Want to Break Into a Locked Windows 10 Device? Ask Cortana (CVE-2018-8140)

June’s “Patch Tuesday” (June 12) is here, but it is likely many Windows 10 users have not yet applied these updates. If you have not, just be sure not to leave your laptop lying around! The patches in this cycle fix a code execution vulnerability using the default settings for Windows 10 and the “Cortana” voice assistant. We’ll detail how this vulnerability can be used to execute code from the locked screen of a fully patched Windows 10 machine (RS3 at the time of our original submission, and confirmed on RS4 prior to this patch cycle). The vulnerability was submitted to Microsoft as part of the McAfee Labs Advanced Threat Research team’s responsible disclosure policy, on April 23. Attribution for this vulnerability submission goes to Cedric Cochin, Cyber Security Architect and Senior Principle Engineer.

In this post, we will address three vectors of research that have been combined by Microsoft and together represent CVE-2018-8140. The first of these is an information leak, but we’ll culminate with a demo showing full code execution to log in to a locked Windows device!

Using “Hey Cortana!” to Retrieve Confidential Information

Personal digital assistants such as Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant, and Cortana have become commodities in many technologically inclined houses. From telling jokes, to helping with the grocery list, to turning on the kitchen lights, these robotic voices are beginning to feel oddly more and more personal as they expand their roles in our daily lives. However, we should consider the increased risk of built-in digital personal assistants when looking at new attack vectors for laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Our research on Microsoft’s Cortana voice assistant began after reading about the “BadUSB” attacks demonstrated by industry researchers. We decided to take this a step further and ended up finding and reporting to Microsoft several issues related to Cortana.

If you have spoken with Cortana, you may have noticed that “she” is very helpful for a number of simple tasks: providing definitions, or looking up corporations, movies, artists, or athletes. She can even do math! In Windows 10, on the most recent build at the time of submission, we observed that the default settings enable “Hey Cortana” from the lock screen, allowing anyone to interact with the voice-based assistant. This led to some interesting behavior and ultimately vulnerabilities allowing arbitrary code execution.

We begin this analysis with a quick look into Windows indexing. If you have ever opened the advanced view of the Windows Indexing control panel, and navigated to the File Types tab, you will see a long list of file extensions. For each of them you will find details about the associated filter used by the indexing process. Essentially you have the “file properties filter” and several other filters that could all be summarized as “file properties and file content filter.”

This means the index process will crack open the files and index their content, including some strings present in these documents. Let’s keep that in mind for later as we continue.

Using this knowledge, we wanted to try to access the same menu that you would see when using a Cortana search on an unlocked device.

This will come as a surprise and lies at the core of all the issues we found, but simply typing while Cortana starts to listen to a query on a locked device will bring up a Windows contextual menu, as shown below:

On top: the result of typing “pas” in the Cortana search field on an unlocked computer.
Above: the result of asking “Hey Cortana, P A S” and using a whitespace keyboard sequence.

In the preceding example, we queried Cortana for the term pas, no preamble to the question, just speaking the three letters, P. A. S. Why not “pass”? Because Cortana can be quite picky with verbal statements and there is no dictionary definition for “pass,” leading to Cortana inviting us to continue in Edge after unlocking the device. Alternatively, instead of issuing a verbal statement, we could click on the “tap and say” button and just start typing this text, for example.

We now have a contextual menu, displayed on a locked Windows 10 device. What could go wrong?

Remember that all the results presented by Cortana come from indexed files and applications, and that for some applications the content of the file is also indexed. Now we can simply hover over any of the relevant matches. If the match is driven by filename matching, then you will be presented with the full path of the file. If the match is driven by the file content matching, then you may be presented with the content of the file itself.

Keep in mind that the entire user folder structure is indexed, which includes the default location for most documents but also for mappings like OneDrive.

Example of data leakage using voice command with Cortana and the whitespace keyboard sequence.

Armed with this knowledge, you can use your imagination to come up with specific keywords that could be used to start harvesting confidential information from the locked device.

Code Execution from the Windows Lock Screen (User Interaction May be Required)

Next, we asked the question: Could we go a step further and get code execution in the context of the authenticated user? Remember we are using only a combination of voice commands and mouse/touchpad/touchscreen to gain access to the contextual menu at this point. We observed that just by hovering over a file, the full path or content of the file would be displayed. What happens if we were to click on it? That depends on the target. If the file being opened is an application or an executable (such as notepad or calc.exe), the file will run and be accessible only after the user properly logs in. If it is a document, script, or text file, it will be opened by an editor instead of being executed. At this point we can execute various preloaded Windows utilities such as calculator, but we cannot pass any parameters to the command line. We can open scripts including PowerShell, but instead of being executed, they will be opened in a text editor (notepad). The lack of parameters is a limitation for a “live off the land” attack, which uses current tools and content to achieve a malicious purpose; however, there are plenty of malicious activities that could be performed even with these restrictions. For example, many uninstallers will happily remove software without any need for parameters.

Let’s return to our goal: code execution from the lock screen. The only requirement for something to show up in the contextual menu is for it to be indexed.

Public folders indexed by default.

There are multiple ways for an unauthenticated attacker to get results to show up in the index of an authenticated user. One method relies on OneDrive. As the root of the OneDrive directory structure is in the user folder, all the OneDrive content is indexed by default. Basically, if you ever share a folder or file with “edit” rights, the person you share it with, as well as any other recipients of a forwarded link, can now drop a file that will be indexed. With the file indexed we have multiple options to proceed.

Option 1: Drop an Executable File

This method assumes you can write an executable file to the disk; it does not require you to have executed it. Via a phishing attack or another vulnerability, an attacker could drop a backdoor (for example, Cobalt Strike Beacon or Meterpreter) and be in business. If you need to execute the payload as an administrator, you can simply right-click (for a touchscreen this is a longer-hold screen press) and select “Run as administrator.”

When running applications that do not have the Auto-Elevate Privilege, you will trigger a user account control (UAC) prompt and nothing will execute. This could still result in a valid attack because users rarely check the content of the prompt and often proceed through the warning dialog box. The attacker would have to execute the program, and then wait for the authenticated user to log in and finish the job. If the application has auto-elevate privileges, there will be no UAC prompt and the application will execute at high integrity.

This is interesting behavior, but on its own not a very likely attack scenario, so let’s continue to explore our options. Why not simply use a USB key to drop the payload because we have physical access? The content of the USB key is not indexed, so it would not be presented as a result of the search query (although there are other ways to use a USB device; see below).

Option 2: Drop a non-PE Payload

Portable executable (PE) backdoors are great, but can we gain execution with a non-PE payload, for example, a PowerShell script?  We can use the same right-click capability to assist, but with a small twist. The right-click menu is not always the same, even for a given file type.

When you ask Cortana about “PS1,” you will be presented with your indexed PowerShell scripts. A right click will allow you to “open file location” or “copy full path,” but with no means of execution.

If you click on the file as we already mentioned, the file will open in edit mode. Curiously, it will not open the default editor (PowerShell ISE) for PowerShell scripts; instead, it will open the script in notepad. We assume this was intended as a security measure because notepad cannot execute scripts, unlike PowerShell ISE.

The default right-click menu for PS1 files.

Remember we mentioned that Cortana changes results based on your input query? When properly logged in, if you ask Cortana about “txt” using the query “Hey Cortana” followed by the letters “T,” “X,” “T,” she will present you with text documents, Notepad, and the most recent documents open by Notepad. Yet the right-click menu for items in the Recent category is different than the right-click menu for the same item in the Documents category.

At top:the context menu for a Recent item; above: the context menu for a Document item.

We follow a three-step process:

  • Land a PowerShell script in a location that will be indexed
    • Public folder, public share, or OneDrive
  • Execute a search query that will show the document and click on it
    • “Hey Cortana, PS1”
    • Select the PowerShell script you just indexed and left click
    • The PowerShell script opens in Notepad
  • Execute a search query that will show the recent documents, right click, and…
    • Using Cortana, type or search in the contextual menu for “txt”
    • Right click on the PowerShell script in the Recent category under the Apps tab at the top (not Documents)
    • Click “Run with PowerShell”

“Run with PowerShell” right-click menu option for Recent items.

We now have local code execution with the payload of our choosing, without any exploit, even if the device is encrypted, on an up-to-date locked Windows 10 device.

This technique helps us understand some of the differences between apps, documents, extensions, and the way Windows handles them from a locked or unlocked screen. Yet it probably does not represent much of a real-world attack vector. Then again, we are not finished.

Logging into a Locked Device with no User Interaction

Finally, we have local code execution, but with some real limitations. We need to get our payload indexed but we cannot pass command-line parameters. This could be a limiting factor for our PowerShell attack vector because the execution policy may prevent its execution, and without command-line parameters we cannot pass an “-ExecutionPolicy Bypass” (or any other flavor). We would also have to find a way to land a PS1 script on the victim’s box, and have remote access to the physical machine or the login screen.

The techniques we have described so far are far too complicated compared with the simplicity and effectiveness of what comes next.

You recall the use of the keyboard-timing sequence to trigger the contextual search menu from a locked screen while querying Cortana. Any keystroke can trigger the menu from the time when Cortana begins to listen to when the answer is displayed. Press any key at this point; we like to use the spacebar because you cannot backspace and Windows will nicely ignore or trim out the space in its text results anyways. Invoke keyboard input too early or before Cortana is listening and you will be prompted to enter your password; invoke too late and Cortana goes back to sleep or returns normal results without a context menu.

It is not very intuitive to use the keyboard in addition of voice commands, but you can type your search the same way you do on an unlocked device, assuming that you triggered Cortana to listen.

The following screenshot demonstrates this behavior:

  • Trigger Cortana via “Tap and Say” or “Hey Cortana”
  • Ask a question (this is more reliable) such as “What time is it?”
  • Press the space bar, and the context menu appears
  • Press esc, and the menu disappears
  • Press the space bar again, and the contextual menu appears, but this time the search query is empty
  • Start typing (you cannot use backspace). If you make a mistake, press esc and start again.
  • When done (carefully) typing your command, click on the entry in the Command category. (This category will appear only after the input is recognized as a command.)
  • You can always right click and select “Run as Administrator” (but remember the user would have to log in to clear the UAC)

You can use the following example of a simple PowerShell command to test. Enjoy the soothing beeps that demonstrate code execution from a locked device.

What can we do at this point? You name it. Our demo shows a password reset and login on a Windows 10 build, using only this simple technique.

The easiest mitigation technique, in the absence of patching the device (which we strongly recommend), is to turn off Cortana on the lock screen. This week’s Patch Tuesday from Microsoft contains fixes for these issues under CVE-2018-8140.

This concludes our examination of Cortana (at least for now). The McAfee Advanced Threat Research team has a fundamental goal of eliminating critical threats to the hardware and software we use; this month’s patch is a clear step toward furthering that goal. The attack surface created by vocal commands and personal digital assistants requires much more investigation; we are just scratching the surface of the amount of research that should be conducted in this critical area.

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Today’s Connected Cars Vulnerable to Hacking, Malware

The McAfee Advanced Threat Research team recently published an article about threats to automobiles on the French site JournalAuto.com. Connected cars are growing rapidly in number and represent the next big step in personal transportation. Auto sales are expected to triple between 2017 and 2022, to US$155.9 billion from $52.5 billion, according to PwC France. Realizing this increase is a huge challenge for car companies as well as for IT security firms.

Through multiple added functions, from Wi-Fi and external connections to driving assistance and autonomous operations, connected cars will very soon need strong security to avoid any intrusions that could endanger drivers, passengers, and others.

Security Risks

Modern cars are exposed to security risks just as are other connected devices. Let’s look at current and future threats in the automotive security field.

The following diagram shows the main risks: 

 

Personal Data and Tracking

Connected cars record a lot of information about their drivers. This information can come from an external device connected to the car, such as a phone, and can include contact details, SMS and calls history, and even musical tastes. A car can also record shifting patterns and other driver’s habits that could be used to create a picture of a driver’s competence. This kind of oversight could aid insurance companies when offering coverage, for example.

With personal data now considered the new gold, all of this information represents a valuable target for cybercriminals as well as companies and governments.

  • Cybercriminals can use this stolen information for financial compensation and identity theft
  • Companies can use this information for marketing or insurance contracts
  • Governments can use this information for spying on and tracking people

Faked Car Data

Digital information can be modified and faked. By altering data such as pollution tests or performance, companies can take advantage of the results to increase sales. Similarly, drivers could modify car statistics such as distance traveled to fool insurance companies or future buyers.

Car Theft and Key Fob Hacking

Key fob hacking is a technique to allow an intruder to enter a car without breaking in. This technique is widely known by attackers and can be done easily with cheap hardware. The attack consists of intercepting the signal from a wireless key to either block the signal to lock the car or replay the signal to gain access.

One variant of the attack uses a jammer to block the signal. The jammer interferes with the electromagnetic waves used to communicate with the vehicle, blocking the signal and preventing the car from locking, leaving access free to the attacker. Some jammers have a range of more than 500 meters.

Key fob jammer.

Another attack intercepts the signal sent by the key and replays it to open the door. Auto manufacturers protect against this kind of attack by implementing security algorithms that avoid simple replays with same signal. Each signal sent from the key to the car is unique, thus avoiding a replay. However, one proof of concept for this attack blocks the signal to the car and stores it. The driver’s first click on the key does not work but is recorded by the attacker. The driver’s second click is also recorded, locking the car but giving two signals to the attackers. The first signal recorded, which the car has not received, is used to unlock the door. The second signal is stored for the attacker to use later.

Entering by the (CAN) Back Door

Autos use several components to interact with their parts. Since the end of the 20th century, cars have used the dedicated controller area network (CAN) standard to allow microcontrollers and devices to talk to each other. The CAN bus communicates with a vehicle’s electronic control unit (ECU), which operates many subsystems such as antilock brakes, airbags, transmission, audio system, doors, and many other parts—including the engine. Modern cars also have an On-Board Diagnostic Version 2 (OBD-II) port. Mechanics use this port to diagnose problems. CAN traffic can be intercepted from the OBD port.

The on-board diagnostic port.

An external OBD device could be plugged into a car as a backdoor for external commands, controlling services such as the Wi-Fi connection, performance statistics, and unlocking doors. The OBD port offers a path for malicious activities if not secured.

Spam and Advertising

Adding more services to connected cars can also add more security risks. With the arrival of fully connected autos such as Teslas, which allow Internet access from a browser, it is feasible to deliver a new type of spam based on travel and geolocation. Imagine a pop-up discount as you approach a fast-food restaurant. Not only is this type of action likely to be unwanted, it could also provide a distraction to drivers. We already know spam and advertising are infection vectors for malware.

Malware and Exploits

All the ECUs in an auto contain firmware that can be hacked. Cars employ in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) systems to control audio or video among other functions. These systems are increasing in complexity.

An in-vehicle infotainment system.

MirrorLink, Bluetooth, and internal Wi-Fi are other technologies that improve the driving experience. By connecting our smartphones to our cars, we add functions such as phone calls, SMS, and music and audiobooks, for example.

Malware can target these devices. Phones, browsers, or the telecommunication networks embedded in our cars are infection vectors that can allow the installation of malware. In 2016, McAfee security researchers demonstrated a ransomware proof of concept that blocked the use of the car until the ransom was paid.

A proof-of-concept IVI ransomware attack on a vehicle.

The ransomware was installed via an over-the-air system that allowed the connection of external equipment.

Third-Party Apps  

Many modern cars allow third parties to create applications to further connected services. For example, it is possible to unlock or lock the door from your smartphone using an app. Although these apps can be very convenient, they effectively open these services to anyone and can become a new attack vector. It is easier to hack a smartphone app than a car’s ECU because the former is more affordable and offers many more resources. Car apps are also vulnerable because some third parties employ weak security practices and credentials are sometimes stored in clear text. These apps may also store personal information such as GPS data, car model, and other information. This scenario has already been demonstrated by the OnStar app that allowed a hacker to remotely open a car.

Vehicle-to-Vehicle Communications

Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology allows communications between vehicles on the road, using a wireless network. This technology can aid security on the road by reducing a car’s speed when another vehicle is too close, for example. It can also communicate with road sign devices (vehicle to infrastructure). That transmitted information improves the driving experience as well as the security. Now imagine this vector invaded by destructive malware. If the V2V system becomes a vector, a malicious actor could create malware to infect many connected cars. This sounds like a sci-fi scenario, right? Yet it is not, if we compare this possibility with recent threats such as WannaCry or NotPetya that targeted computers with destructive malware. It is not hard to predict such a nightmare scenario.

Conclusion

Connected cars are taking over the roads and will radically change how we move about. By enhancing the customer experience, the automotive and the tech industries will provide exciting new services. Nonetheless, we need to consider the potential risks, with security implemented sooner rather than later. Some of the scenarios in this post are already used in the wild; others could happen sooner than we expect.

References

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Twitter Accounts of US Media Under Attack by Large Campaign

A previously reported campaign purportedly carried out by Turkish hacker group “Ayyildiz Tim” targeting high-profile, verified Twitter accounts with the purpose of spreading Turkish political propaganda appears to have escalated within the last 24 hours. McAfee Advanced Threat Research has investigated the new events and discovered the following. On January 13, the Twitter account of the Indian ambassador to the United Nations was taken over and spread pro-Pakistan and pro-Turkey postings:

What seemed to be a single event soon became a targeted campaign that we discovered in cooperation with our partner SocialSafeGuard. Combining their technology and our threat researchers, we started to build a timeline of events:

 

In each case in this timeline, the account was restored after several hours.

Once the accounts were compromised, the attackers direct-messaged the account contacts with propaganda for their cause or with a link to convince them to click on a phishing site that would harvest the Twitter credentials of the victim.

One example of such a site is hxxp://fox-news.medianewsonline.com/.

Visiting the page shows the following:

If we look at the source code of the page, we discover several Turkish-language segments. Focusing on the domains used for the phishing sites, we discovered more registered sites. Some examples:

  • mypressonline.com
  • official-twitter-jp.mypressonline.com
  • feedbac-verifv.mypressonline.com

Who is behind this campaign? According to the messages used, the Turkish hacker group “Ayyildiz Tim” (AYT) claims to be responsible for the attacks. The group was founded in 2002 and advocates Turkish state ideology. In the following example, we see the background image of Greta van Susteren has changed to one of the many wallpapers used by the group:

We advise journalists in particular, as well as others in high-profile positions, to follow appropriate safeguards to protect their accounts.

  • https://help.twitter.com/en/managing-your-account/two-factor-authentication

We are aware that one of the tactics from this group is to use Direct Messaging to communicate with other prominent Twitter accounts. There is also evidence that private messaging history has been accessed from certain compromised accounts of prominent figures, along with other sensitive or confidential information such as private phone numbers and emails.  If you receive a message, even from someone you know or trust, be aware that the message may not be from the person you know. It is potentially directing you to malicious content.

You absolutely should verify through an alternate channel that the link is safe to click.

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Decyphering the Noise Around ‘Meltdown’ and ‘Spectre’

The McAfee Advanced Threat Research (ATR) Team has closely followed the attack techniques that have been named Meltdown and Spectre throughout the lead-up to their announcement on January 3. In this post, McAfee ATR offers a simple and concise overview of these issues, to separate fact from fiction, and to provide insight into McAfee’s capabilities and approach to detection and prevention.

There has been considerable speculation in the press and on social media about the impact of these two new techniques, including which processors and operating systems are affected. The speculation has been based upon published changes to the Linux kernel. McAfee ATR did not want to add to any confusion until we could provide our customers and the general public solid technical analysis.

A fully comprehensive writeup comes from Google Project Zero in this informative technical blog, which allowed ATR to validate our conclusions.

The Techniques

Meltdown and Spectre are new techniques that build upon previous work, such as “KASLR”  and other papers that discuss practical side-channel attacks. The current disclosures build upon such side-channel attacks through the innovative use of speculative execution.

Speculative execution has been a feature of processors for at least a decade. Branch speculation is built on the Tomasulo algorithm. In essence, when a branch in execution depends upon a runtime condition, modern processors make a “guess” to potentially save time. This speculatively executed branch proceeds by employing a guess of the value of the condition upon which the branch must depend. That guess is typically based upon the last step of the same branch’s previous execution. The conditional value is cached for reuse in case that particular branch is taken again. There is no loss of computing time if the condition arrives at a new value because the processor must in any event wait for the value’s computation. Invalid speculative executions are thrown away. The fact that invalid speculations are tossed is a key attribute exploited by Meltdown and Spectre.

Despite the clearing of invalid speculative execution results without affecting memory or CPU registers, data from the execution may be retained in the processor caches. The retaining of invalid execution data is one of the properties of modern CPUs upon which Meltdown and Spectre depend. More information about the techniques is available on the site https://meltdownattack.com.

Because these techniques can be applied (with variation) to most modern operating systems (Windows, Linux, Android, iOS, MacOS, FreeBSD, etc.), you may ask, “How dangerous are these?” “What steps should an organization take?” and “How about individuals?” The following risk analysis is based upon what McAfee currently understands about Meltdown and Spectre.

There is already considerable activity in the security research community on these techniques. Sample code for two of the three variants was posted by the Graz University (in an appendix of the Spectre paper). Erik Bosman has also tweeted that he has built an exploit, though this code is not yet public. An earlier example of side-channel exploitation based upon memory caches was posted to GitHub in 2016 by one Meltdown-Spectre researcher Daniel Gruss. Despite these details, as of this writing no known exploits have yet been seen in the wild. McAfee ATR will continue to monitor researchers’ and attackers’ interest in these techniques and provide updates accordingly. Given the attack surface of nearly every modern computing system and the relative ease of exploitation, it is highly likely that at least one of the aforementioned variants will be weaponized very quickly.

McAfee researchers quickly compiled the public exploit code for Spectre and confirmed its efficacy across a number of operating systems, including Windows, Linux, and MacOS.

Weaponization

To assess the potential impact of any vulnerability or attack technique, we must first consider its value to attackers. These exploits are uniquely attractive to malicious groups or persons because the attack surface is nearly unprecedented, the attack vector is relatively new, and the impacts (privilege escalation and leaks of highly sensitive memory) are detrimental. The only naturally mitigating factor is that these exploits require local code execution. A number of third parties have already identified JavaScript as an applicable delivery point, meaning both attacks could theoretically be run from inside a browser, effectively opening an avenue of remote delivery. As always, JavaScript is a double-edged sword, offering a more user-friendly browsing experience, but also offering attackers an increased attack surface in the context of the browser’s executing scripted code.

Any technique that allows an attacker to cross virtual machine boundaries is of particular interest, because such a technique might allow an adversary to use a cloud virtual machine instance to attack other tenants of the cloud. Spectre is designed to foster attacks across application boundaries and hence applies directly to this problem. Thus, major cloud vendors have rushed to issue patches and software updates in advance of the public disclosure of these issues.

Additionally, both Meltdown and Spectre are exceptionally hard to detect as they do not leave forensic traces or halt program execution. This makes post-infection investigations and attack attribution much more complex.

Recommendations

Because we believe that Meltdown and Spectre may offer real-world adversaries significant value, we must consider how they can be used. There is no remote vector to these techniques; an attacker must first deliver code to the victim. To protect against malicious JavaScript, we always urge caution when browsing the Internet. Allow scripting languages to execute only from trusted sites. McAfee Windows Security Suite or McAfee Endpoint Security (ENS) can provide warnings if you visit a known dangerous site. These McAfee products can also provide an alternate script-execution engine that prevents known malicious scripts from executing.  As operating systems are changed to mitigate Meltdown and Spectre, organizations and individuals should apply those updates as soon as possible.

Even though we have not seen any malware currently exploiting these techniques, McAfee is currently evaluating opportunities to provide detection within the scope of our products; we expect most solutions to lie within processor and operating system updates. Based on published proofs of concept, we have provided some limited detection under the names OSX/Spectre, Linux/Spectre, and Trojan-Spectre.

Microsoft has released an out-of-cycle patch because of this disclosure:  https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/help/4056892/windows-10-update-kb4056892. Due to the nature of any patch or update, we suggest first applying manual updates on noncritical systems, to ensure compatibility with software that involves the potential use of low-level operating system features. McAfee teams are working to ensure compatibility with released patches where applicable.

While the world wonders about the potential impact of today’s critical disclosures, we also see a positive message. This was another major security flaw discovered and communicated by the information security community, as opposed to the discovery or leak of “in the wild” attacks. Will this disclosure have negative aspects? Most likely yes, but the overall effect is more global attention to software and hardware security, and a head start for the good guys on developing more robust systems and architectures for secure computing.

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