Jun 15, 2018

Marshalling to SYSTEM - An analysis of CVE-2018-0824

This was originally posted on blogger here.

In May 2018 Microsoft patched an interesting vulnerability (CVE-2018-0824) which was reported by Nicolas Joly of Microsoft’s MSRC:

A remote code execution vulnerability exists in “Microsoft COM for Windows” when it fails to properly handle serialized objects. An attacker who successfully exploited the vulnerability could use a specially crafted file or script to perform actions. In an email attack scenario, an attacker could exploit the vulnerability by sending the specially crafted file to the user and convincing the user to open the file. In a web-based attack scenario, an attacker could host a website (or leverage a compromised website that accepts or hosts user-provided content) that contains a specially crafted file that is designed to exploit the vulnerability. However, an attacker would have no way to force the user to visit the website. Instead, an attacker would have to convince the user to click a link, typically by way of an enticement in an email or Instant Messenger message, and then convince the user to open the specially crafted file. The security update addresses the vulnerability by correcting how “Microsoft COM for Windows” handles serialized objects.

The keywords “COM” and “serialized” pretty much jumped into my face when the advisory came out. Since I had already spent several months of research time on Microsoft COM last year I decided to look into it. Although the vulnerability can result in remote code execution, I’m only interested in the privilege escalation aspects.

Before I go into details I want to give you a quick introduction into COM and how deserialization/marshalling works. As I’m far from being an expert on COM, all this information is either based on the great book “Essential COM” by Don Box or the awesome Infiltrate ‘17 Talk “COM in 60 seconds”. I have skipped several details (IDL/MIDL, Apartments, Standard Marshalling, etc.) just to keep the introduction short.

Introduction to COM and Marshalling

COM (Component Object Model) is a Windows middleware having reusable code (=component) as a primary goal. In order to develop reusable C++ code, Microsoft engineers designed COM in an object-oriented manner having the following key aspects in mind:

  • Portability
  • Encapsulation
  • Polymorphism
  • Separation of interfaces from implementation
  • Object extensibility
  • Resource Management
  • Language independence

COM objects are defined by an interface and implementation class. Both interface and implementation class are identified by a GUID. A COM object can implement several interfaces using inheritance.

All COM objects implement the IUnknown interface which looks like the following class definition in C++:

class IUnknown
        virtual HRESULT STDMETHODCALLTYPE QueryInterface(REFIID riid, void **ppvObject) = 0;
        virtual ULONG STDMETHODCALLTYPE AddRef( void) = 0;
        virtual ULONG STDMETHODCALLTYPE Release( void) = 0;

The QueryInterface() method is used to cast a COM object to a different interface implemented by the COM object. The AddRef() and Release() methods are used for reference counting.

Just to keep it short I rather go on with an existing COM object instead of creating an artificial example COM object.

A Control Panel COM object is identified by the GUID {06622D85-6856-4460-8DE1-A81921B41C4B}. To find out more about the COM object we could analyze the registry manually or just use the great tool “OleView .NET”.

The “Control Panel” COM object implements several interfaces as we can see in the screenshot of OleView .NET: The implementation class of the COM object (COpenControlPanel) can be found in shell32.dll.

To open a “Control Panel” programmatically we make use of the COM API:

HRESULT  hr = 0;
GUID guidControlPanel = { 0x06622d85,0x6856,0x4460,{ 0x8d,0xe1,0xa8,0x19,0x21,0xb4,0x1c,0x4b } };
IUnknown* pUnknown = nullptr;
IOpenControlPanel* pControlPanel = nullptr;
hr = CoInitialize(0);
hr = CoCreateInstance(guidControlPanel, NULL, CLSCTX_ALL, IID_IUnknown, (LPVOID*)&pUnknown);
hr = pUnknown->QueryInterface(IID_IOpenControlPanel, (LPVOID*)&pControlPanel);
hr = pControlPanel->Open(nullptr, nullptr, nullptr);
  • In line 6 we initialize the COM environment
  • In line 7 we create an instance of a “Control Panel” object
  • In line 8 we cast the instance to the IOpenControlPanel interface
  • In line 9 we open the “Control Panel” by calling the “Open” method

Inspecting the COM object in the debugger after running until line 9 shows us the virtual function table (vTable) of the object:

The function pointers in the vTable of the object point to the actual implementation functions in shell32.dll. The reason for that is that the COM object was created as a so called InProc server which means that shell32.dll got loaded into the current process address space. When passing CLSCTX_ALL, CoCreateInstance() tries to create an InProc server first. If it fails, other activation methods are tried (see CLSCTX enumeration).

By changing the CLSCTX_ALL parameter to function CoCreateInstance() to CLSCTX_LOCAL_SERVER and running the program again we can notice some differences:

The vTable of the object contains now function pointers from the OneCoreUAPCommonProxyStub.dll. And the 4th function pointer which corresponds to the Open()" method now points to OneCoreUAPCommonProxyStub!ObjectStublessClient3().

The reason for that is that we created the COM object as an out-of-process server. The following diagram tries to give you an architectural overview (shamelessly borrowed from Project Zero):

The function pointers in the COM object point to functions of the proxy class. When we execute the IOpenControlPanel::Open()" method, the method OneCoreUAPCommonProxyStub!ObjectStublessClient3() gets called on the proxy. The proxy class itself eventually calls RPC methods (e.g. RPCRT4!NdrpClientCall3) to send the parameters to the RPC server in the out-of-process server. The parameters need to get serialized/marshalled to send them over RPC. In the out-of-process-server the parameters get deserialized/unmarshalled and the Stub invokes shell32!COpenControlPanel::Open(). For non-complex parameters like strings the serialization/marshalling is trivial as these are sent by value.

How about complex parameters like COM objects? As we can see from the method definition of IOpenControlPanel::Open() the third parameter is a pointer to an IUnknown COM object:

  [in] LPCWSTR  pszName,
  [in] LPCWSTR  pszPage,
  [in] IUnknown *punkSite

The answer is that a complex object can either get marshalled by reference (standard marshalling) or the serialization/marshalling logic can be customized by implementing the IMarshal interface (custom marshalling).

The IMarshal interface has a few methods as we can see in the following definition:

class IMarshal : public IUnknown
        virtual HRESULT STDMETHODCALLTYPE GetUnmarshalClass  ( REFIID riid, void *pv, DWORD dwDestContext, void *pvDestContext, DWORD mshlflags, CLSID *pCid) = 0;
        virtual HRESULT STDMETHODCALLTYPE GetMarshalSizeMax  ( REFIID riid, void *pv, DWORD dwDestContext, void *pvDestContext, DWORD mshlflags, DWORD *pSize) = 0;
        virtual HRESULT STDMETHODCALLTYPE MarshalInterface   (IStream *pStm, REFIID riid, void *pv, DWORD dwDestContext, void *pvDestContext, DWORD mshlflags) = 0;
        virtual HRESULT STDMETHODCALLTYPE UnmarshalInterface (IStream *pStm, REFIID riid, void **ppv) = 0; 
        virtual HRESULT STDMETHODCALLTYPE ReleaseMarshalData (IStream *pStm) = 0;
        virtual HRESULT STDMETHODCALLTYPE DisconnectObject   (DWORD dwReserved) = 0;

During serialization/marshalling of a COM object the IMarshal::GetUnmarshalClass() method gets called by the COM which returns the GUID of the class to be used for unmarshalling. Then the method IMarshal::GetMarshalSizeMax() is called to prepare a buffer for marshalling data. Finally, the IMarshal::MarshalInterface() method is called which writes the custom marshalling data to the IStream object. The COM runtime sends the GUID of the “Unmarshal class” and the IStream object via RPC to the server.

On the server the COM runtime creates the “Unmarshal class” using the CoCreateInstance() function, casts it to the IMarshal interface using QueryInterface and eventually invokes the IMarshsal::UnmarshalInterface() method on the “Unmarshal class” instance, passing the IStream as a parameter.

And that’s also where all the misery starts …

Diffing the patch

After downloading the patch for Windows 8.1 x64 and extracting the files, I found two patched DLLs related to Microsoft COM:

  • oleaut32.dll
  • comsvcs.dll

Using Hexray’s IDA Pro and Joxean Koret’s Diaphora I analyzed the changes made by Microsoft. In oleaut32.dll several functions were changed but nothing special related to deserialisation/marshalling:

In comsvcs.dll only four functions were changed:

Clearly, one method stood out: CMarshalInterceptor::UnmarshalInterface().

The method CMarshalInterceptor::UnmarshalInterface() is the implementation of the UnmarshalInterface() method of the IMarshal interface. As we already know from the introduction this method gets called during unmarshalling.

The Bug

Further analysis was done on Windows 10 Redstone 4 (1803) including March patches (ISO from MSDN). In the very beginning of the method CMarshalInterceptor::UnmarshalInterface() 20 bytes are read from the IStream object into a buffer on the stack.

Later the bytes in the buffer are compared against the GUID of the CMarshalInterceptor class (ECABAFCB-7F19-11D2-978E-0000F8757E2A). If the bytes in the stream match we reach the function CMarshalInterceptor::CreateRecorder().

In function CMarshalInterceptor::CreateRecorder() the COM-API function ReadClassStm is called. This function reads a CLSID(GUID) from the IStream and stores it into a buffer on the stack. Then the CLSID gets compared against the GUID of a CompositeMoniker. As you may have already followed the different Moniker “vulnerabilities” in 2016/17 (URLMoniker, ScriptMoniker, SOAPMoniker), Monikers are definitely something you want to find in code which you might be able to trigger.

The IMoniker interface inherits from IPersistStream which allows a COM object implementing it to load/save itself from/to an IStream object. Monikers identify objects uniquely and can locate, activate and get a reference to the object by calling the BindToObject() method of the IMoniker instance.

If the CLSID doesn’t match the GUID of the CompositeMoniker we follow the path to the right. Here, the COM-API functionCoCreateInstance() is called with the CLSID read from the IStream as the first parameter. If COM finds the specific class and is able to cast it to an IMoniker interface we reach the next basic block. Next, the IPersistStream::Load() method is called on the newly created instance which restores the saved Moniker state from the IStream object.

And finally we reach the call to BindToObject() which triggers all evil …

Exploiting the Bug

For exploitation, I’m following the same approach as described in the bug tracker issue “DCOM DCE/RPC Local NTLM Reflection Elevation of Privilege” by Project Zero.

I’m creating a fake COM Object class which implements the IStorage and IMarshal interfaces.

All implementation methods for the IStorage interface will be forwarded to a real IStorage instance as we will see later. Since we are implementing custom marshalling, the COM runtime wants to know which class will be used to deserialize/unmarshal our fake object. Therefore, the COM runtime calls IMarshal::GetUnmarshalClass(). To trigger the Moniker, we just need to return the GUID of the “QC Marshal Interceptor Class” class (ECABAFCB-7F19-11D2-978E-0000F8757E2A).

The final step is to implement the IMarshal::MarshalInterface() method. As you already know the method gets called by the COM runtime to marshal an object into an IStream. To trigger the call to IMoniker::BindToObject(), we only need to write the required bytes to the IStream object to satisfy all conditions in CMarshalInterceptor::UnmarshalInterface().

I tried to create a Script Moniker COM object with CLSID {06290BD3-48AA-11D2-8432-006008C3FBFC} using CoCreateInstance(). But hey, I got a “REGDB_E_CLASSNOTREG” error code. Looks like Microsoft introduced some changes. Apparently, the Script Moniker wouldn’t work anymore. So I thought of exploiting the bug using the “URLMoniker/hta file”. But luckily I remembered that in the method CMarshalInterceptor::CreateRecorder() we had a check for a CompositeMoniker CLSID.

So following the left path, we have a basic block in which 4 bytes are read from the stream into the stack buffer (var_78). Next we have a call to CMarshalInterceptor::LoadAndCompose() with the IStream, a pointer to an IMoniker interface pointer and the value from the stack buffer as parameters.

In this method an IMoniker instance is read and created from the IStream using the OleLoadFromStream() COM-API function. Later in the method, CMarshalInterceptor::LoadAndCompose() is called recursively to compose a CompositeMoniker. By invoking IMoniker::ComposeWith() a new IMoniker is created being a composition of two monikers. The pointer to the new CompositeMoniker will be stored in the pointer which was passed to the current function as parameter. As we have seen in one of the previous screenshots the BindToObject() method will be called on the CompositeMoniker later on.

As I remembered from Haifei Li’s blog post there was a way to create a Script Moniker by composing a File Moniker and a New Moniker. Armed with that knowledge I implemented the final part of the IMarshal::MarshalInterface() method.

I placed a SCT file in “c:\temp\poc.sct” which runs notepad from an ActiveXObject. Then I tried BITS as a target server first which didn’t work.

Using OleView .NET I found out that BITS doesn’t support custom marshalling (see EOAC_NO_CUSTOM_MARSHAL). But the SearchIndexer service with CLSID {06622d85-6856-4460-8de1-a81921b41c4b} was running as SYSTEM and allowed custom marshalling. So I created a PoC which has the following main() function.

The call to CoGetInstanceFromIStorage() will activate the target COM server and trigger the serialization of the FakeObject instance. Since the COM-API function requires an IStorage as a parameter, we had to implement the IStorage interface in our FakeObject class. After running the POC we finally have a “notepad.exe” running as SYSTEM.

The POC can be found on our GitHub.

The Patch

Microsoft is now checking a flag read from the Thread-local storage. The flag is set in a different method not related to marshalling. If the flag isn’t set, the function CMarshalInterceptor::UnmarshalInterface() will exit early without reading anything from the IStream.


Serialization/Unmarshalling without validating the input is bad. That’s for sure. Although this blog post only covers the privilege escalation aspect, the vulnerability can also be triggered from Microsoft Office or by an Active X running in the browser. But I will leave this as an exercise to the reader :-)