Searching for Deserialization Protection Bypasses in Microsoft Exchange (CVE-2022–21969)

This story begins with a series of fails, but why? That is because of my special relationship with the Microsoft Exchange codebase. Basically, I look at code in two different ways:

  1. Either I’m not primarily interested in finding vulnerabilities but rather want to learn about coding styles, architectures, technology stacks etc.
  2. or I’m definitely interested in finding security flaws!

Looking at a huge codebase like Microsoft Exchange usually is driven by my first approach. It’s nice to look at smaller projects but learning different kinds of patterns (and anti patterns) characteristic for e.g. a certain programming language is only possible by looking at the giants.

Being in love with deserialization flaws for a while now, and Microsoft Exchange having a history with such issues, I try to track different publicly available vulnerabilities of this type closely.

From time to time there seems to be a chance to find some new vulnerability by accident. I thought this would be one of them (which it was [first] not!).

Several years ago, talented researchers discovered that rebuilding an object from a serialized representation could lead to dangerous behavior such as Remote Code Execution (RCE). One of these well-known sinks in .NET are Deserialization calls from “unprotected” Formatters such as the BinaryFormatter.

Having installed various versions of Microsoft Exchange, one of my journeys took me to the (supposedly) latest version of Exchange 2016. Searching for various Formatter calls brought me to Exchange Rpc functions which some of you might know from Outlook Anywhere or tools like (“RPC over HTTP v2”). Instead of using human-readable HTTP requests for communication between client and Exchange server backend, a binary protocol created by Microsoft could (and is still) used for this purpose.

So, this is what I found by looking at Rpc functions with deserialization in mind. The class Microsoft.Exchange.Rpc.ExchangeCertificates.ExchangeCertificateRpcServeroffered several function prototypes, probably callable via the /rpc endpoints.

The Microsoft.Exchange.Servicelets.ExchangeCertificate.ExchangeCertificateServer class then implemented the prototypes accordingly.

Taking the method parameter byte[] inputBlob in one of these functions as e.g. ImportCertificate(int version, byte[] inputBlob, SecureString password) brought us to the implementation in Microsoft.Exchange.Servicelets.ExchangeCertificate.ExchangeCertificateServerHelper .

Here, the constructor of Microsoft.Exchange.Management.SystemConfigurationTasks.ExchangeCertificateRpc was called.

The method call DeserializeObject(inputBlob, false) reached the dangerous sink in the same class

with a BinaryFormatter deserializing the byte[] inputBlob (here byte[] data ) without using a proper SerializationBinder or any other kind of protection. This could lead to RCE with payloads generated from ysoserial .NET.

Several problems had to be faced next:

  1. How can I reach the sink with a properly controlled inputBlob byte array?
  2. Do I have to refactor this ugly binary format? (Hint: I’m not good at this!)
  3. How could it be that nobody else targeted this part already (successfully)?

To cut a long story short, question 3 was answered almost immediately by myself realizing that I totally failed on patching the Exchange installation to the latest version. I thought that I did, but didn’t properly. At this moment, a feeling of anger came over me because this was not the first time I “rediscovered” old findings. But hear me when I say: one learns a ton of new things during every phase of (re)discovery and this is what finally counts as well. Sometimes you might even rediscover silently patched vulnerabilities.

But this was not the end. We did indeed find some interesting things after we properly patched the server to Exchange 2016 CU22 (with latest November patches KB5007409).

Before you continue reading my article, you should read this article by Peter Json and Jang first, all of it. The ideas for almost everything what’s coming next is based on their work (and I love the nDay research articles by these guys btw!).

So back to work, I realized that this fully patched Exchange also shipped the class Microsoft.Exchange.Management.SystemConfigurationTasks.ExchangeCertificateRpc with its method DeserializeObject(byte[] data, bool customized) to deserialize the same kind of stuff mentioned above.

A very similar code path as described above could be tracked in this fully patched version to Microsoft.Exchange.Rpc.ExchangeCertificate.ExchangeCertificateRpcServer prototypes again such as ImportCertificate(int version, byte[] pInBytes, SecureString password).

The newly introduced Microsoft.Exchange.Diagnostics.ChainedSerializationBinder was already discussed in the nDay research article about CVE-2021–42321 by Jang and Peter Json (again, read it!).

As Jang and Peter explained in great detail, there were several conditions for which a malicious payload could be deserialized nevertheless:

  1. The strictMode has to be set to False
  2. The fully qualified assembly names in the [nested] payload object must not match any member of the deny list defined in Microsoft.Exchange.Diagnostics.ChainedSerializationBinder.GlobalDisallowedTypesForDeserialization which basically kills all publicly known .NET deserialization gadgets from ysoserial .NET

As pointed out in their article, for CVE-2021–42321 the “bypass” was pretty much straight forward because

  1. strictMode was not set and therefore False by default
  2. The deny list had a typo for one of the well-known gadgets and other famous gadgets were missing, too

Since this was of course fixed in my patched Exchange instance, I wanted to look at our Rpc deserialization code again. Interestingly, all “secured” BinaryFormatter instances were created from the factory ExchangeBinaryFormatterFactory.CreateBinaryFormatter(...) (see first image of this paragraph above) using a certain entry of the Enum Microsoft.Exchange.Diagnostics.DeserializationLocation as input parameter for strictModedetermination. To prove if our first condition strictMode = False held for the Rpc sources, I wrote a quick and dirty program and executed it on my Exchange server.

Indeed, the value for ExchangeCertificateRpc was set to False. The code above not only returned the value for this specific Enum entry evaluation but in a second step iterated over all Enum entries. Here is an excerpt of the output:

Reading the whole output carefully revealed that only 11 out of 94 values led to strictMode being set to True . Well, that means that the vast majority of entries equalled False and therefore “bypass condition 1” was met for a lot of cases by design.

Next, “bypass condition 2” turned out to be a bit more tricky because the incomplete deny list leading to CVE-2021–42321 was adjusted accordingly. What if one could find another gadget not being part of this deny list? Did I have to find fancy chains, i.e. really new RCE gadgets? No, I did not because bridge gadgets totally should work fine as well (look for GadgetTypes.BridgeAndDerived in ysoserial .NET).

I contributed such a gadget to ysoserial .NET myself some time ago but unfortunately this was part of the deny list, too.

Let’s again start with a failed attempt. Driven by Steven’s work on an XXE in current Exchange versions (see CVE-2020–17141), maybe I could find a bridge gadget resulting in an XXE sink (everybody concentrates on instant RCE stuff, right?).

The assembly System.Windows.Forms.TableLayoutSettings (available in GAC, so this is “universal” and not Exchange specific) implemented a Serialization constructor as well as a custom TypeConverter (for some awesome research dealing with TypeConverters, read this white paper).

During deserialization the SerializationInfo parameter originating from the serialized object contained a string named SerializedString . Furthermore, the converter.ConvertFromInvariantString(@string) call hit a sink in the ConvertFrom method in System.Windows.Forms.Layout.TableLayoutSettingsTypeConverter.

In the end, the SerializedString finally reached the XmlDocument.loadXml(string) sink which could trigger XXE. One could simply write a ysoserial .NET gadget for payload creation. The relevant part would look like this:

Feel free to implement the missing code and make a pull request to the ysoserial .NET project. This is a nice exercise.

As it turned out, my former doubts turned out to be valid: XXE with .NET framework < 4.5.2 is tricky, mostly impossible, sometimes possible with “unlucky” XmlResolver implementations etc. So this was not applicable for this latest Exchange 2016 version.

But then I remembered and old tweet of mine. Back then, I was looking for a kind of URLDNS (akin to the Java ysoserial) gadget but for .NET. The gadget I found was not only capable of triggering DNS requests but by nature SMB (or WEBDAV) requests to an attacker controlled share as well. Simply write a line of code like this

and serialize the object with a Formatter of your choice, BinaryFormatter in our case.

Now SMB signing might be disabled, the WebClientService installed or the WEBDAV redirector enabled on the Exchange server (seen all of this in production environments!), then you could capture the Exchange machine account NetNTLM hash and relay it to other hosts in your Active Directory (AD) environment, doing a lot of bad things. There is tons of brilliant research and AD-related pentest articles on relaying attacks so I won’t go into details.

Did this work then? Yes, it did and basically I achieved my goal of showing that deny list approaches should never be used for primary protection. In the case of Exchange, for 83 (remember Serialization.GetStrictModeStatus(DeserializeLocation.*)) potential BinaryFormatter factory calling versions, the deny list would have been the only protection (no “defense in depth” here)! And check for yourself that there are several of these calls all over the Exchange codebase.

By the way, I’m pretty sure that some of you will find better sources then Rpc functions. I already saw similar code paths as exploited in CVE-2021–42321. Go and get your 0day now! :-)

By the way, here is a PoC video for you showing the NTLM authentication being triggered and captured on an attacker machine. I searched for a “debug friendly” source to reach any of the deserialization sinks to test some payloads which I found in Microsoft.Exchange.UM.UmCore.dll. Putting a properly formatted text file under C:\Program Files\Microsoft\Exchange Server\V15\UnifiedMessaging\voicemail will trigger the deserialization. The file name has to be in Guid format.

Microsoft assigned CVE-2022–21969 to this issue but without having the fix checked yet, the CVSS values Adjacent and Scope Changed suggest the core issue might not have been fixed.