More on the Chinese Zero-Day Microsoft Exchange Hack
Nick Weaver has an excellent post on the Microsoft Exchange hack:
The investigative journalist Brian Krebs has produced a handy timeline of events and a few things stand out from the chronology. The attacker was first detected by one group on Jan. 5 and another on Jan. 6, and Microsoft acknowledged the problem immediately. During this time the attacker appeared to be relatively subtle, exploiting particular targets (although we generally lack insight into who was targeted). Microsoft determined on Feb. 18 that it would patch these vulnerabilities on the March 9th “Patch Tuesday” release of fixes.
Somehow, the threat actor either knew that the exploits would soon become worthless or simply guessed that they would. So, in late February, the attacker changed strategy. Instead of simply exploiting targeted Exchange servers, the attackers stepped up their pace considerably by targeting tens of thousands of servers to install the web shell, an exploit that allows attackers to have remote access to a system. Microsoft then released the patch with very little warning on Mar. 2, at which point the attacker simply sought to compromise almost every vulnerable Exchange server on the Internet. The result? Virtually every vulnerable mail server received the web shell as a backdoor for further exploitation, making the patch effectively useless against the Chinese attackers; almost all of the vulnerable systems were exploited before they were patched.
This is a rational strategy for any actor who doesn’t care about consequences. When a zero-day is confidential and undiscovered, the attacker tries to be careful, only using it on attackers of sufficient value. But if the attacker knows or has reason to believe their vulnerabilities may be patched, they will increase the pace of exploits and, once a patch is released, there is no reason to not try to exploit everything possible.
We know that Microsoft shares advance information about updates with some organizations. I have long believed that they give the NSA a few weeks’ notice to do basically what the Chinese did: use the exploit widely, because you don’t have to worry about losing the capability.
And the vulnerabilities:
The Chinese actors were not using a single vulnerability but actually a sequence of four “zero-day” exploits. The first allowed an unauthorized user to basically tell the server “let me in, I’m the server” by tricking the server into contacting itself. After the unauthorized user gained entry, the hacker could use the second vulnerability, which used a malformed voicemail that, when interpreted by the server, allowed them to execute arbitrary commands. Two further vulnerabilities allow the attacker to write new files, which is a common primitive that attackers use to increase their access: An attacker uses a vulnerability to write a file and then uses the arbitrary command execution vulnerability to execute that file.
Using this access, the attackers could read anybody’s email or indeed take over the mail server completely. Critically, they would almost always do more, introducing a “web shell,” a program that would enable further remote exploitation even if the vulnerabilities are patched.
The details of that web shell matter. If it was sophisticated, it implies that the Chinese hackers were planning on installing it from the beginning of the operation. If it’s kind of slapdash, it implies a last-minute addition when they realized their exploit window was closing.
Now comes the criminal attacks. Any unpatched network is still vulnerable, and we know from history that lots of networks will remain vulnerable for a long time. Expect the ransomware gangs to weaponize this attack within days.
EDITED TO ADD (3/12): Right on schedule, criminal hacker groups are exploiting the vulnerabilities.
EDITED TO ADD (3/13): And now the ransomware.