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Apple QuickTime backdoor creates code-execution peril

Getting punked by 9-year-old parameter

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A security researcher has unearthed a “bizarre” flaw in Apple's QuickTime Player that can be exploited to remotely execute malicious code on Windows-based PCs, even those running the most recent versions of operating system.

Technically, the inclusion of an unused parameter known as “_Marshaled_pUnk” is a backdoor because it is the work of an Apple developer who added it to to the QuickTime code base and then, most likely, forgot to remove it when it was no longer needed. It sat largely undetected for at least nine years until Ruben Santamarta of Spain-based security firm Wintercore discovered it and realized it could be exploited to take full control of machines running Windows 7, Microsoft's most secure operating system to date.

“The bug is is pretty bizarre,” H D Moore, CSO of Rapid7 and chief architect of the Metasploit project, told The Reg on Monday. “It's not a standard vulnerability in the sense that a feature was implemented poorly. It was more kind of a leftover development piece that was left in production. It's probably an oversight.”

The presence of _Marshaled_pUnk creates the equivalent of an object pointer that an attacker can use to funnel malicious code into computer memory. Over the years, applications have contained so many of these types of errors that Microsoft eventually built architectural designs into Windows that reduced the damage that can be inflicted from attacks that exploit them.

ASLR, or address space layout randomization, for instance, loaded code into memory locations that attackers can't predict, while DEP, or data execution prevention, prevented any code that does get loaded from being executed.

But in a stroke of efficiency, Santamarta figured out how to repurpose code in a common Windows file to bypass the protections. Using a technique known as ROP, short for return oriented programming, he was able to load a Windows Live file known as WindowsLiveLogin.dll into memory and reorder the commands in a way that allowed him to take control of the underlying computer. Using the Microsoft DLL not only allowed him to know where in memory it would load, it also allowed him to get the code executed.

Santamarta said the parameter was present in a QuickTime version dating back to 2001, when it could be used to draw contents into an existing window instead of creating a new one. The functionality was eventually removed from newer versions but the line lived on. Combined with an unrandomized DLL like the one for Windows Live, it represents a serious threat to end users.

The attack has been confirmed on the XP, Vista, and 7 versions of Windows, Santamarta said.

In addition to demonstrating the importance of regular code reviews to identify extraneous parameters, the exploit underscores the threat that comes from programs that fail to use the ASLR and DEP protections baked into more recent versions of Windows. A surprisingly large number of popular applications — including Quicktime, Foxit Reader, Google Picasa, OpenOffice.org, RealPlayer, and VLC Player — all neglect to use one or the other, a recent review by Secunia found.

While the exploit posted by Santamarta works only against those who have Microsoft's Windows Live Messenger installed, the researcher told The Reg that components that ship by default with QuickTime can be used to pull off the same ROP sleight of hand. Files called QuickTimeAuthoring.qtx and QuickTime.qts are two possibilities.

Indeed, programmers with the open-source Metasploit project used by penetration testers and other hackers are in the process of building an attack module that does just that. And that means that in the next 24 hours there will be publicly available exploit code for a critical vulnerability that remains unpatched in Apple's blockbuster media player for Windows.

All because of an obsolete parameter named _Marshaled_pUnk. Go figure. ®

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