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Researcher Finds New Office Macro Attacks for MacOS

Building successful macro attacks means getting past several layers of security, but a Black Hat speaker found a way through.

Microsoft Office is no stranger to vulnerabilities and exploits. Most of those vulnerabilities led from Microsoft Office to Microsoft Windows, but it's possible for an attacker to take an exploit path from Microsoft Office to macOS — a path that Patrick Wardle, principal security researcher at Jamf, discussed in his presentation on Wednesday at Black Hat USA.

Wardle began by pointing out that macros — executable code inserted into documents — have been exploited as attack vectors since at least 1999. In the last three or four years, Wardle said, more of these exploits have been aimed at macOS targets as Macs have become more attractive targets because of their increased use in business environments.

The Human Side
In most of the macro-based attacks, human intervention on the part of the victim is required at least once, and usually twice, Wardle said. First, the victim must click on an email attachment or malicious link in order to download and open the infected document. Next, in most cases macros will not run on a system by default — they must be given explicit permission to run by the user.

Most macro-based attacks have two stages, Wardle explained. In the first — the stage given explicit permission to run by the victim — code executes that checks the system status, checks for the presence of anti-malware software, and then downloads the second stage. It's the second stage payload that contains the "working" code of the attack, whether it's skimming credentials, creating a bot, or encrypting the system's data as part of a ransomware scheme.

Out of the (Sand)box
Modern malware writers have an additional hurdle to overcome. Microsoft Office now executes all macros in a "sandbox," a walled-off environment within the operating system that prevents code from gaining persistence or interacting with the system as a whole. The goal for malware writers is breaking out of the sandbox.

Wardle said that researchers Pieter Ceelen and Stan Hegt found ways to include SYLK files and XLM code that make macros execute whether or not they're invoked or allowed. They still run within the sandbox. Wardle showed that it's possible to create files through a macro — files that can be placed outside the macro and can be built to auto execute on system boot. That combination is the key to persistence, one of the golden tickets that attackers pursue in any campaign.

What kind of files can fit the twin bill? Wardle found that a ZIP file, dropped into the proper subdirectory, will be invoked automatically. While the latest macOS endpoint security framework should detect such a file's creation, Wardle said that there's room for research here.

Asked by an audience member how he decides on which areas to pursue in his research, Wardle said that he looks at common vulnerabilities and exposures and their patches — especially patches that are very specific — and wonders whether there can be ways around them. Also, he said, he keeps abreast of research and finds that other researchers are a constant source of inspiration.

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About the Author(s)

Curtis Franklin, Principal Analyst, Omdia

Curtis Franklin Jr. is Principal Analyst at Omdia, focusing on enterprise security management. Previously, he was senior editor of Dark Reading, editor of Light Reading's Security Now, and executive editor, technology, at InformationWeek, where he was also executive producer of InformationWeek's online radio and podcast episodes

Curtis has been writing about technologies and products in computing and networking since the early 1980s. He has been on staff and contributed to technology-industry publications including BYTE, ComputerWorld, CEO, Enterprise Efficiency, ChannelWeb, Network Computing, InfoWorld, PCWorld, Dark Reading, and ITWorld.com on subjects ranging from mobile enterprise computing to enterprise security and wireless networking.

Curtis is the author of thousands of articles, the co-author of five books, and has been a frequent speaker at computer and networking industry conferences across North America and Europe. His most recent books, Cloud Computing: Technologies and Strategies of the Ubiquitous Data Center, and Securing the Cloud: Security Strategies for the Ubiquitous Data Center, with co-author Brian Chee, are published by Taylor and Francis.

When he's not writing, Curtis is a painter, photographer, cook, and multi-instrumentalist musician. He is active in running, amateur radio (KG4GWA), the MakerFX maker space in Orlando, FL, and is a certified Florida Master Naturalist.

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