Exploiting vulnerabilities in media players to spread advanced malware

Trusteer’s research has shown that vulnerable media players are constantly targeted by malicious actors. Since in most environments media players exist on users’ desktops for their own personal use, IT and security administrators ignore these applications and the content files they use. After all, you want to keep your employees productive and happy, and allow them to listen to their harmless music while they work. However, because these applications are not controlled, and users are not in a rush to patch these applications, most installations are vulnerable to exploits.

A Media Player is a software program designed to play multimedia content as it streams in from a website, or from local storage or other resources. Some employees use the media players that arrives with the operating system – like Windows Media Player, while others prefer to download a different media player and install it on their workstation. But both the OS provided players and the downloaded players contain vulnerabilities that can be exploited to deliver malware and infect the user machine.

According to the National Vulnerabilities Database (NVD), over 1,200 vulnerabilities were discovered in media players since 2000. Most of these vulnerabilities were discovered in popular media players like Apple Quicktime, iTunes, RealPlayer and Adobe Shockwave.

Media Players are popular yet vulnerable applications, and can be found on many user endpoints. Because they are designed to process and play files that originate from an external source, they become a top target for exploit attacks. By developing weaponized media content, i.e. an audio or video file that contains an exploit that takes advantage of a media player vulnerability, an attacker can effectively deliver malware to the user’s machine.

All that is left for the attacker is to send the weaponized file to the target user, or convince a target user to view the content from a compromised website using phishing and social engineering schemes. Typical examples include “promotional videos”, links to “free” song downloads and more.

Exploits targeting media players exist in the wild

This is not a theoretical threat. Over the past few years we have seen exploits targeting both known and unknown zero-day vulnerabilities in media players. It is important to note that many exploits target known vulnerabilities for which a patch exists. As long as the patch is not deployed to mitigate the vulnerability, or some other controls are implemented to prevent the exploit, the media player is vulnerable to exploits and drive-by download attacks.

For example, here is a story about Drive-by-download attack exploits a known critical vulnerability in Windows Media Player:

On January 10th, 2012, Microsoft released a security fix for to address the MIDI Remote Code Execution Vulnerability (CVE-2012-0003) in Windows Media Player as part of its monthly patch cycle. Microsoft explained at the time that “An attacker who successfully exploited this vulnerability could take complete control of an affected system.”

A couple of weeks later, security researchers found an active drive-by download attack that exploited the known vulnerability. The attack used a malicious HTML page to load the malformed MIDI file as an embedded object for the Windows Media Player browser plug-in. If successful, the exploit silently downloaded a Remote Access Trojan (RAT) on the user’s machine, without the user’s knowledge.

Author: Dana Tamir, director of enterprise security at Trusteer.

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