Vulnerabilities in Microsoft's Java implementation
by Jouko Pynnönen - Online Solutions Ltd. - Monday, 11 November 2002.
Overview

Microsoft Internet Explorer comes with Java virtual machine and accompanying class packages. Multiple security vulnerabilities have been found in the Java environment. Some of these allow an attacker to deliver and run arbitrary code on the Internet Explorer or Outlook user's system when a hostile web site or mail message is viewed.

The latest versions of the software are affected by the flaws, but Outlook (Express) users aren't vulnerable to the mail-based attack if the security zone of mail is set to Restricted. This is the default case with Outlook Express 6 and Outlook with the latest security updates. In this case Java Applets aren't shown at all in mail messages; if Applets are shown, then the user is vulnerable.

Background

Java Applets are small Java programs that can be embedded inside HTML documents. Applets are generally secure because the Java environment enforces strict security policies for them. Applets are enabled by default in most web browsers today.

As opposed to normal executable programs, Java Applets don't contain machine language code but special "bytecode" which is interpreted by the Java virtual machine, a kind of simulated processor. Bytecode doesn't have direct means of controlling the processor or operating system's resources.

Java applications in general can do file or network operations just like any program. Applets are treated differently; because Applets contain untrusted code supplied by web sites (or anyone sending you mail), they are run within a strictly bound "sandbox". They can't access local files and their allowed network operations are very limited. When the Java environment is implemented correctly, untrusted Applets can't do anything dangerous. The flaws discussed here aren't related to the Java or Applet concepts, but individual implementations of them.

Details

There were more than ten (10) different Java vulnerabilities found and reported to Microsoft. Some of these allow file access on the viewer's system, some allow access to other resources, and some allow delivery and execution of arbitrary program code on the victim system. These attacks can be carried out when a web page or mail message containing a hostile Applet is viewed with Internet Explorer or Outlook. In this case the Applet may upload any program code and start it. The code can do any operations the user can do - read or modify files, install or remove programs, etc.

The vulnerabilities are mostly related to native methods and their improper or missing parameter checking. There are also some logical mistakes and some problems in package, field, or method visibility (ie. public/protected/private). Some of the vulnerabilities deal with system dependant memory addresses, which makes exploiting them more difficult; some of the more serious ones don't require such information.

Native methods are pieces of ordinary machine language code contained by Java classes. Technically their code come from DLL's, but within Java they look like ordinary Java methods.

An Applet can't contain native methods for obvious reasons, but many of the core Java classes contain them. For instance all file operations are eventually done by native methods. They are used to do operations that aren't possible or practical to do in pure Java. They may be also used for speed-critical parts of the code. Native methods aren't bound by the Java security policies and can access the processor, operating system, memory, and file system.

Security-wise, native methods are a weak link. Unlike ordinary Java code, they can contain traditional programming flaws like buffer overflows. If an untrusted Java Applet can invoke a native method containing a security flaw, it may be able to escape its sandbox and compromise the system.

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