Microsoft recently released security security advisory 2269637, “Insecure Library Loading Could Allow Remote Code Execution”. The gist is that the search behavior of LoadLibrary() includes the current working directory, which is not the same as the directory containing the binary executable. Typically the current working directory (CWD) is set at launch time by Windows shell shortcut (LNK) or implicitly by invoking a document with a file association. The CWD can be anywhere on a supported local or remote file system, including Windows network (SMB/CIFS) shares and WebDAV.
Most applications must load code from libraries (DLLs) in order to run. The CWD is not a trusted secure location like Program Files or System32 but for reasons of backwards compatibility with pre-Windows NT forms of Windows, CWD is searched when loading DLLs. This makes the default behavior of LoadLibrary() dangerous and many, many Windows applications are vulnerable to luring attacks as a result.
Sample Luring Attack Scenario
- Click on a link to an MP3 in an email or web page
- File association causes popular MP3 player to load
- CWD is set to the remote location of the MP3 player
- Attacker has placed a malicious DLL that the popular MP3 player loads in the same location as the MP3
- MP3 player loads malicious DLL
- Malicious DLL loads the real DLL so MP3 player won’t crash
- Popular MP3 player is owned an executing evil code
Unfortunate Default Behavior
Your application doesn’t have to search CWD but it is the default for reasons of backwards compatibility. Developers can turn this behavior off but it is the default and you a) have to know that you need to turn it off and b) know how to turn it off.
Patch Optionally Introduces New Behavior
KB2264107 is a patch that allows you to set registry keys to change the circumstances under which CWD is considered. The simplest option is to create a new DWORD value of the HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\Session Manager key called CWDIllegalInDllSearch and set it to 0xffffffff. This globally disables the use of CWD for loading libraries.
My first thought was this would be fine. I’m running Windows 7 x64 with no legacy 16-bit apps. It should work fine and for me it did. The second computer I tried this on had a problem where Google Chrome 5 was unable to find avutil-50.dll. Chrome keeps its DLLs in a version-numbered subdirectory of the one containing Chrome.exe. This isn’t a part of the normal DLL search path and it seems like Chrome 5 is working around this by setting CWD to the directory which contains the DLLs before calling LoadLibrary(). Chrome 6 beta doesn’t do this which is why I didn’t notice the problem.
To fix this you can either dial the global CWDIllegalInDllSearch down to 2 which indicates CWD is allowed to be searched only if it is a local folder. Better, is to create a KEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion\Image File Execution Options\chrome.exe key with a CWDIllegalInDllSearch DWORD value of 2 (and remember to delete this when Chrome 6 goes stable).
I had a similar problem with the Apple Update program failing when it tried to install the latest version of QuickTime.
Developers Should Disable Loading DLLs from CWD
I was really stunned to realize that Chrome was using this CWD load behavior. They probably didn’t realize the implications and it is insidious because it is the default. I think all developers and testers should install KB2264107 and globally disable loading from CWD. (Yes this is a PITA and it might break stuff on your box but you can suck it up and white list apps that are broken.) If your apps are broken by this then you need to fix them.
Microsoft should encourage this by formally deprecating loading DLLs from CWD with Windows 7 SP1. They need to roll it out like they did DEP. There needs to be Group Policy settings and a GUI for manipulating these registry keys along the lines of the DEP compatibility with radio buttons like “Turn on loading libraries from CWD” and “Turn off loading libraries from CWD except for those I select". With Windows 7 SP1, the default is to leave CWD turned on. By the time Windows 8 rolls around, the default is to disable CWD.
KB2264107 is Insufficient
The hotfix should probably actually provide some protection by globally disabling some form of CWD loading. Right now all it does is create the potential for you to make some registry changes which is definitely not OK for the average user. At a minimum they need to disable CWD over WebDAV (CWDIllegalInDllSearch=1) and probably all network shares (CWDIllegalInDllSearch=2). I’m curious why there is no setting to disable CWD on removable media like USB keys without cranking CWDIllegalInDllSearch all the way to 0xffffffff and disabling CWD globally.
Microsoft needs to provide a GUI and a Group Policy for managing the keys for disabling loading libraries from CWD. The Group Policy option is critical for Enterprise so that they can keep legacy apps running which can’t be modified. They also need to make it clear that loading from CWD is going to be deprecated very soon and will no longer be the default behavior in the next version of Windows.
Microsoft should also provide guidance that any app which depends on loading libraries from CWD is vulnerable. In particular, legacy line of business apps which cannot be made to run without loading libraries from CWD should not be allowed to run on a computer with network access because such apps will be juicy targets for spear phishing. In a lot of cases it should be possible to fix apps that load libraries from CWD by just moving the DLLs into the same directory as the EXE. If the app can’t be fixed, it needs to be sandboxed from the network.