The internet is abuzz with news of a zero-day remote code execution bug in Microsoft Office.
More precisely, perhaps, it’s a code execution security hole hole that can be exploited by way of Office files, though for all we know there may be other ways to trigger or abuse this vulnerability.
Security researcher Kevin Beaumont has supplied it with the entirely arbitrary name Follina, and given that it doesn’t seem to have an official CVE number yet [2022-05-30T21:00Z], that name looks set both to stick and to be a useful search term.
The name is “derived”, if that is the right word, from the fact there’s a sample of an infected Word DOC file on Virus Total that goes by the name
05-2022-0438.doc. The numeric sequence
05-2022 seems pretty obvious (May 2022), but what about
0438? This is the dialling code for the area of Follina, not far from Venice in north-western Italy, so Beaumont applied the name “Follina” to the exploit as an arbitrary joke. There’s no suggestion that the malware came from that part of the world, or indeed that there is any Italian connection with this exploit at all.
How does it work?
Very loosely speaking, the exploit works like this:
- You open a booby-trapped DOC file, perhaps received via email.
- The document references a regular-looking
https:URL that gets downloaded.
ms-msdt:in place of
- On Windows,
ms-msdt:is a proprietary URL type that launches the MSDT software toolkit.
- MSDT is shorthand for Microsoft Support Diagnostic Tool.
- The command line supplied to MSDT via the URL causes it to run untrusted code.
When invoked, the malicious
ms-msdt: link triggers an MSDT command with command line arguments like this:
msdt /id pcwdiagnostic ....
If run by hand, with no other parameters, this automatically loads MSDT and invokes the Program Compatibility Troubleshooter, which looks innocent enough, like this:
From here, you can choose an app to troubleshoot; you can answer a bunch of support-related questions; you can perform various automated tests on the app; and if you’re still stuck, you can choose to report the problem to Microsoft, uploading various troublehooting data at the same time.
Although you probably wouldn’t expect to get thrown into this
PCWDiagnostic utility just by opening a document, you’d at least see a series of popup dialogs and you’d get to choose what to do at every step of the way.
Automatic remote script execution
Unfortunately, it looks as though the attackers who discovered the “Follina” trick (or the attackers who seem to have used this trick in various attacks last month, even if they didn’t figure it out themselves) have worked out a series of unusual but treacherous options to put on the command line.
These options make the MSDT troubleshooter do its job under remote control.
Instead of getting asked how you want to proceed, the crooks have crafted a sequence of parameters that not only cause operation to proceed automatically (e.g. the options
/force), but also to invoke a PowerShell script along the way.
Worse still, this PowerShell script doesn’t have to be in a file on disk already – it can be provided in scrambulated source code form right on the command line itself, along with all the other options used.
In this case, the PowerShell was used to extract and launch a malware executable provided in compressed form by the crooks.
Threat researcher John Hammond at Huntress has confirmed, by way of launching CALC.EXE to “pop a calculator”, that any executable already on the computer can be directly loaded by this trick, too, so an attack could use existing tools or utilities, without relying on the perhaps more suspicious approach of launching a PowerShell script along the way.
No macros neeeded
Note that this attack is triggered by Word referencing the rogue
ms-msdt: URL that’s referenced by a URL that’s contained in the DOC file itself.
No Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) Office macros are involved, so this trick works even if you have Office macros turned off completely.
Simply put, this looks like what you might call a handy Office URL “feature”, combined with a helpful MSDT diagnostic “feature”, to produce an abusable security hole that can cause a “click-to-pwn” remote code execution exploit.
In other words, just opening up a booby-trapped document could deliver malware onto your computer without you realising.
In fact, John Hammond writes that this trick can be turned into an even more direct attack, by packaging the rogue content into an RTF file instead of a DOC file. In this case, he says, just previewing the document in Windows Explorer is enough to trigger the exploit, without even clicking to open it.
What to do?
We’re guessing that Microsoft will soon come up with an official workaround, and hopefully, soon after that, a permanent patch, to prevent this “feature” from being used as an exploitable bug in future.
As convenient as Microsoft’s proprietary
ms-xxxx URLs may be, the fact that they’re designed to launch processes automatically when specific types of file are opened, or even just previewed, is clearly a security risk.
Right now (unfortunately, it’s a public holiday in the US), a workaround that’s generally agreed upon in the community is simply to break the relationship between
ms-msdt: URLs and the MSDT.EXE utility.
You can do this by removing the registry entry
HKEY_CLASSES_ROOTms-msdt, which removes any special meaning from URLs starting
If you create a file with a name ending
.REG that contains this text…
Windows Registry Editor Version 5.00 [-HKEY_CLASSES_ROOTms-msdt]
…you can double-click the
.REG file to remove (the minus sign means “delete”) the offending entry.
You can also browse to
HKEY_CLASSES_ROOTms-msdt in the
regedit tool and hit
Or you can run the command
REG DELETE HKCRms-msdt.
If you discover that you just can’t live without
ms-msdt: URLs (we’ve never seen one before, let alone relied on one), you can always replace the missing registry data later.