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What is Remote Code Execution Attack & How to Prevent this Type of Cyberattack
Microsoft recently rolled out its latest security update, fixing 50 security vulnerabilities. Out of the 50 security vulnerabilities fixed by Microsoft in its June 12thsecurity update, 14 security vulnerabilities allow remote code execution.
What is Remote Code Execution?
Remote code execution (RCE) refers to the ability of a cyberattacker to access and make changes to a computer owned by another, without authority and regardless of where the computer is geographically located.
RCE allows an attacker to take over a computer or a server by running arbitrary malicious software (malware). "RCE (remote code execution) vulnerabilities are one of the most dangerous of its kind as attackers may execute malicious code in the vulnerable server," Impervasaid.
Remote Code Execution Example #1: Microsoft Excel Remote Code Execution Vulnerability
One example of a remote code execution vulnerability is the CVE-2018-8248vulnerability – one of the security vulnerabilities fixed by Microsoft in its June 12thsecurity update. The CVE-2018-8248 vulnerability, also known as “Microsoft Excel Remote Code Execution Vulnerability”, allows an attacker to run a malware on the vulnerable computer.
The CVE-2018-8248 attacker could take full control of the compromised computer if the owner of the compromised computer logs on to the computer with administrative user rights. In taking full control of the compromised computer, the attacker could view, change or delete data; install programs; or create new accounts with full user rights.
According to Microsoft, the delivery method in exploiting the CVE-2018-8248 vulnerability could be in the form of a malicious email with an attachment that contains a specially crafted file with an infected version of Microsoft Excel. Another delivery method in exploiting the CVE-2018-8248 vulnerability is in the form of a web-based attack scenario, whereby an attacker could host a website or compromised website that accepts or hosts user-provided content containing a specially crafted file designed to exploit the CVE-2018-8248 vulnerability.
In the 2 scenarios, malicious email and web-based attack, the attacker has to convince users to click on the attachment or a link to open the specially crafted file. To date, there’s no report that CVE-2018-8248 vulnerability has been exploited into the wild.
Remote Code Execution Example #2: Microsoft Windows SMB Vulnerability
On May 12, 2017, hundreds of thousands of computers worldwide were infected by WannaCry, a malware that encrypts computer files, locking out computer users and asks for ransom payment to decrypt or unlock the computer files.
WannaCry, as it turns out, is a malware that allows remote code execution if an attacker sends specially crafted messages to a Microsoft Server Message Block (SMB) – a protocol used for sharing access to files, printers and other resources on a network.
Unlike other remote code execution attacks which leverage on malicious emails and web-based attacks as delivery methods, WannaCry’s delivery method was scanning the internet for vulnerable SMB ports and using one of the alleged U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) spying tools called “EternalBlue”, which takes advantage of the vulnerability in Microsoft’s SMB. Once an attacker detects SMB vulnerability, the DoublePulsar (another alleged NSA spying tool) is then used by an attacker to allow for the installation of the WannaCry malware.
EternalBlue and DoublePulsar are 2 of the spying tools allegedly used by the NSA that were leaked in April 2017 by a group of hackers who called themselves Shadow Brokers. According to Microsoft, the security vulnerabilities exposed by Shadow Brokers were fixed by the security update released by the company in March 2017 – a month before Shadow Brokers publicly released the alleged NSA spying tools.
Researchers at Renditionreported that in late April and the first few days of May 2017 – several days after Microsoft issued a security update fixing the security vulnerabilities exposed by Shadow Brokers, more than 148,000 computers were compromised by EternalBlue and DoublePulsar.
Hundreds of thousands of computers were infected by WannaCry as many compromised machines were used as servers and because of the worm or self-propagating capability of this malware. As a result, computers connected to the infected servers were also infected by the WannaCry malware.
Remote Code Execution Attacks and Cryptocurrency Mining
At the height of the cryptocurrency boom in December 2017, Imperva reported that cryptocurrency mining drove almost 90% of all remote code execution attacks.
Imperva said 88% of all remote code execution attacks in December 2017 sent a request to an external source to try to download a cryptocurrency mining malware.
“These attacks try to exploit vulnerabilities in the web application source code, mainly remote code execution vulnerabilities, in order to download and run different crypto-mining malware on the infected server,” Imperva said. “The malware usually uses all CPU computing power, preventing the CPU from doing other tasks and effectively denies service to the application’s users.”
Timely patching or timely installation of software update ranks as the top cybersecurity measure in preventing remote code execution attacks.
For instance, to prevent remote code execution via CVE-2018-8248 vulnerability, Microsoft’s June 12, 2018 security update has to be installed. In the case of WannaCry cyberattack, remote code execution via the exploitation of Microsoft Windows SMB vulnerability could have been prevented if only Microsoft’s March 2017 security update had been timely applied.
To prevent attackers trying to infect vulnerable servers with cryptocurrency mining malware, the initial attack must be blocked. As an initial attack, cybercriminals typically exploit remote code execution vulnerabilities to launch their malware, similar to what WannaCry attackers did.
If your organization is using computers or servers that are known to be using software that’s vulnerable to remote code execution, the latest vendor patch to mitigate this particular cyberattack should be timely applied.
As a rule of thumb, to significantly minimize the risk, your company must collect, analyze and act on the most recent threat intelligence. Your IT team must be equipped with the best tool to apply patches timely thus mitigating the risk of a data breach. Better yet, workstation and server patching can and should be automated to prevent remote code execution and other cyberattacks.
Steve E. Driz