Monday, September 27, 2021

Micropatches for the "File Extension" URL Scheme (CVE-2021-40444)



by Mitja Kolsek, the 0patch Team

September 2021 Windows Updates brought a fix for CVE-2021-40444, a critical vulnerability in Windows that allowed a malicious Office document to download a remote executable file and execute it locally upon opening such document. This vulnerability was found under exploitation in the wild.


The Vulnerability

Unfortunately, CVE-2021-40444 does not cover just one flaw but two; this can lead to some confusion:

  1. Path traversal in CAB file extraction: The exploit was utilizing this flaw to place a malicious executable file in a known location instead of a randomly-named subfolder, where it would originally be extracted.

  2. "File extension" URL scheme: For some reason, Windows ShellExecute function, a very complex function capable of launching local applications in various ways including via URLs, supported an undocumented URL scheme mapped to registered file extensions on the computer. The exploit was utilizing this "feature" to launch the previously downloaded executable file with the Control Panel application and have it executed via URL ".cpl:../../../../../Temp/championship.cpl". In this case, ".cpl" was considered a URL scheme, and since .cpl extension is associated with control.exe, this app would get launched and given the provided path as an argument.

The second flaw is the more critical one, as there may exist various other ways to get a malicious file on user's computer (e.g., via the Downloads folder) and still exploit this second flaw to execute such file.


Microsoft's Patch

What Microsoft's patch did was add a check before calling ShellExecute on the provided URL to block URL schemes beginning with a non-alphanumeric character - blocking schemes beginning with a dot such as ".cpl" -, and further limiting the allowed set of characters for the remaining string.

Note that ShellExecute function itself was not patched, and you can still launch a DLL via the Control Panel app by clicking the Windows Start button and typing in a ".cpl:/..." URL. Effectively, therefore, support for the "File extension" URL scheme was not eliminated across entire Windows, just made inaccessible from applications utilizing Internet Explorer components for opening URLs. Hopefully remotely delivered content can't find some other way towards ShellExecute that bypasses this new security check.

Our Micropatch

Microsoft's update fixed both flaws, but we decided to only patch the "File extension" URL scheme flaw until someone demonstrates the first flaw to be exploitable by itself.

The "File extension" URL scheme flaw was actually present in two places, in mshtml.dll (reachable from Office documents) and in ieframe.dll (reachable from Internet Explorer), so we had to patch both these executables.

Since an official vendor fix is available, it was our goal to provide patches for affected Windows versions that we have "security-adopted", as they're not receiving official vendor patches anymore. Among these, our tests have shown that only Windows 10 v1803 and v1809 were affected; the File Extension URL scheme "feature" was apparently added in Windows 8.1.

We expect many Windows 10 v1903 machines out there may also be affected, so we decided to port the micropatch to this version as well.

Our CVE-2021-40444 micropatches are therefore available for: 

  1. Windows 10 v1803 32bit or 64bit (updated with May 2021 Updates - latest before end of support)
  2. Windows 10 v1809 32bit or 64bit (updated with May 2021 Updates - latest before end of support) 
  3. Windows 10 v1903 32bit or 64bit (updated with December 2020 Updates - latest before end of support) 

Below is a video of our patch in action. Notice that with 0patch disabled, Calculator is launched both upon opening the Word document and upon previewing the RTF document in Windows Explorer Preview. In both cases, Process Monitor shows that control.exe gets launched, which loads the "malicious" executable, in our case spawning Calculator. With 0patch enabled, control.exe does not get launched, and therefore neither does Calculator.

In line with our guidelines, these patches require a PRO license. To obtain them and have them applied on your computer(s) along with other micropatches included with a PRO license, create an account in 0patch Central, install 0patch Agent and register it to your account, then purchase 0patch PRO.
For a free trial, contact
Note that no computer restart is needed for installing the agent or applying/un-applying any 0patch micropatches.

We'd like to thank Will Dormann for an in-depth public analysis of this vulnerability, which helped us create a micropatch and protect our users.

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