Writing Exploits with the Elderwood Kit (Part 2)

In the final part of our three-part series, we investigate the how the toolkit user gained control of program flow and what their strategy means for the reliability of their exploit.

Last time, we talked about how the Elderwood kit does almost everything for the kit user except give them a vulnerability to use. We think it is up to the user to discover a vulnerability, trigger and exploit it, then integrate it with the kit. Our analysis indicates that their knowledge of how to do this is poor and the reliability of the exploit suffered as a result. In the sections that follow, we walk through each section of the exploit that the user had to write on their own.

The Document Object Model (DOM)

The HTML Document Object Model (DOM) is a representation of an HTML page, used for accessing and modifying properties. Browsers provide an interface to the DOM via JavaScript. This interface allows websites to have interactive and dynamically generated content. This interface is very complicated and is subject to many security flaws such as the use-after-free vulnerability used by the attackers in the CFR compromise. For example, the Elderwood group has been responsible for discovering and exploiting at least three prior vulnerabilities of this type in Internet Explorer.

Use-after-Free Vulnerabilities

Use-after-free vulnerabilities occur when a program frees a block and then attempts to use it at some later point in program execution. If, before the block is reused, an attacker is able to allocate new data in its place then they can gain control of program flow.

Exploiting a Use-after-Free

  1. Program allocates and then later frees block A
  2. Attacker allocates block B, reusing the memory previously allocated to block A
  3. Attacker writes data into block B
  4. Program uses freed block A, accessing the data the attacker left there

In order to take advantage of CVE-2012-4792, the exploit allocated and freed a CButton object. While a weak reference to the freed object was maintained elsewhere in Internet Explorer, the exploit overwrote the CButton object with their own data. The exploit then triggered a virtual function call on the CButton object, using the weak reference, resulting in control of program execution.

Prepare the Heap

After 16 allocations of the same size occur, Internet Explorer will switch to using the Low Fragmentation Heap (LFH) for further heap allocations. Since these allocations exist on a different heap, they are not usable for exploitation and have to be ignored. To safely skip over the first 16 allocations, the exploit author creates 3000 string allocations of a similar size to the CButton object by assigning the className property on a div tag.

var arrObject = new Array(3000);
var elmObject = new Array(500);
for (var i = 0; i < arrObject.length; i++) {
	arrObject[i] = document.createElement('div');
	arrObject[i].className = unescape("ababababababababababababababababababababa");

The contents of the chosen string, repeated “ab”s,  is not important. What is important is the size of the allocation created by it. The LFH has an 8 byte granularity for allocations less than 256 bytes so allocations between 80 and 88 bytes will be allocated from the same area. Here is an example memory dump of what the string in memory would look like:

00227af8  61 00 62 00 61 00 62 00-61 00 62 00 61 00 62 00  a.b.a.b.a.b.a.b.
00227b08  61 00 62 00 61 00 62 00-61 00 62 00 61 00 62 00  a.b.a.b.a.b.a.b.
00227b18  61 00 62 00 61 00 62 00-61 00 62 00 61 00 62 00  a.b.a.b.a.b.a.b.
00227b28  61 00 62 00 61 00 62 00-61 00 62 00 61 00 62 00  a.b.a.b.a.b.a.b.
00227b38  61 00 62 00 61 00 62 00-61 00 62 00 61 00 62 00  a.b.a.b.a.b.a.b.
00227b48  61 00 00 00 00 00 00 00-0a 7e a8 ea 00 01 08 ff  a........~......

Then, the exploit author assigns the className of every other div tag to null, thereby freeing the previously created strings when CollectGarbage() is called. This will create holes in the allocated heap memory and creates a predictable pattern of allocations.

for (var i = 0; i < arrObject.length; i += 2) {
	arrObject[i].className = null;

Next, the author creates 500 button elements. As before, they free every other one to create holes and call CollectGarbage() to enable reuse of the allocations.

for (var i = 0; i < elmObject.length; i++) {
	elmObject[i] = document.createElement('button');
for (var i = 1; i < arrObject.length; i += 2) {
	arrObject[i].className = null;

In one of many examples of reused code in the exploit, the JavaScript array used for heap manipulation is called arrObject. This happens to be the variable name given to an example of how to create arrays found on page 70 of the JavaScript Cookbook.

Trigger the Vulnerability

The code below is responsible for creating the use-after-free condition. The applyElement and appendChild calls create the right conditions and new allocations. The free will occur after setting the outerText property on the q tag and then calling CollectGarbage().

try {
	e0 = document.getElementById("a");
	e1 = document.getElementById("b");
	e2 = document.createElement("q");
	e2.outerText = "";
} catch (e) {}

At this point, there is now a pointer to memory that has been freed (a stale pointer). In order to continue with the exploit, the memory it points to must be replaced with attacker-controlled data and then the pointer must be used.

Notably, the vulnerability trigger is the only part of the exploit that is wrapped in a try/catch block. In testing, we confirmed that this try/catch is not a necessary condition for triggering the vulnerability or for successful exploitation. If the author were concerned about unhandled exceptions, they could have wrapped all their code in a try/catch instead of only this part. This condition suggests that the vulnerability trigger is separate from any code the developed wrote on their own and may have been automatically generated.

Further, the vulnerability trigger is the one part of the exploit code that a fuzzer can generate on its own. Such a security testing tool might have wrapped many DOM manipulations in try/catch blocks on every page load to maximize the testing possible without relaunching the browser. Given the number of other unnecessary operations left in the code, it is likely that the output of a fuzzer was pasted into the exploit code and the try/catch it used was left intact.

Replace the Object

To replace the freed CButton object with memory under their control, the attacker consumes 20 allocations from the LFH and then targets the 21st allocation for the replacement. The choice to target the 21st allocation was likely made through observation or experimentation, rather than precise knowledge of heap memory. As we will discuss in the following section, this assumption leads to unreliable behavior from the exploit. If the author had a better understanding of heap operations and changed these few lines of code, the exploit could have been much more effective.

for (var i = 0; i < 20; i++) {
	arrObject[i].className = unescape("ababababababababababababababababababababa");
window.location = unescape("%u0d0c%u10abhttps://www.google.com/settings/account");

The window.location line has two purposes: it creates a replacement object and triggers the use of the stale pointer. As with most every other heap allocation created for this exploit, the unescape() function is called to create a string. This time it is slightly different. The exploit author uses %u encoding to fully control the first DWORD in the allocation, the vtable of an object.

For the replaced object, the memory will look like this:

19eb1c00  10ab0d0c 00740068 00700074 003a0073  ….h.t.t.p.s.:.
19eb1c10  002f002f 00770077 002e0077 006f0067  /./.w.w.w...g.o.
19eb1c20  0067006f 0065006c 0063002e 006d006f  o.g.l.e...c.o.m.
19eb1c30  0073002f 00740065 00690074 0067006e  /.s.e.t.t.i.n.g.
19eb1c40  002f0073 00630061 006f0063 006e0075  s./.a.c.c.o.u.n.
19eb1c50  00000074 00000061 f0608e93 ff0c0000  t...a.....`.....

When window.location is set, the browser goes to the URL provided in the string. This change of location will free all the allocations created by the current page since they are no longer necessary. This triggers the use of the freed object and this is when the attacker gains control of the browser process. In this case, this causes the browser to load “/[unprintablebytes]https://www.google.com/settings/account” on the current domain. Since this URL does not exist, the iframe loading the exploit on the CFR website will show an error page.

In summary, the exploit overwrites a freed CButton object with data that the attacker controls. In this case, a very fragile technique to overwrite the freed CButton object was used and the exploits fails to reliably gain control of execution on exploited browsers as result. Instead of overwriting a large amount of objects that may have been recently freed, the exploit writers assume that the 21st object they overwrite will always be the correct freed CButton object. This decreases the reliability of the exploit because it assumes a predetermined location of the freed CButton object in the freelist.

Now that the vulnerability can be exploited, it can be integrated with the kit by using the provided address we mentioned in the previous post, 0x10ab0d0c. By transferring control to the SWF loaded at that address, the provided ROP chains and staged payload will be run by the victim.


Contrary to popular belief, it is possible for an exploit to fail even on a platform that it “supports.” Exploits for use-after-frees rely on complex manipulation of the heap to perform controlled memory allocations. Assumptions about the state of memory may be broken by total available memory, previously visited websites, the number of CPUs present, or even changes to software running on the host. Therefore, we consider exploit reliability to be a measure of successful payload execution vs total attempts in these various scenarios.

We simulated real-world use of the Elderwood exploit for CVE-2012-4792 to determine its overall reliability. We built a Windows XP test system with versions of Internet Explorer, Flash and Java required by the exploit. Our testing routine started by going to a random website, selected from several popular websites, and then going to our testing website hosting the exploit. We think this is a close approximation of real-world use since the compromised website is not likely to be anyone’s homepage.

Under these ideal conditions, we determined the reliability of the exploit to be 60% in our testing. Although it is unnecessary to create holes to trigger the vulnerability to exploit it successfully, as described in the previous code snippets, we found that reliability drops to about 50% if these operations are not performed. We describe some of the reasons for such a low reliability below:

  • The reliance on the constant memory address provided by the SWF. If memory allocations occur elsewhere and at this address where the exploit assumes they will be, the browser will crash. For example, if a non-ASLR’d plugin is loaded at 0x10ab0d0c, the exploit will never succeed. This can also occur on Windows XP if a large module is loaded at the default load address of 0x10000000.
  • The assumption that the 21st object will be reused by the stale CButton pointer. If the stale CButton pointer reuses any other address, then this assumption will cause the exploit to fail. In this case, the exploit will dereference 0x00410042 from the allocations of the “ab” strings.
  • The use of the garbage collector to trigger the vulnerability. Using the garbage collector is a good way to trigger this vulnerability, however, it can have uncertain side effects. For example, if the heap coalesces, it is likely that the stale pointer will point to a buffer not under the attacker’s control and cause the browser to crash.

Even before testing this exploit, it was clear that it could only target a subset of affected browsers due to its reliance on Flash and other plugins for bypassing DEP and ASLR. We built an ideal test environment with these constraints and found their replacement technique to be a significant source of unreliable behavior. Nearly 50% of website visitors that should have been exploited were not due to the fragility of the replacement technique.


After being provided easy-to-use interfaces to DEP and ASLR bypasses, the user of this kit must only craft an object replacement strategy to create a working exploit. Our evaluation of the object replacement code in this exploit indicates the author’s grasp of this concept was poor and the exploit is unreliable as a result. Reliability of this exploit would have been much higher if the author had a better understanding of heap operations or had followed published methodologies for object replacements. Instead, the author relied upon assumptions about the state of memory and parts of their work appear copied from cookbook example code.

Up until this point, the case could be made that the many examples of copied example code were the result of a false flag. Our analysis indicates that, in the part of the exploit that mattered most, the level of skill displayed by the user remained consistent with the rest of the exploit. If the attacker were feigning incompetence, it is unlikely that this critical section of code would be impaired in more than a superficial way. Instead, this attack campaign lost nearly half of the few website visitors that it could have exploited. Many in the security industry believe that APT groups “weaponize” exploits before using them in the wild. However, continued use of the Elderwood kit for strategic website compromises indicates that neither solid engineering practices nor highly reliable exploit code is required for this attacker group to achieve their goals.

2 thoughts on “Writing Exploits with the Elderwood Kit (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: Elderwood and the Department of Labor Hack – ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Bits

  2. Pingback: Writing Exploits with the Elderwood Kit (Part 1) – ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Bits

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