempting to exploit Follina going back to April.

Significantly, Beaumont and other researchers found that the attack technique allowed threat actors a way to bypass the "Protected View" mechanism in Office that alerts users about content downloaded from the Internet and requires an additional click from them to open. According to Malwarebytes, the warning can be bypassed simply by changing the document to a Rich Text Format (RTF) file. By doing so, code can run without the user even needed to open the document via the preview tab in Explorer, Malwarebytes said.

"RTF files are a special format that allows for documents to be previewed inside of Windows Explorer," says Jerome Segura, senior director of threat intelligence at Malwarebytes. "When that happens, Explorer will call out the msdt process which is being exploited without any warning or prompts," he says. In fact, the Preview pane is a risky feature because it enables zero-click attacks, Segura says. "We recommend users to disable it within Explorer as well as email clients like Outlook."

Potentially Widespread Impact

Johannes Ullrich, dean of research at the SANS Institute, says by itself the vulnerability in MSDT wouldn’t be a big deal. But the fact that it can be triggered via Microsoft Office is troubling. All that a user needs to do is to open a specially crafted Word document, or in some cases just previewing it to enable remote code execution, he says. This sets the stage for potentially widespread compromises especially considering that numerous exploits have been available in the wild for a month now.

"There are multiple scripts, examples and tutorials explaining how to exploit this vulnerability. Applying these techniques is easy, Ullrich says. He points to one malicious document to exploit Follina that SANS discovered recently, which purported to contain quotes for mobile phone prices from a reseller. The exploit worked though it appears to have been compiled by a relatively unskilled threat actor. "It appears to have been created by a novice attacker as it doesn't even remove some of the comments added to the malicious document," Ullrich says.

He recommends that organizations immediately follow Microsoft's guidance and disable the MSDT URL protocol. "This will break the link between Office and the diagnostic tool," he says. Though the vulnerability in MSDT will still be present, it can no longer be triggered when opening a malicious document, he says. SANS recommends that organizations disable the Preview Pane in Windows Explorer.

Dray Agha, ThreatOps analyst at Huntress, which did a deep dive on the vulnerability, says attackers can use Follina to escalate privileges and travel across environments to create havoc. "Hackers can go from being a low-privilege user to an admin extremely easily," Agha says. "The vulnerability can be easily triggered by users simply choosing to “preview” a specifically crafted, maliciously supplied document. It’s that simple."

About the Author(s)

Jai Vijayan, Contributing Writer

Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year career at Computerworld, Jai also covered a variety of other technology topics, including big data, Hadoop, Internet of Things, e-voting, and data analytics. Prior to Computerworld, Jai covered technology issues for The Economic Times in Bangalore, India. Jai has a Master's degree in Statistics and lives in Naperville, Ill.

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