Integer Overflow to RCE — ManageEngine Asset Explorer Agent (CVE-2021–20082)

David Wells
Tenable TechBlog
Published in
14 min readAug 17, 2021


A couple months back, Chris Lyne and I had a look at ManageEngine ServiceDesk Plus. This product consists of a server / agent model in which agents provide updates on machine status back to the Manage Engine server. Chris ended up finding an unauth XSS-to-RCE chain in the server component which you can read here:, allowing an attacker to fully compromise the server with SYSTEM privileges.

The blog here will go over the exploitation of an integer overflow that I found in the agents themselves (CVE-2021–20082) called Asset Explorer Agent. This exploit could allow an attacker to pivot the network once the ManageEngine server is compromised. Alternatively, this could be exploited by spoofing the ManageEngine server IP on the network and triggering this vulnerability as we will touch on later. While this PoC is not super reliable, it has been proven to work after several tries on a Windows 10 Pro 20H2 box (see below). I believe that further work on heap grooming could increase exploitation odds.

Linux machine (left), remotely exploiting integer overflow in ManageEngine Asset Explorer running on Windows 10 (right) and popping up a “whoami” dialog.

Attack Vector

The ManageEngine Windows agent executes as a SYSTEM service and listens on the network for commands from its ManageEngine server. While TLS is used for these requests, the agent never validates the certificate, so anyone on the network is able to perform this TLS handshake and send an unauthorized command to the agent. In order for the agent to run the command however, the agent expects to receive an authtoken, which it echos back to its configured server IP address for final approval. Only then will the agent carry out the command. This presents a small problem since that configured IP address is not ours, and instead asks the real Manage Engine server to approve our sent authtoken, which is always going to be denied.

There is a way an attacker can exploit this design however and that’s by spoofing their IP on the network to be the Manage Engine server. I mentioned certs are not validated which allows an attacker to send and receive requests without an issue. This allows full control over the authtoken approval step, resulting in the agent running any arbitrary agent command from an attacker.

From here, you may think there is a command that can remotely run tasks or execute code on agents. Unfortunately, this was not the case, as the agent is very lightweight and supports a limited amount of features, none of which allowed for logical exploitation. This forced me to look into memory corruption in order to gain remote code execution through this vector. From reverse engineering the agents, I found a couple of small memory handling issues, such as leaks and heap overflow with unicode data, but nothing that led me to RCE.

Integer Overflow

When the agent receives final confirmation from its server, it is in the form of a POST request from the Manage Engine server. Since we are assuming the attacker has been able to insert themselves as a fake Manage Engine server or have compromised a real Manage Engine server, this allows them to craft and send any POST response to this agent.

When the agent processes this POST request, WINAPIs for HTTP handling are used. One of which is HttpQueryInfoW, which is used to query the incoming POST request for its “Content-Size” field. This Content-Size field is then used as a size parameter in order to allocate memory on the heap to copy over the POST payload data.

There is some integer arithmetic performed between receiving the Content-Size field and actually using this size to allocate heap memory. This is where we can exploit an integer overflow.

Here you can see the Content-Size is incremented by one, multiplied by four, and finally incremented by an extra two bytes. This is a 32-bit agent, using 32-bit integers, which means if we supply a Content-Size field the size of UINT32_MAX/4, we should be able to overflow the integer to wrap back around to size 2 when passed to calloc. Once this allocation of only two bytes is made on the heap, the following API InternetReadFile, will copy over our POST payload data to the destination buffer until all its POST data contents are read. If our POST data is larger than two bytes, then that data will be copied beyond the two byte buffer resulting in heap overflow.

Things are looking really good here because we not only can control the size of the heap overflow (tailoring our post data size to overwrite whatever amount of heap memory), but we also can write non-printable characters with this overflow, which is always good for exploiting write conditions.


Did I mention these agents don’t support ASLR? Yeah, they are compiled with no relocation table, which means even if Windows 10 tries to force ASLR, it can’t and defaults the executable base to the PE ImageBase. At this point, exploitation was sounding too easy, but quickly I found…it wasn’t.

Creating a Write Primitive

I can overwrite a controlled amount of arbitrary data on the heap now, but how do I write something and somewhere…interesting? This needs to be done without crashing the agent. From here, I looked for pointers or interesting data on the heap that I could overwrite. Unfortunately, this agent’s functionality is quite small and there were no object or function pointers or interesting strings on the heap for me to overwrite.

In order to do anything interesting, I was going to need a write condition outside the boundaries of this heap segment. For this, I was able to craft a Write-AlmostWhat-Where by abusing heap cell pointers used by the heap manager. Asset Explorer contains Microsoft’s CRT heap library for managing the heap. The implementation uses a double-linked list to keep track of allocated cells, and generally looks something like this:

Just like when any linked list is altered (in this case via a heap free or heap malloc), the next and prev pointers must be readjusted after insertion or deletion of a node (seen below).

For our attack we will be focusing on exploiting the free logic which is found in the Microsoft Free_dbg API. When a heap cell is freed, it removes the target node and remerges the neighboring nodes. Below is the Free_dbg function from Microsoft library, which uses _CrtMemBlockHeader for its heap cells. The red blocks are the remerging logic for these _CrtMemBlockHeader nodes in the linked list.

This means if we overwrite a _CrtMemBlockHeader* prev pointer with an arbitrary address (ideally an address outside of this cursed memory segment we are stuck in), then upon that heap cell being freed, the contents of this arbitrary *prev address will have the _CrtMemBlockHeader* next pointer written to where *prev points to. It gets better…we can also overflow into the _CrtMemBlockHeader* next pointer as well, allowing us to control what * next is, thus creating an arbitrary write condition for us — one DWORD at a time.

There is a small catch, however. The _CrtMemBlockHeader* next and _CrtMemBlockHeader* prev are both dereferenced and written to in this remerging logic, which means I can’t just overwrite *prev pointer with any arbitrary data I want, as this must also be a valid pointer in writable memory location itself, since its contents will also be written to during the Free_dbg function. This means I can only write pointers to places in memory and these pointers must point to writable memory themselves. This prevents me from writing executable memory pointers (as that points to RX protected memory) as well as preventing me from writing pointers to non-existent memory (as the dereference step in Free_dbg will cause access violation). This proved to be very constraining for my exploitation.

Data-Only Attack

Data-only attacks are getting more popular for exploiting memory corruption bugs, and I’m definitely going to opt for that here. This binary has no ASLR to worry about, so browsing the .data section of the executable and finding an interesting global variable to overwrite is the best step. When searching for these, many of the global variables point to strings, which seem cool — but remember, it will be very hard to abuse my write primitive to overwrite string data, since the string data I would want to write must represent a pointer to valid and writable memory in the program. This limits me to searching for an interesting global variable pointer to overwrite.

Step 1 : Overwrite the Current Working Directory

I found a great candidate to leverage this pointer write primitive. It is a global variable pointer in Asset Explorer’s .data section that points to a unicode string that dictates the current working directory of the Manage Engine agent.

We need to know how this is used in order to abuse it correctly, and a few XREFs later, I found this string pointer is dereferenced and passed to SetCurrentDirectory whenever a “NEWSCAN” request is sent to the agent (which we can easily do as a remote attacker). This call dynamically changes the current working directory for the remote Asset Explorer service which is what I shoot for in developing an exploit. Even better, the NEWSCAN request then calls “CreateProcess” to execute a .bat file from the current working directory. If we can modify this current working directory to point to a remote SMB share we own, and place a malicious .bat file on our SMB share with the same name, then Asset Explorer will try to execute this .bat file off our SMB share instead of the local one, resulting in RCE. All we need to do is modify this pointer so that it points to a malicious remote SMB path we own, trigger a NEWSCAN request so that the current working directory is changed, and make it execute our .bat file.

Since ASLR is not enabled, I know what this pointer address will be, so we just need to trigger our heap overflow to exploit my pointer write condition with Free_dbg to replace this pointer.

To effectively change this current working directory, you would need to:

1. Trigger the heap overflow to overwrite the *next and *prev pointers of a heap cell that will be freed (medium)

2. Overwrite the *next pointer with the address of this current working directory global variable as it will be the destination for our write primitive (easy)

3. Overwrite the *prev pointer with a pointer that points to a unicode string of our SMB share path (hard).

4. Trigger new scan request to change current working directory and execute .bat file (easy)

For step 1, this ideally would require some grooming, so we can trigger our overflow once our cell is flush against another heap cell and carefully overwrite its _CrtMemBlockHeader. Unfortunately my heap grooming attempts were not working to force allocations where I wanted. This is partially due to the limited size I was able to remotely allocate in the remote process and a large part of my limited Windows 10 heap grooming experience. Luckily, there was pretty much no penalty for failed overflow attempts since I am only overwriting the linked list pointers of heap cells and the heap manager was apparently very ok with that. With that in mind, I run my heap overflow several times and hope it writes over a particular existing heap cell with my write primitive payload. I found ~20 attempts of this overflow will usually end up working to overflow the heap cell I want.

What is the heap cell I want? Well, I need it to be a heap cell which will be freed because that’s the only way to trigger my arbitrary write. Also, I need to know where I sprayed my malicious SMB path string in heap memory, since I need to overwrite the current working directory global variable with a pointer to my string. Without knowing my own string address, I have no idea what to write. Luckily I found a way to get around this without needing an infoleak.

Bypassing the Need for Infoleak

In my PoC I am initially sending a string of to the agent:


Asset Explorer will parse this string out once received and allocate a unicode string for each substring delimited by “#” symbols. Since the heap is allocated in a doubly linked list fashion, the order of allocations here will be sequentially appended in the linked list. So, what I need to do is overflow into the heap cell headers for the “XXXXXXXX2” string with understanding that its _CrtMemBlockHeader* next pointer will point to the next heap cell to be allocated, which is always the //.//.//.//.//.//.//.//.//.//.//.//.//.//.//.//.//.//.//.//.//.//.//.//.//.//.//.//.//.//.//.//.//.//.//.//.//.//.//.//.//UNC// string.

If we overwrite the _CrtMemBlockHeader* prev with the .data address of the current working directory path, and only overwrite the first (lowest order) byte of the _CrtMemBlockHeader* prev pointer then we won’t need an info leak. Since the upper three bytes dictate the SMB string’s general memory address, we just need to offset the last byte so that it will point to the actual string data rather than the _CrtMemBlockHeader structure it currently points to. This is why I choose to overwrite the lowest order byte with “0xf8”, so guarantee max offset from _CrtMemBlockHeader.

It’s beneficial if we can craft an SMB path string that contains pre-pended nonsense characters to it (similar to nop-sled but for file path). This will give us greater probability that our 0xf8 offset points somewhere in our SMB path string that allows SetCurrentDirectory to interpret it as a valid path with prepended nonsense characters (ie: .\.\.\.\.\<path>). Unfortunately, .\.\.\.\ wouldn’t work for SMB share, so with thanks to Chris Lyne, he was able to craft a nice padded SMB path like this for me:


This will allow the path to be simply treated as “//<ip_address>/a/”. If we provide enough “//.” in front of our path, we will have about a ⅓ chance of this hitting our sled properly when overwriting the lowest *prev byte 0xf8. Much better odds than if I used a simple straight forward SMB string.

I ran my exploit, witnessed it overwrite the current working directory, and then saw Asset Explorer attempt to execute our .bat file off our remote SMB share…but it wasn’t working. It was that day when I learned .bat files cannot be executed off remote SMB shares with CreateProcess.

Step 2: Hijacking Code Flow

I didn’t come this far to just give up, so we need to look at a different technique to turn our current working directory modification into remote code execution. Libraries (.dll files) do not have this restriction, so I search for places where Asset Explorer might try to load a library. This is a tough ask, because it has to be a dynamic loading of a library (not super common for applications to do) that I can trigger, and also — it cannot be a known dll (ie: kernel32.dll, rpcrt4.dll, etc), since search order for these .dlls will not bother with the application’s current working directory, but rather prioritize loading from a Windows directory. For this I need to find a way to trigger the agent to load an unknown dll.

After searching, I found a function called GetPdbDll in the agent where it will attempt to dynamically load “Mspdb80.dll”, a debugging dll used for RTC (runtime checks). This is an unknown dll so it should attempt to load it off it’s current working directory. Ok, so how do I call this thing?

Well, you can’t… I couldn’t find any XREFs to code flow that could end up calling this function, I assumed it was left in stubs from the compiler, as I couldn’t even find indirect calls that might lead code flow here. I will have to abandon my data-only attack plan here and attempt to hijack code flow for this last part.

I am unable to write executable pointers with my write primitive, so this means I can’t just write this GetPdbDll function address as a return address on stack memory nor can I even overwrite a function pointer with this function address. There was one place however, that I saw a pointer TO a function pointer being called which is actually possible for me to abuse. It’s in _CrtDbgReport function, which allows Microsoft runtime to alert in event of various integrity violations, one of which is a failure in heap integrity check. When using a debug heap (like in this scenario) it can be triggered if it detects unwritten portions of heap memory not containing “0xfd” bytes, since that is supposed to represent “dead-land-fill” (this is why my PoC tries to mimic these 0xfd bytes during my heap overflow, to keep this thing happy). However this time…we WANT to trigger a failure, because in _CrtDbgReport we see this:

From my research, this is where _CrtDbgReport calls a _pfnReportHook (if the application has one registered). This application does not have one registered, but let us leverage our Free_dbg write primitive again to write our own _pfnReportHook (it lives in .data section too!). This is also great because this doesn’t have to be a pointer to executable memory (which we can’t write), because _pfnReportHook contains a pointer TO a function pointer (big beneficial difference for us). We just need to register our own _pfnReportHook that contains a function pointer to that function that loads “MSPDB80.dll” (no arguments needed!). Then we trigger a heap error so that _CrtDbgReport is called and in turn calls our _pfnReportHook. This should load and execute the “MSPDB80.dll” off our remote SMB share. We have to be clever with our second write primitive, as we can no longer borrow the technique I used earlier where you use subsequent heap cell allocations to bypass infoleak. This is because the unique scenario was only for unicode strings in this application, and we can’t represent our function pointers with unicode. For this step I choose to overwrite the _pfnReportHook variable with a random offset in my heap entirely (again, no infoleak required, similar technique as partially overwriting the _CrtMemBlockHeader* next pointer but this time overwriting the lower two bytes of the _CrtMemBlockHeader* next pointer in order to obtain a decent random heap offset). I then trigger my heap overflow again in order to clobber an enormous portion of the heap with repeating function pointers to the GetPdb function.

Yes this will certainly crash the program but that’s ok! We are at the finish line and this severe heap corruption will trigger a call to our _pfnReportHook before a crash happens. From our earlier overwrite, our _pfnReportHook pointer should point to some random address in my heap which likely contains a GetPdbDll function pointer (which I massively sprayed). This should result in RCE once _pfnReportHook is called.

Loading dll off remote SMB share that displays a whoami

As mentioned, this is not a super reliable exploit as-is, but I was able to prove it can work. You should be able to find the PoC for this on Tenable’s PoC github — Manage Engine has since patched this issue. For more of these details you can check out this ManageEngine advisory at