China launches Zero Day Attacks on Microsoft

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This has been a long time coming. We ran an article on them back in 2017, here. And what is particularly challenging is that most of the government and military is run on ancient MS products like Microsoft 2000, XP or in the case of the sub-Atlantic telephone cables, floppy disks.

If Microsoft is yelling about Chines interference – we KNOW there’s a big problem. But who knows where the damage will occur? So far MS is playing down the risks by pointing at low-grade victims such as law firms and policy think tanks. As these are in the private sector there’s an excellent chance they are much better supported than the government’s outdated systems and, reading between the lines, we can assume the Chinese are already embedded in them and watching our every move. We should assume that hard targets like the energy supply, the IRS, dams, bridges, ports, the military, dams, etc are probably already compromised.

What Is a Zero-Day Attack? 

A zero-day attack (also referred to as Day Zero) is an attack that exploits a potentially serious software security weakness that the vendor or developer may be unaware of. The software developer must rush to resolve the weakness as soon as it is discovered in order to limit the threat to software users. The solution is called a software patch. Zero-day attacks can also be used to attack the internet of things (IoT). A zero-day attack gets its name from the number of days the software developer has known about the problem.

Microsoft says:

Microsoft has detected multiple Zero-day exploits being used to attack on-premises versions of Microsoft Exchange Server in limited and targeted attacks. In the attacks observed, the threat actor used these vulnerabilities to access on-premises Exchange servers which enabled access to email accounts, and allowed installation of additional malware to facilitate long-term access to victim environments. Microsoft Threat Intelligence Center (MSTIC) attributes this campaign with high confidence to HAFNIUM, a group assessed to be state-sponsored and operating out of China, based on observed victimology, tactics and procedures.

The vulnerabilities recently being exploited were CVE-2021-26855, CVE-2021-26857, CVE-2021-26858, and CVE-2021-27065, all of which were addressed in today’s Microsoft Security Response Center (MSRC) release – Multiple Security Updates Released for Exchange Server. We strongly urge customers to update on-premises systems immediately. Exchange Online is not affected.

We are sharing this information with our customers and the security community to emphasize the critical nature of these vulnerabilities and the importance of patching all affected systems immediately to protect against these exploits and prevent future abuse across the ecosystem. This blog also continues our mission to shine a light on malicious actors and elevate awareness of the sophisticated tactics and techniques used to target our customers. The related IOCs, Azure Sentinel advanced hunting queries, and Microsoft Defender for Endpoint product detections and queries shared in this blog will help SOCs proactively hunt for related activity in their environments and elevate any alerts for remediation.

Microsoft would like to thank our industry colleagues at Volexity and Dubex for reporting different parts of the attack chain and their collaboration in the investigation. Volexity has also published a blog postwith their analysis. It is this level of proactive communication and intelligence sharing that allows the community to come together to get ahead of attacks before they spread and improve security for all.

Who is HAFNIUM?

HAFNIUM primarily targets entities in the United States across a number of industry sectors, including infectious disease researchers, law firms, higher education institutions, defense contractors, policy think tanks, and NGOs.

HAFNIUM has previously compromised victims by exploiting vulnerabilities in internet-facing servers, and has used legitimate open-source frameworks, like Covenant, for command and control. Once they’ve gained access to a victim network, HAFNIUM typically exfiltrates data to file sharing sites like MEGA.

In campaigns unrelated to these vulnerabilities, Microsoft has observed HAFNIUM interacting with victim Office 365 tenants. While they are often unsuccessful in compromising customer accounts, this reconnaissance activity helps the adversary identify more details about their targets’ environments.

HAFNIUM operates primarily from leased virtual private servers (VPS) in the United States.

Technical details

Microsoft is providing the following details to help our customers understand the techniques used by HAFNIUM to exploit these vulnerabilities and enable more effective defense against any future attacks against unpatched systems.

CVE-2021-26855 is a server-side request forgery (SSRF) vulnerability in Exchange which allowed the attacker to send arbitrary HTTP requests and authenticate as the Exchange server.

CVE-2021-26857 is an insecure deserialization vulnerability in the Unified Messaging service. Insecure deserialization is where untrusted user-controllable data is deserialized by a program. Exploiting this vulnerability gave HAFNIUM the ability to run code as SYSTEM on the Exchange server. This requires administrator permission or another vulnerability to exploit.

CVE-2021-26858 is a post-authentication arbitrary file write vulnerability in Exchange. If HAFNIUM could authenticate with the Exchange server then they could use this vulnerability to write a file to any path on the server. They could authenticate by exploiting the CVE-2021-26855 SSRF vulnerability or by compromising a legitimate admin’s credentials.

CVE-2021-27065 is a post-authentication arbitrary file write vulnerability in Exchange. If HAFNIUM could authenticate with the Exchange server then they could use this vulnerability to write a file to any path on the server. They could authenticate by exploiting the CVE-2021-26855 SSRF vulnerability or by compromising a legitimate admin’s credentials.

Attack details

After exploiting these vulnerabilities to gain initial access, HAFNIUM operators deployed web shells on the compromised server. Web shells potentially allow attackers to steal data and perform additional malicious actions that lead to further compromise. One example of a web shell deployed by HAFNIUM, written in ASP, is below:

Following web shell deployment, HAFNIUM operators performed the following post-exploitation activity:

  • Using Procdump to dump the LSASS process memory:
  • Using 7-Zip to compress stolen data into ZIP files for exfiltration:
  • Adding and using Exchange PowerShell snap-ins to export mailbox data:
  • Using the Nishang Invoke-PowerShellTcpOneLine reverse shell:
  • Downloading PowerCat from GitHub, then using it to open a connection to a remote server:

HAFNIUM operators were also able to download the Exchange offline address book from compromised systems, which contains information about an organization and its users.

Our blog, Defending Exchange servers under attack, offers advice for improving defenses against Exchange server compromise. Customers can also find additional guidance about web shell attacks in our blog Web shell attacks continue to rise.

Can I determine if I have been compromised by this activity?

The below sections provide indicators of compromise (IOCs), detection guidance, and advanced hunting queries to help customers investigate this activity using Exchange server logs, Azure Sentinel, Microsoft Defender for Endpoint, and Microsoft 365 Defender. We encourage our customers to conduct investigations and implement proactive detections to identify possible prior campaigns and prevent future campaigns that may target their systems.

Check patch levels of Exchange Server

The Microsoft Exchange Server team has published a blog post on these new Security Updates providing a script to get a quick inventory of the patch-level status of on-premises Exchange servers and answer some basic questions around installation of these patches.