Give me any zero-day and I will rule the world

October 30, 2014

A few months ago, I was having lunch at a favorite Italian restaurant in Washington, DC. I work in a residential area, which means lunch time is slow and there’s no crowd. This leads to many conversations with the staff. This particular conversation drifted to Time Magazine’s July World War Zero article about the sale of zero-day exploits.

What a strange world we live in. Zero-days are now common lunch conversation almost along the lines of talking about the weather.

I applaud the work our industry has done to educate the public about the risk of software vulnerabilities. That said, there is a down side. Most people, some who even work in security, only understand hacking as the exploitation of software vulnerabilities. They don’t think about the rest of the intrusion process or envision what steps the attacker takes after the compromise.

I see exploits as a small part of the hacking puzzle. If someone has an unpatched known vulnerability–bad on them and yes, they should address it. But, there are other ways to get a foothold in a network besides memory corruption exploits. Some targeted attacks involve sending documents or files that abuse known functionality. These attacks are low on the sophistication scale, but I know many penetration testers who continue to get footholds with Java Applet attacks. A memory corruption exploit might assist with the foothold, but it’s not a requirement to gain one.

Following the foothold is post-exploitation. A common attacker goal is to escalate privileges and capture a trust relationship that allows them to move within a domain. Here’s another place a memory corruption exploit may help. A memory corruption exploit against the local system may give me a free pass to elevated rights. Again, there are other ways to get this control. If the user is a local administrator, the attacker has full control of the current system. UAC is not a security boundary and in many cases, it’s trivial to bypass. And yes, the bypass can work on Windows 8.1. Let’s say the user isn’t a local administrator. Surely, one must have a memory corruption exploit to work, right? Wrong. Take a look at harmj0y’s PowerUp. This is a PowerShell script to search for opportunities to elevate based on weak permissions or configuration mistakes. A memory corruption exploit might assist with privilege escalation, but it’s not a requirement to escalate privileges.

Let’s discuss lateral movement and domain privilege escalation.

Lateral movement is the process where an attacker abuses trust relationships to gain control of other systems on the same domain. Lateral movement has its challenges. The attacker has to impersonate a user that a target system recognizes as an administrator. This trust information comes in many forms. An attacker might dump the encrypted passwords of local users associated with the system. If the Administrator account password is the same on another system, the attacker may use this password hash to authenticate to that system and carry out privileged actions. This is the pass-the-hash attack and it does not involve memory corruption. Another form of trust is an access token. This is a data structure, managed by Windows, that contains everything needed to allow a seamless single sign-on experience. An attacker can capture one of these tokens and apply it to their current session. Now, the attacker has the rights spelled out in this token and they may use it to interact with another system [if the target sees the user as an administrator]. This process does not require a memory corruption exploit.

Domain Privilege escalation is the process where an attacker takes systems to capture new trusts until they find a trust that gives them full control of the domain or get the data they’re after. If an attacker captures a token for a Domain Administrator user, it’s game over. The attacker has access to all systems joined to that domain. If the attacker captures a token for a domain user with administrator rights to some systems, the attacker may leverage that token to take control of those systems. This process does not require a memory corruption exploit.

It gets worse. With full control of the domain, the attacker can steal the secret that the domain’s security rests on. This is the password hash of the krbtgt user on a domain controller. If the attacker captures this information, the attacker has the freedom to leave your network for weeks, months, or years at a time. The attacker may come back through a phishing attack and apply a self-generated Kerberos ticket to their current session. With this shared secret in hand, the attacker may create a ticket that allows them to gain the rights of any domain user–without knowledge of that user’s password. In effect, this means the attacker may regain domain administrator rights at any time. This is the Golden Ticket Attack in Mimikatz and it does not require a memory corruption exploit.

I think memory corruption is cool, but hacking goes far beyond it. Hacking is understanding a system well enough to make it do things others didn’t intend. When I teach hacking now, I don’t cover memory corruption exploits. Too many people are stunted by this idea that they must scan for vulnerabilities, find one, and exploit it. This is old thinking. We should teach people that a well-built memory corruption exploit is one access or privilege escalation technique of many. By far, it’s not the whole game.

A penetration test that focuses on vulnerabilities and ignores most of the attack process doesn’t help a customer defend their network better. As offensive professionals, it’s on us to know the steps attackers take and to arm ourselves with knowledge and tools to reproduce them. If we can’t persist, move laterally, steal data, and defeat defenses in a credible way, what use are we to help customers understand their security posture? Creative thinking about these problems won’t happen if we focus too much on one (optional) piece of the hacking process.


  1. Any person who works in security and doesn’t “think about the rest of the intrusion process or envision what steps the attacker takes after the compromise”, does not deserve to work in security.

  2. I continue to encourage our rising Red Teamers and penetration testers to work diligently on their sysadmin skills. They forget that once they throw that exploit the work is just beginning. In many cases at post exploitation they are just an unauthorized user or sysadmin that needs to be able to use the system as good or better than the authorized users and sysadmins.

  3. Great write Mudge, keep writing I like your weekly pieces.

  4. Any penetration tester that already isn’t a really solid sysadmin is really no pen tester at all. Our interns must master at least one OS and also fully understand networking before moving on to security tools.

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