Windows 10 Security Feature Broken, US-CERT Warns

Windows 10 Security Feature Broken, US-CERT Warns

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Entropy Alert: Non-Random ASLR Leaves Systems Open To Buffer Overflow Attacks

Windows 10 Security Feature Broken, US-CERT Warns
Photo: Andrew Writer via Flickr/CC

Recent versions of the Windows operating system have a security problem: They’re not random enough.

See Also: Effective Cyber Threat Hunting Requires an Actor and Incident Centric Approach

The problem centers on ASLR, which refers to address space layout randomization. This operating system feature, introduced with Windows Vista, is designed to randomize the location in which applications get loaded and executed. That randomness helps to block code-reuse or return-oriented programming attacks, in which attackers can predict where applications will load and launch buffer overflow attacks that could allow them to remotely seize control of a device.

But depending on Windows operating system settings, ASLR may not have sufficient entropy, meaning randomness, the U.S. Computer Emergency Response Team warns. As a result, even if ASLR gets activated via the Windows Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit, it may not be doing any good for users of Windows 8, Windows 8.1 and Windows 10. Note that as of last month’s Windows 10 Fall Creators Update, Windows Defender Exploit Guard replaced EMET as the way to force the mandatory use of ASLR.

Entropy Problem

The ASLR problem was discovered by Will Dormann, a vulnerability analyst at CERT/CC – the coordination center for US-CERT – who says he received assistance from Matt Miller, a security engineer who works for the Microsoft Security Response Center.

“Starting with Windows 8.0, system-wide mandatory ASLR – enabled via EMET – has zero entropy, essentially making it worthless. Windows Defender Exploit Guard for Windows 10 is in the same boat,” Dornan says via Twitter.

Microsoft didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the vulnerability or when it might issue a patch.

Two Routes to Mandatory ASLR

It’s important to differentiate between the two different ways that mandatory ASLR can be enabled:

  • System-wide ASLR: Leaves Windows 8, Windows 8.1 and Windows 10 unprotected by ASLR.
  • System-wide bottom-up ASLR: Provides full ASLR protection on all Windows operating systems for which it’s available. Enabling this also mitigates the entropy problem present with system-wide ASLR in Windows 8, Windows 8.1 and Windows 10.

The entropy problem only occurs on systems for which system-wide ASLR – but not system-wide bottom-up ASLR – has been enabled via EMET or the Windows Defender Exploit Guard.

ASLR Upsides

Microsoft initially released EMET so that administrators could force applications to use ASLR even if developers had not explicitly coded their applications to do so. Unfortunately for users of Windows 8 and newer operating systems, the mandatory, system-wide mitigation setting alone does not correctly load the required Windows library to make ASLR random.

“For system-wide mitigations, EMET simply acts as a front-end GUI to enable exploit mitigations that are built in to the Windows operating system,” US-CERT says. “For application-specific mitigations, the EMET library is loaded into the process space of each application that is configured to be protected.”

Starting with Windows 8, Microsoft made coding changes which resulted in a lack of ASLR entropy if only the system-wide setting is enabled. “Microsoft Windows 8 introduced a change in how system-wide mandatory ASLR is implemented,” US-CERT says in an alert. “This change requires system-wide bottom-up ASLR to be enabled for mandatory ASLR to receive entropy. Tools that enable system-wide ASLR without also setting bottom-up ASLR will fail to properly randomize executables that do not opt in to ASLR.”

Waiting For Patches

While the problem with system-wide ASLR setting has now been documented, as yet there’s no easy fix. “The CERT/CC is currently unaware of a practical solution to this problem,” it says in its alert.

But there is a workaround: By enabling not only system-wide ASLR but also bottom-up ASLR, ASLR with full entropy will be in effect. Putting that workaround into effect, however, would require IT administrators to edit the Windows registry on every affected system.

“To be clear: Mandatory ASLR doesn’t necessarily make exploitation *impossible*. But it *DOES* block known exploits in the wild, which obviously is a good thing,” Dormann says via Twitter.

He’s published a Windows registry file that will rewrite the relevant portion of the registry, but warns that using it may have unintended effects.

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