Windows 10 Fall Creators Update brought a powerful security capability: Windows Defender Exploit Guard. Among its many features and mitigations, the one that sounded most interesting to us was the Attack Surface Reduction (ASR) - especially for its announced ability to block DDE-based attacks:
Attack Surface Reduction (ASR) in Windows Defender Exploit Guard blocks DDE-based malware https://t.co/bUOWOZiops— Microsoft MMPC (@msftmmpc) October 31, 2017
DDE-based attacks have been very popular lately. They are misusing a DDE-related feature whereby Office gets tricked into launching a malicious executable via a DDE or DDEAUTO field, the latter only requiring the user to confirm one non-security notice.
You may also know that we have created a free micropatch for Word that prevents DDE fields from launching any executables - thereby enforcing the behavior specified in official Microsoft documentation, effectively blocking DDE attacks.
We therefore wanted to see how ASR does its magic. So we installed the Fall Creators Update and Office 2010, and followed Microsoft's instructions to enable the "Block Office applications from creating child processes" rule. We tested how DDE-based attacks are blocked, looked around a bit to see what could go wrong, and compared the said mitigation to our micropatch.
You can see the whole process in the video below, but the main takeaways are these:
- Most importantly, we confirmed that ASR does block DDE attacks in Word.
- Unfortunately, ASR only applies to Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, so Outlook-based DDE attacks are not blocked. (Perhaps Outlook will be added at a later time?)
- Also unfortunately, the ASR rule in question breaks some legitimate functionality. We found, for instance, that it prevents Adobe Reader from being launched via Word's legitimate "Create PDF/XPS Document" functionality. There is another case (not shown in video) with Word being unable to launch "System Info" from the About dialog. Legitimate Word add-ins may want to launch processes too, and will be blocked.
- In comparison, a real fix (in this case, our micropatch) only blocks the dangerous process-launching while leaving all other functionalities intact; it also automatically works in Outlook. Naturally, an actual code fix is always better than a generic mitigation.
- Nevertheless, exploit mitigations have one big advantage compared to patches: they can stop or slow down attackers exploiting unknown vulnerabilities. A patch can only fix a known bug.
In conclusion, ASR (with all its rules) is a very powerful tool and while one must exercise caution with its blocking of potentially legitimate functionality, it can significantly limit the attacker. So by all means use it if you can, but also apply patches for known vulnerabilities!
You can't use ASR, unfortunately, on non-Windows-10 systems, or on Office 2007, which has just reached its end of support but is likely still used in many places.